Cyclist-awareness training puts lorry drivers on bikes for a day

This article first appeared in the Xmas 2010 issue of London Cyclist magazine. Words Mike Cavenett; photos Ben Broomfield.

“I haven’t been on a bike in 40 years,” says Colin, one of the first group of Hammersmith & Fulham lorry drivers ever to receive cycle training. Today, that’s going to change, though, as a dozen drivers will swap the comfort of their cab for an eye-opening experience behind the handlebars.

Sadly, lorry crashes cause about half the cyclist fatalities in Greater London, even though HGVs make up only five percent of the traffic. In recent years, LCC has succeeded in pushing cycle training for lorry drivers on to the agenda, so it’s deeply satisfying to see another London borough implementing the measure wholeheartedly. And it should come as no surprise to hear that LCC has given the scheme a London Cycling Award for 2010 (more details on page 20).

The driving force behind the new programme has been Richard Evans, council officer with responsibility for smarter travel in Hammersmith & Fulham council. Evans has been involved with London Cycling Campaign for nearly 20 years and was group coordinator in his home borough of Merton for over a decade.

Nowadays, wearing his council hat, he’s taken the lead in persuading the council to invest in HGV-cyclist safety: “This driver training is likely to prove extremely cost effective when you consider that the Department for Transport estimates the aggregate cost of a road fatality to be £1.6 million. We’re spending a tiny fraction of that amount on our training.”

The estimated cost of the cycle training isn't a lot more than a day's pay per driver.

Also influential has been the enthusiasm for the programme shown by David Porter, who works for Serco, the company responsible for the council’s refuse services and which employs the drivers.

Porter said: “Sadly, I was a witness to a lorry crash involving a cyclist several years ago, so I’m very aware of the dangers. When the council came to us suggesting the training we did everything we could to help, providing a classroom, an area for the bike training and lunch for our drivers.”

Before the drivers are allowed outside into the mellow autumn sunshine, they take part in a lively classroom session conducted by the cycle trainers. Drivers can vent their frustrations with cyclists, but also have their assumptions challenged. The drivers are all male, aged from mid-twenties up to late fifties and are clearly in a good mood as some colourful pre-training banter echoes around the classroom. The room quietens as the group is shown a recent Transport for London film that’s designed to develop mutual understanding between cyclists and drivers [you can watch exactly the same film as the drivers at http://bit.ly/TfLvideo].

Conversation becomes more animated when the drivers are asked to voice their opinions on cyclists (only one driver confesses to being a regular himself). Typical comments include “cyclists jump red lights all the time”, “they’re never looking where they’re going” and “they never wear lights or high vis”. At this stage, it’s pretty clear where the blame lies.

The cycle trainers make a decent fist of putting across the cyclists’

point of view in various scenarios, and though it’s obvious the drivers aren’t won over immediately, by the end of the discussion there are a lot more pauses for thought than there were at the beginning. For some, it will be the first time they’ve had their preconceptions challenged.

Classroom session over, it’s out into the yard where the real fun starts.

And fun it is: it’s sometimes easy to forget the sheer joy that people get from riding a bike, especially under a sunny sky. And these burly blokes are clearly having a laugh as they watch each other perform the basic control manoeuvres. There are a couple of wobbly moments as the chaps get to grips with Bikeability Level 1, but it’s not long before everyone has remembered the rudiments of control: “It’s just like riding a bike!” one wag comments.

It’s only midday, but the drivers are already feeling sufficiently wedded to their wheels that they’re prepared to up the ante. For this exercise in empathy to be truly effective it’s felt that drivers should be exposed to real-world conditions, including other motor vehicles. Level 2 Bikeability involves negotiating minor roads, with the emphasis on good road positioning — staying visible to other vehicles and away from car doors – and it’s at this point that the drivers venture on to the roads outside the depot.

“You’re too close to those parked cards... pull out a bit, and then a bit more!” shouts Joe, the cycle trainer as the drivers take it in turns to navigate a narrow street with cars parked either side. The cyclists are being encouraged to ‘take the lane’, and there are moments when a car approaches from behind as the lorry driver blocks the road entirely, before passing further down where it’s wide enough. Everyone watching can sense which drivers are impatient, and on one occasion there’s unnecessary revving of the engine when they do pass.

The drivers are learning on two levels. First, the reasons why cyclists behave in certain ways are being explained, such as riding in the middle of the road, which some drivers find frustrating. They are also learning by experience, which taps into the very basics of human nature. You just know next time they’re out in their trucks they’ll behave differently.

After lunch, the drama steps up another notch to Bikeability level 3. The drivers are asked to deal with more demanding roads, including a right turn off the busy New Kings Road. “It’s pretty hairy being stuck out there in the middle,” comments one driver, after waiting in the middle of two streams of motor vehicles for what seems like an age. “It’s a lot different from being out there in the wagon.”

The feedback from the session is overwhelmingly positive, and it’s clearly not just lip service. Three or four of the drivers are actually talking about taking advantage of the Cycle To Work scheme to buy a new bike (they’d vaguely heard of it, but only during the session were the potential benefits explained in detail).

There are still a few criticisms of cyclists, and many of the drivers are adamant they wouldn’t ride a bike without high visibility clothing (as they do for work), but you get the overwhelming impression that cycling in Hammersmith & Fulham just became a little bit safer. As one driver says:

“It’s going to affect the way you do your work. Common sense says it has to, doesn’t it?”