LCC's Mike Cavenett explains the significance of yet another council adopting our Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling pledge

Being a cycling campaigner can be frustrating work. The areas in which we operate – political, civil service and transport spheres – aren't exactly famed for their rapid policy shifts. Change happens relatively slowly, seemingly at a glacial pace sometimes, and you'd have to be a saint not to get frustrated at the relatively slow rate of progress.

That's why when we come out of a meeting that presents genuine progress, as we did recently in Lewisham, then we have to remember to savour the success. The meeting was between the London Cycling Campaign's lorry expert Charlie Lloyd and me, and council officers from Lewisham Council, taking place at their Wearside Depot.

The location is as unprepossessing as you'd expect from a lorry depot nestled in a triangle between three suburban railway lines, an area that's been used for haulage in one form or other since the War. Charlie and I locked up our bikes alongside plenty of others in the depot’s covered parking area (see photo below), which is located safely behind the site’s security barriers. The early starts at the depot (5am for some) make travelling to work by bicycle a sensible option for many staff. 

For me, a resident in nearby Deptford, it had meant a short cycle along part of the Waterlink Way to the meeting, while Charlie brought his bike on the overland from London Bridge (where our office is) to Lea Bridge, a 10-min train journey.

There was quite a turnout at the meeting and, as well as Charlie and me, those present included the following Lewisham Council staff:

Liz Brooker, Sustainability and road safety officer

Graham Curtis (Liz's deputy)

Nick Harvey, Transport policy, quietways, bike loan, bikehangers, cycle training

Noel Everett, Transport manager

John Hennessy, Fleet compliance (Noel's deputy)

Andy Murray, Procurement manager

Over coffee, and with the sound of lorries rumbling past the open window, we got down to business...

Charlie, LCC’s lead lorry campaigner, has been to a lot of meetings like this in the past year. Although I've been an part of our Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling campaign since its inception in October 2012, my work is typically more public-facing rather than behind the scenes, so this was the first meeting of this type I'd attended.

Charlie, a former lorry driver and logistics manager, has met with countless council officers to patiently and precisely explain the demands of our campaign. For over a year now – with help from our thousands of supporters – we've been putting pressure on local councils to take our Safer Lorries pledge to bring their lorry equipment and driver training up to a well-defined standard of safety. Lorries account for half the cycling fatalities in London, and many life-changing injuries too, so it’s vital that councils take a lead in reducing the danger they pose. 

We've been rating councils using a traffic light system (red for the worst, amber for average, green for the best - see the map) that considers whether they've committed to:

providing their lorry drivers with potentially life-saving on-bike cyclist-awareness training

equipping their lorries with a full set of safety equipment such as mirrors/sensors/cameras

enshrining training and lorry equipment requirements in all future procurement contracts.

We've named and shamed the councils that aren't doing enough, and encouraged our supporters to use our online email-writing tool that sends a strongly worded message to the relevant council leader.

Incredibly, there's now not a single council on red, compared with eight a year ago. 

In part, that's down to the thousands of emails that have been sent by our supporters to council leaders all over Greater London, including nearly 200 to the elected Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, calling on him to sign our Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling pledge.

I know from our pre-meeting briefing that the folk at Lewisham have done some work to improve lorry safety, but haven’t yet signed our pledge and committed to the highest standards.

As we make our introductions, I'm impressed at the turnout at the meeting. This is a good sign, because for a council to take our pledge requires the cooperation of numerous departments:

the fleet operators must be committed to road danger reduction measures;

the procurement managers must understand the importance and practicability of building safer lorries conditions into future contracts;

plus the sustainability, road safety and cycling teams are also likely to be heavily involved. 

Last, but certainly not least, the council leader – or in Lewisham's case, the directly elected Mayor – must also be supportive. Without political leadership, it's impossible to guarantee longevity and effectiveness for the measures put in place. 

