Protecting vulnerable road users (VRUs)

Street showing cycle lanes

Cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians – all vulnerable road users (VRUs) – can cause fleet operators big headaches.

As drivers navigate increasingly complex road networks and battle with inner city restrictions, the presence of VRUs means commercial
vehicles are often just millimetres from disaster.

Cities are under increasing pressure to reduce congestion and cut emissions. This, coupled with the booming population in urban areas, is pushing available road space to its limits.

“It’s a growing issue and it’s going to carry on growing,” says Neil Greig, head of policy at IAM.

“We’ve got more people cycling and more people walking, but the facilities are yet to catch up. There is a difficult mix of early adopters, who are being encouraged to cycle and walk, using roads that aren’t designed to be safe for them. It simply isn’t safe to have cyclists and walkers alongside motorised vehicles.”

The Department for Transport’s annual road casualties report highlights the issue. While car occupants continue to account for the biggest single proportion of road deaths, cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists combined account for more fatalities.

“The balance is shifting, it used to be more about car occupants,” adds Greig.

In 2017 – the most recent figures available – 920 VRUs were killed on UK roads, compared with 787 car passengers.

Of the 107,347 casualties on urban roads in 2017, 20% were pedestrians and 14% were cyclists, making urban roads the most dangerous for VRUs.

Dave Rowlands, technical director at Wincanton, says: “The fundamental thing for us is we do take safety seriously, we are committed to safety and we are early adopters of new technology and try to use it as early as possible. Our whole ethos is that we want to be a safe operator – from board level to driver we all want to be safe.

“If you have the attitude that safety is first, it does actually mean something. We monitor it very clinically.”


Technology to boost visibility

Connected mobile digital video recorders (MDVRs) allow fleets to combine a wider range of vehicle cameras and safety devices to better identify vulnerable road users and help drivers avoid potential collisions. This can be both internal and external cameras – including front, driver, cargo, side and rear – for an all-round view of the vehicle for the fleet manager and the driver, along with in-vehicle monitors, cyclist detection and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS).

Richard Lane, commercial director of connected camera specialist VisionTrack, says: “Side cameras, proximity sensors and ADAS-enabled forward-facing cameras can be used to provide added visibility and awareness of vulnerable road users via an in-vehicle monitor and driver feedback device. As a result, the driver can be immediately alerted, while a fleet manager can monitor areas of concern in real-time and historically.”

By analysing video footage from connected vehicle cameras alongside driver behaviour data, it is possible to identify potential risks within a fleet operation and those drivers that are most likely to be involved in a vehicle collision. Through enhanced driver engagement, preventative action can be taken to improve driving styles to stop incidents happening in the first place.

“Commercial vehicle drivers can still be unfairly blamed and penalised, especially when a vulnerable road user is involved, so connected camera systems are a proven way of protecting them from unfounded accusations or when a collision occurs,” adds Lane.

Having the ability to see the exact circumstances of an incident gives the driver added peace of mind as well as the knowledge they are being backed and supported. 

“We have had fatal incidents where we have been able to provide video evidence to police at the scene, which has exonerated the driver of any wrongdoing. This means the driver is immediately treated as a witness rather than a suspect, which removes some of the strain placed on them during what is an incredibly traumatic experience,” Lane says.


Training in the city

Drivers in any city or urban area are seeing more cyclists than ever. It can be a challenge and it can be stressful, especially for those driving in stop-start traffic where there are cyclists and pedestrians all around. 

Driver training is a crucial element of protect-ing vulnerable road users and can range from online tests to on-road sessions.

“The driving test is playing catch up,” says Greig. “Unless you learned to drive in a city centre you probably haven’t had that much interaction with a cyclist.”

He believes employers have a big role to play in upgrading the skills of their drivers.

One option is the Safer Urban Driving CPC module. It combines half a day of classroom training with an on-road session with a difference. Drivers swap their trucks for bikes and must battle the city streets on two wheels to get a feel for what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin.

“It’s a good eye opener,” says Natalie Chapman, head of urban policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA). 

“It makes you understand, as a driver, how much there is to know. There are a lot of people cycling that really should know more about how to protect themselves, but it’s really important that drivers understand the cyclist’s perspective so they know some of the reasons that cyclists may do things, such as taking a more central position in the road in order to avoid car doors and debris.”

The FTA recommends that fleet operators put their drivers through the course. It counts towards their required training hours for the CPC and is regarded as being highly effective.

“It’s always good to have that awareness training. I know some drivers are nervous about getting on bikes but they make sure you are competent on the bike first. They don’t go on big main roads, it’s fairly gentle. There is no reason for companies or drivers to be nervous,” adds Chapman.


New truck safety systems

When it comes to active safety innovations, truck manufacturers are not only borrowing safety and autonomous driving technology from the latest road cars, but also developing entirely new systems to improve truck safety.

The new Mercedes-Benz Actros features Active Brake Assist 5 with pedestrian recognition and can apply 100% braking if a VRU steps into the path of the truck. 

It also features MirrorCam, which enhances visibility all around the truck by removing conventional side mirrors and replacing them with screens and cameras. The system increases visibility forwards (at junctions and roundabouts) and also rearwards. The camera image automatically pans when manoeuvring, turning corners or changing lanes, so the rear of the trailer is always visible in the centre of the display.

