Direct vision lorries

Improved driver vision

In March 2013 LCC caused a big stir in the construction industry by challenging it to adopt 'direct vision' lorries to reduce cyclist and pedestrian fatalities. Our message was: if lorries could be made less dangerous why were they not available now?

Most cyclist deaths in London involve large lorries, around three quarters of these are contracted to construction and related industries. The standard large lorry used in the construction industry is built to an off-road specification that puts the driver high up with no view of the road or the people immediately beside and in front of the vehicle.  

We thought it was possible to redesign lorries to correct this fault, and now two manufacturers have proved us right. The European Commission eventually recognised the issue and linked safer cab designs to proposals for longer, more efficient lorries. Regrettably their proposals have got bogged down and delayed for almost a decade.

In London, LCC is demanding much faster change. Since 2003 reducing the danger from work-related transport has become the legal responsibility of everyone involved. Not only the lorry companies but the companies that employ them, property developers, construction companies, manufacturers, retailers, government and local authorities.

The focus of LCC’s campaigning to reduce lorry danger has been to highlight this legal obligation for every company and authority to do everything practical to avoid another lorry-related death. Right now that means specifying in every contract that only direct vision lorries should be used on London streets.

Two years after we issued the challenge, lorry manufacturers have come up with the solution. Direct vision lorries should now become the norm in the construction industry as well as in waste disposal. The next step will be to exclude all hazardous restricted vision lorries from London.

Driver's view of a cyclist from a standard construction industry lorry:-

Driver's view from a direct vision lorry:-

Lorry graphics produced by Release the Chicken


Direct vision: the future for safer lorries

This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of London Cyclist magazine

With widescreen views and innovative technology, a new breed of lorry can take us one step closer to having safer streets for cycling. Tom Bogdanowicz assesses the latest cab designs.

Mercedes Econic

Image: Mercedes-Benz

Coroners, judges and ordinary citizens all take for granted that the largest, and most dangerous, vehicles on the road inevitably have severely restricted vision. One of the likely consequences of this seemingly unavoidable design fault is the tragic number of cyclist deaths in London that involve a lorry — 55% of fatal collisions from 2008 to 2013 [source:] and seven out of eight fatalities in the first half of 2015.

Yet severely restricted driver vision on most lorries is not a design fault that can’t be rectified. Most new refuse lorries in the UK now have low cabs with good visibility, as do virtually all lorries used at airports. LCC’s lorry expert Charlie Lloyd took this sensible idea a step further two years ago and created an artist’s impression for a ‘Safer Urban Lorry’: a tipper truck which similarly had good all-round visibility.

Safer Lorry

Image: Release the Chicken Visual Communications

Two years on LCC’s vision has become a concrete reality, with German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz producing a tipper, a skip lorry and concrete mixer, all with direct vision and low cabs. At the same time the UK’s leading manufacturer of low-cab refuse trucks, Dennis Eagle, has told LCC that it is talking to partners about the supply of its chassis for use on construction vehicles.

Low-entry lorries are nothing new, and have a history that dates back to the 1920s. Waste Management World, a web publication for the industry, recounts that in the era of councilrun waste disposal, special purpose, extra-durable, low-entry lorries were the normal workhorse in council fleets. However, following privatisation of waste services, the companies that entered the refuse market found it more convenient and cheaper to adapt trucks from within their large existing fleets of conventional vehicles, resulting in vehicles with high cabs and poor visibility.

In the UK that trend changed again in the 1990s when health and safety issues came more to the fore and companies like Dennis Eagle offered a new generation of low-entry cabs that enabled refuse crews to reduce the potential danger from the vehicle that was, in effect, their daily workplace. What’s new in 2015 is that Mercedes has taken the low-entry refuse cab chassis a step further.

The Mercedes Econic lorry was originally designed as a chassis cab for refuse lorries and airside use at airports 16 years ago. It was built to allow refuse collectors to get in and out frequently, and to ensure that the driver had maximum outward visibility to prevent collisions with workers carrying bins. Some 5,000 Econics have been sold in the UK for refuse disposal, along with around 12,000 Dennis Eagle Elites. Mercedes’ decision to redesign its most recent version of the Econic specifically for the construction industry came as a result of involvement in the Construction Logistics Cyclists Safety Scheme (CLOCS). The CLOCS programme was set up with Transport for London input following the publication of a TRL research study of HGV collisions prompted by London Cycling Campaign.

Senior industry representatives came together to discuss ways of better managing what is dubbed Work Related Road Risk (WRRR). This led to the CLOCS document which brings together 11 combined standards, policies and codes of practice into a single standard. More than 100 organisations are now CLOCS ‘champions’.

London’s Transport Commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy, highlighted the issue of ‘blind spots’ to the construction industry and Mercedes (initially with developer Laing Rourke) took up the challenge. The first prototype, a three-axle construction lorry was first shown in 2014.

This year Mercedes upped its game and was demonstrating not one but three working versions of low-entry construction lorries at the Commercial Vehicle Show in Birmingham:

•an 18-tonne skip lorry with two axles,

•a 26-tonne concrete mixer with threeaxles,

•a 32-tonne tipper truck (which takes a20-tonne payload) with four axles.