Charlie kicks off the meeting by giving a potted history of LCC's lorry campaigning. We've been major players in this arena for over a decade, and have pushed measures into the mainstream that were considered by many to be laughable a few years ago – such as putting lorry drivers on bikes for a day to make them safer drivers. Now, at the latest count, 25 London councils offer that type of lorry driver training compared with none just five years ago.

It's not only driver training we've also battled for, but also:

a larger number of and more effective lorry mirrors, particularly for older vehicles

we've were instrumental in saving the CVU, the specialist police unit that can often been seen out on London’s streets looking for rogue HGV drivers and operators

organised a 10,000-name No More Lethal Lorries petition that we delivered to City Hall in March 2011

publicised hundreds of exchanging places events that give cyclists the chance to sit in the cab of a lorry, raising awareness of danger

published the best safety advice for cycling near lorries, based on data from hundreds of lorry crashes all over Europe.

Indeed, the reason there are so many Lewisham council officers around the table today is because we've succeeded over many years in making lorry danger one of the most important transport issues in the city today. 

Charlie reminds our hosts of the terms of our Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling pledge:

"We'll work to improve the safety of every Londoner by only signing new contracts with the safest haulage companies, which conform to the London Cycling Campaign’s Safer Lorries conditions. We also pledge to ensure our council-operated services meet the same standards."

... and then it's time for the teams to explain what's been happening at Lewisham.

It’s clear from the beginning of the meeting that these council officers are keen that we know they're serious about tackling lorry danger, and that Lewisham wants to ‘go green’ - to take the Safer Lorries pledge

First Noel, the Transport manager, outlines the council's driver training programme (photo below from Hammersmith and Fulham council driver training sessino). All its HGV drivers and refuse drivers must take 35 hours of CPC (certificate of professional competence) training over a five-year period. Lewisham actually developed its own cyclist-awareness training in conjunction with Thames Ambulance Training Services, getting active before the standardisation of the Safer Urban Driving cyclist-awareness driver course by Transport for London, and before the funding streams opened. One of its own drivers is even being trained as a cycling instructor so he can manage exchanging places and other events.

According to the CPC training certificate, one of which we're proudly shown, all Lewisham lorry drivers are tutored in the following skills (including, crucially, a period riding a bicycle):

interaction with cyclists

improving observation and road positioning

increased cycling in the capital

rules and regulations of bus and cycle lanes

modern technology, road rage avoidance

pre-use checks, paperwork and defect identification

The cycle-friendly training regime doesn’t only apply to council-employed drivers. To work for Lewisham, agency drivers must have taken Transport for London's Safer Urban Driving CPC module. The council keeps meticulous records of agency drivers, so it knows which ones have taken the required training.

Charlie listens intently to the details of the driver training programme, taking notes. He quizzes the team on the on-bike elements, and soon he's satisfied that every Lewisham driver, and those working for sub-contractors are being trained in cyclist-awareness – one of the key strands in our Safer Lorries pledge. 

Next, he asks about the borough's lorry safety equipment. Lewisham are already bronze members of the Freight Operators Recognition Scheme (FORS). The scheme is run by Transport for London, and sets a series of objectives (bronze, silver, gold) for haulage operators (public and private sector) to achieve. Any council wishing to achieve accreditation has to provide evidence of compliance with various safety rules. Achieving FORS bronze only means an organisation complies with the minimum safety standards required by law, but it's still a vital step towards reaching higher standards. 

As people like Charlie who've worked in the haulage industry know, there's a whole bunch of lorry operators who work outside the law, cutting safety corners in order to increase profits. As a rule, these are more likely to be owner-operators and smaller firms rather than councils. 

Lewisham confirm that achieving bronze status is a step towards pushing upward to silver status. Once they've achieved the higher standards required for silver status, there's a minimum one-year monitoring period before they can go for gold. There certainly appears to be the desire among the team to achieve the highest standards, and Noel speaks approvingly of one of his former deputies who now manages the City of London lorry fleet, the only local authority in Greater London so far to have achieved FORS gold status. 

"Of course, their fleet is a quarter the size of ours," says Noel wistfully, but one can detect the admiration in his voice. 