Volvo Trucks has made safety one of its core values during its 90-year history and takes a multi-faceted approach to traffic safety. It extends from traffic safety research, to developing safety technologies for the vehicles, such as lane-keeping support and forward collision warning with emergency brake, to driver training and designing safer vehicles. Traffic safety awareness programmes such as ‘Stop Look Wave’ and ‘See and be seen’, targeted at children and cyclists, is another important part of the work. 

“Since drivers, cyclists and pedestrians share the roads, it is key for them to understand each other’s needs and limitations. As a vehicle manufacturer, we can do a lot to make sure that no one is injured in an accident with any of our vehicles and to increase the general level of road safety awareness. We have a zero-accident vision,” says Carl Johan Almqvist, senior advisor traffic and product safety at Volvo Trucks.


Direct Vision: what you need to know

The HGV Safety Permit Scheme comes into effect on October 26, 2020, after which any vehicle larger than 12 tonnes will need to have a safety permit in order to enter central London.

There are two routes to getting one of those permits. Either meet the minimum standards for Direct Vision or fit your vehicle with an array of additional safety equipment.

Direct Vision is the rating of the visibility around at truck’s cab. The more a driver can see, the higher the score.

Vehicles that achieve a Direct Vision score of at least one star are automatically eligible for a permit, but you still have to apply for one. Even five star vehicles will need a permit.

“What fleets have to do now is contact their vehicle manufacturer to obtain their star rating. On the Transport for London (TfL) website there are contact details for each manufacturer. We recommend fleets use that contact rather than their local dealer,” advises Chapman.

The manufacturer will give you your star rating and they will give it to TfL as well.

Chapman says it is estimated two-thirds of HGVs will be zero-star rated – a significant proportion of the HGV fleet.

It has nothing to do with how old the vehicle is, though. Generally, the taller the cab the lower the star rating will be.

Operators that plan to send vehicles within the London Low Emission Zone must ensure their vehicle has a valid permit, or face a fine of £550.

For vehicles that fail to achieve a Direct Vision star rating, permits can still be acquired if operators can prove they have achieved compliance through the use of additional technology.

Vehicles that score zero will have to feature a range of mirrors, sensors and monitoring systems. Some of the requirements are already part of the Safer Lorry Scheme and all of them are required for FORS Silver.

TfL has produced a guidance document with all the specific information.

Chapman says operators should act now and get on the front foot: “We will be encouraging those with vehicles that meet the star rating to apply as soon as they can – it will be straightforward. Those with zero star vehicles should be looking into what they need to get and arranging to have it fitted.”

TfL will begin accepting applications for permits on October 26, 2019, giving operators one year to get one.


What about vans?

The number of vans operating on the UK’s roads in increasing as online shopping booms and operators look to downsize larger vehicles to avoid tightening legislation and restrictions.

While these vehicles often operate in a similar way to trucks, Chapman says the serious issues with VRUs are firmly with HGVs, particularly in London. 

“We’re not saying van fleets shouldn’t do anything, but they don’t have the same level of issues with things like Direct Vision. We don’t need to be doing the same things as HGVs, but the driver awareness element is still very relevant,” she adds.

The IAM teaches a system of advanced driving that is all about observation and anticipation. 

“People who interact with us tend to become better drivers; they do learn something from it,” says Greig. “The problem comes if your company culture is all about getting deliveries on time and really tight deadlines. 

“The gig economy is like the wild west of road safety. That is where our biggest concerns are. Everybody is self-employed, has unrealistic deadlines and often no checks for things like insurance. 

“As much as there are lots of responsible employers out there, there are a lot more gig economy people who are getting no training whatsoever. That is undermining the work of the big schemes like FORS.”

Rowlands says safety is more ingrained in a HGV operator, rather than a van operator. 

“As a HGV operator you have to adhere to your operator’s licence. The directors have to sign it off at board level,” he explains.

Any van Wincanton operates has to adhere to the same standards as its trucks. 

“It’s HGV down. Because we are an accredited Earned Recognition operator, we are audited against that and that goes beyond our standard licence requirements. We have to report any incidents to DVSA. We are very closely monitored by the authorities,” adds Rowlands.


How external factors can affect the safety of VRUs

The issues between VRUs and HGVs can’t easily be resolved by either of those parties alone. Local authorities and the Government have a part to play.

“The safest way to protect VRUs is to segregate them from motorised traffic. In cities we have limited road space and there are issues with taking away road space,” Chapman says.

Simply adding cycle lanes and footpaths won’t solve the issue, though. Road space is valuable and operators need to be able to navigate cities with minimal restrictions. She believes cycle lanes are better placed away from major routes, making them more pleasant to use and not impacting on congestion.

“We need a more sensible design of cycling infrastructure,” explains Chapman. “Part of that is making sure cycle lanes are joined up and well maintained. Often a cyclist won’t use them because the lane is full of debris that causes punctures.”

Signage can also be an issue, with urban areas littered with distractions. Drivers that are unfamiliar with their surroundings are more likely to miss a VRU if they are concentrating too much on where they need to go.

Ultimately, Rowlands says, van and truck fleets have to be able to operate in the city in order for the city to operate. Nay legislation must not affect that situation.

He also points out that a lack of parking areas and adequate facilities at rest areas can fuel the problem.

“If local authorities help HGV drivers to have a better day, there is knock-on effect in the safety of operation aligned to VRUs,” Rowlands says.

“Cities need to be workable and liveable. The danger is if you focus on one and not the other,” says Chapman.

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