Mercedes Econic

Image: Mercedes-Benz

The choice of designs, says Mercedes, was based on the most popular market segments. All three of the first batch of lorries will be used in London, with CEMEX announcing in April that it will be using a tipper lorry at its Dartford base. Over the next six months Mercedes aims to gather feedback on the first three trucks with a view to further production.

What’s different?

Mercedes econic view

The view from inside a Mercedes Econic. Image: Mercedes-Benz

Having climbed into several HGVs at various ‘Exchanging Places’ events over the years and been shown how poor the visibility is from those lofty perches, it is refreshing, if not unique, to be invited into these new lorry cabs to see how good the visibility is. The windscreen ends at chest level to a pedestrian outside, not a foot or two above their head. You can look out the window and chat to the cyclists next to you rather than shout downwards. A professional designer also looking at the lorry noted that the rear mirror sight-line along the vehicle improves significantly by being horizontal rather than downward — so not only is forward and side visibility improved but rear vision is also considerably better. 

While the list of safety features is primarily aimed at avoiding collisions with refuse collection workers the same features benefit cyclists and pedestrians:

  • The lorry cab is about a metre lower than a conventional one which improves visibility significantly, enables eye-contact with other road users and virtually eliminates blind spots.
  • A ‘walk-through’ cab means the driver can get out of the cab on the pavement side and not open his driver-side door into the traffic stream.
  • A full-length glass folding passenger side door means drivers can see approaching cyclists and pedestrians on their inside and there is no danger of the door itself opening out into a cyclist’s path.
  • The regulation mirrors are attached independently of the door so a driver opening the door  continues to see what is behind them in the mirror as they are getting out.
  • The suspension uses air bags which makes it more comfortable for passengers and less damaging to road surfaces.
  • The windscreen pillars are made of glass to improve visibility.
  • An automatic gearbox (one of the most expensive features) enables the driver to concentrate on the road. 
  • Lane departure warnings tell the driver when they have forgotten to switch on an indicator.
  •  An active brake system stops the vehicle if there is danger of a frontal collision.
  • One-step entry makes it safer than cabs with several steps to reach the seats.
  • Full set of six safety mirrors.
  • Side guards.

Optional extras include:

A full 360-degree camera whose multiple views can be selected using a simple control stick (as for indicators). 

Side scan audible indicator which alerts the driver to cyclists present on the inside (the device does not require the cyclist to carry any tags or other devices).

While refuse collectors in the UK now take cabs like the Mercedes Econic and Dennis Eagle Elite for granted and would probably complain if they were substituted, drivers of construction lorries have yet to benefit from the more comfortable and safer working conditions. Dennis Eagle reports that when construction drivers from building firm Laing O’Rourke were given the opportunity to use direct vision/low-entry cabs they didn’t want to switch back to conventional lorries.

Bottom line

As you might expect, all the advanced safety features, especially the automatic gearbox, add to the cost of the vehicle. Mercedes estimates that an Econic costs approximately 15% more than a conventional cab/chassis. Econics cost from £65,000 to £100,000 depending on features and configuration. Dennis Eagle cabs are comparable in price. Bodies for different functions range from £20,000 to £50,000. Yet despite the increased costs the new designs have come to pre-dominate in refuse collection in London. As such designs become the norm for large lorries the cost difference is likely to get smaller.

The health and safety of workers and improved productivity outweigh the higher cost of the lorry. The cost-benefit calculation for construction vehicles, which account for a disproportionate number of both cyclists and pedestrian fatalities, can far outweigh the additional cost of a direct vision vehicle over its typical 10-year life. The safety and comfort of the driver is a continual benefit and may assist in their health and performance. Avoiding collisions thanks to improved visibility and safety features clearly has benefit from the perspective of the potential victim — and the government estimates the cost of a single road death at £1.7m. But avoiding collisions also benefits the driver, who can be severely traumatised by an incident, and the fleet owner whose employee and vehicle may be out of commission for a significant period.

Such factors may all contribute to a fleet owner’s or construction firm’s decision to opt for direct vision lorries, but perhaps an overriding factor may be the opportunity to win more contracts and deliver them with the holy grail of zero casualties. If councils and developers state a preference for contractors who use safe vehicles a virtuous circle may be created.

Such a process has already been created in the field of driver training. Once TfL required drivers on its contracts to be trained in Safer Urban Driving the companies applying for TfL contracts made sure their drivers received such training. LCC lobbied for boroughs to follow TfL’s lead and the majority have done so with the result that a large proportion of fleets operating in London are signed up to the policy.

What about availability?

Mercedes says it is ready to take orders for its Econic construction lorries at any time. The cab/chassis can be ready within 14 weeks of placing the order and a body takes a further 10 weeks to complete. The research and development is complete for all three design types. Dennis Eagle is willing to supply cab/chassis for non-refuse use and development work is likely to be complete within months. Renault, Volvo and Scania all have low-entry cabs for sale, but these may take longer to re-purpose for construction.

The immediate factor in sales and development will, of course, be demand. The construction market is vastly larger than refuse collection, which accounts for fewer than 2,000 new lorries per annum, so it is very attractive to truck makers. Mercedes have told us that if the demand is there they can re-schedule their production lines to produce many more of these vehicles.

Construction firms may typically buy on price but if those with safer vehicles start to win more contracts the demand for safer vehicles will rise. This in turn would boost production volumes and encourage more truck manufacturers to offer direct vision construction vehicles.