He explains that Lewisham has a rolling annual programme to replace 15 lorries each year with the latest, safer vehicles. All new lorries include a full set of safety mirrors, sideguards and a driver-warning system made by Vision Techniques.

The team is excited by the ability to put banner advertising on the new refuse lorries (see photo): and say in summer months these adverts could feature cycle training advertising.

The Lewisham officers are quick to compare the new lorries they've bought, with their low driving position and direct vision for the driver, to the Safer Urban Lorry design that we proposed back in February 2013. I'm fascinated to hear Noel comment in a very matter-of-fact way that "the major truck companies now realise they're going to have to design something different for the urban market".

Considering the number of pedestrians and cyclists who find themselves underneath construction lorries each year, we can only hope the construction industry shows as much enthusiasm as local councils, lorry manufacturers and cycling campaigners for this concept.

When we publicised our Safer Urban Lorry (see below), we were keen to emphasis that it’s based on marrying existing designs: the low cab from a modern refuse lorry with the chassis from a four-axle tipper (the kind that does most of the damage to cyclists in London). We're thrilled that manufacturers are looking at designing a European model so similar to ours, which has the potential to radically improve the safety of Londoners and people in other cities too.

There are some who argue that we should always concentrate on street designs (as we did with Love London, Go Dutch and do with Space for Cycling), but I couldn't disagree more: lorry safety is still of paramount importance.

I have a vivid memory of cycling through Amsterdam in 2011, and watching aghast as a lorry appeared to be in the process of turning right (the equivalent of left here) across the path of a cyclist. Fortunately, the driver saw the cyclist at the last second, and a potentially fatal crash was averted.

Still, the closeness of the situation to tragedy shocked me.

It's easy to forget when one looks at the best of Dutch street design that there are still many legacy junctions in the Netherlands where potentially lethal conflicts can happen. These are only prevented by high driving standards, from all motorists. If a lorry crash can nearly happen in the Netherlands 40 years after they started building their cycle facilities, then those types of conflicts are likely to remain a feature of British urban cycling for a long time to come. That's why the highest standards of lorries and driver are so important. Councils are key players in normalising lorry safety measures, and creating a culture of safety in Greater London and beyond. 

Once Charlie is satisfied that the Lewisham lorry fleet is being equipped to the highest standards (and we're invited to an inspection after the meeting), he asks about sub-contractors. Many councils buy in lorry services for refuse, road maintenance and deliveries, and our pledge insists that these operators also follow exacting standards of road danger reduction. 

The Lewisham officers outline their contractors:

Conways for highway maintenance (with a new contract due soon)

They have a joint contract with the London Borough of Croydon to employ Skanska to do its street lighting maintenance

They also have a paper delivery contract with supplier Antalis Morton, which is up for renewal soon.

At this point, Andy Murray from the Lewisham procurement team brings up a recent law called the Public Services Social Value Act. Enacted in 2012, this law specifically calls on authorities to consider "how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area".

Andy explains how Lewisham is already "using procurement in a positive way" in order to ensure:

employees are paid the London Living Wage

employees have the opportunities for apprenticeships

contractors make sustainability improvements.

Our demands for procurement to be used ethically to reduce road danger fit with this growing culture of using purchasing power to make social gains. Councils still need a push from (us and our supporters) to make lorry safety a priority among many issues, but we’re pleased to there’s so much existing common ground.

We must acknowledge the huge amount of work Transport for London has done by putting lorry safety clauses in its own haulage contracts, and giving councils like Lewisham information and encouragement to roll out the same in their borough. TfL’s work – not only in showing how cycling-safety can be written into contracts, but also as a funder and an advocate – has been excellent (which is why we gave them a London Cycling Award earlier this year). The Mayor’s work on lorries has made success in our campaigning more likely.

And after an hour's discussion with the Lewisham team, we’re satisfied the council is showing ample commitment to 'go green'. It's pledge to abide by the terms of our Safer Lorries, Safer Cycling campaign is clearly genuine.

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