Technology versus direct vision in the quest to eliminate HGV blindspots

Freightinthecity’s sister publication Commercial Motor spoke to industry about the best way to help HGV drivers avoid collisions with vulnerable road users.

Technology to help HGV drivers avoid collisions with cyclists hidden in their vehicles’ blind spots is arguably now the norm, rather than the exception in city fleets. But with numerous mirrors, visual display units (VDUs), audible alarms and additional window panels to scan, is too much expected now of drivers operating in unpredictable urban areas?

How much can technology really help in reducing the risk of collisions between lorries and vulnerable road users, or is the most important place for the driver’s eyes to be on the road at all times?

This is an area TfL is hoping to explore through research it has commissioned with Arup, in partnership with University of Leeds’ Perception, Action Cognition laboratory. It wants to better understand the role of eye contact and direct vision (through windows) over indirect vision (through mirrors and VDUs) in improving road safety and reducing HGV collisions with vulnerable road users and “answer this question empirically”.

“The project aims to determine the effect of visual factors on HGV safety interacting with vulnerable road users,” says Hannah White, freight and fleet project manager at TfL.

“It will provide clarity around whether more direct vision in HGV cabs would result in safer driving and fewer people being killed and injured on London’s roads.”

The research is intended to be used to inform a case for the European Commission to encourage amended regulations on HGV design to provide drivers with greater direct vision.

While last month’s Brexit vote may affect the UK’s input on this matter, the research will still be of significant importance for the road haulage sector when published later this year.

Direct vision is ‘the way forward’

For London-based O’Donovan Waste Disposal, it’s a no-brainer that direct-vision cabs, such as those used on the Mercedes-Benz Econic (pictured) and Dennis Eagle Elite 6, provide drivers with the safest possible tool to prevent collisions with other road users.

MD Jacqueline O’Donovan says that the firm’s drivers have reacted positively to the enhanced visibility provided by the company’s two new Econics.

“Direct vision is the way forward for all cabs and is something that I would like to see manufacturers tackle head on, sooner rather than later. It takes too long [several seconds] for a driver to scan all their mirrors and monitors – a lot can happen in that time with London’s roads as busy as they are,” she explains.

O’Donovan adds that while mirrors and cameras have helped drivers on a basic level in the past, they are now outdated and the industry is looking to move road safety up a notch through better design. “Technology is only filling the gap at present. Direct vision needs to be a minimum standard and manufacturers can evolve from there to help drivers and keep vulnerable road users safer,” she says.

Construction haulier Keltbray is another advocate of keeping a driver’s operating environment as simple as possible. “Direct vision is by far the best option when it comes to ensuring a city truck is as safe as possible on the roads,” says head of haulage Terry Good.

The company has recently trialled Scania’s additional low-level, passenger-side window, receiving a thumbs-up from the firm’s drivers.

“While it’s not a full-length window, we find it a great help for our drivers. We are replacing our fleet within 18 months and we are specifying them with the extra glass door,” Good explains.

TfL launched a consultation in January this year under previous mayor Boris Johnson’s regime looking at whether lorries entering London should be required to be retrofitted with additional passenger door windows. The results have yet to be published.

Cameras and screens are a ‘great aid’

Keltbray was also first in line to trial Scania’s new Urban Tipper demonstration vehicle, shown at this year’s Tip-ex show in Harrogate, which features full air suspension, enabling the chassis to be lowered in urban environments to provide better direct vision for drivers.

Good says that when it comes to vulnerable road users protection safety equipment, a nearside camera and screen is also a great aid to drivers as it enables them to see down the entire length of the vehicle.

Keltbray has also been trialling the DawesGuard vulnerable road user protection system on its fleet, which Good says the drivers like as it is simple to operate via the flick of a switch, in addition to the Dawes PeoplePanel that fits over existing under-run bars to reduce risk of entanglement of clothing or bicycle parts.

Monitoring all equipment

Technology firm Brigade Electronics fully acknowledges the difficult task drivers have in monitoring all their mirrors and equipment in busy cities.

“Even when manoeuvring at low speed, a vehicle can travel a long way in the time it takes for a driver to check each potential hazard area in turn before returning his eyes back to the road ahead,” explains business development manager James Ashford.

“The vehicle can travel even further while the driver assesses the potential risks in these areas and reacts accordingly.”

To tackle this challenge, Brigade developed its Backeye 360 system. It eliminates blind spots by producing an all-round view of the entire vehicle in one image. “This saves the driver or operator from having to process information from several mirrors or monitors in quick succession, making it easier to spot and assess possible hazards,” he adds.

View from the frontline

Freightinthecity asked professional drivers’ forum Trucknet whether in-cab technology was a blessing or a blight, and how city operations had changed over the past 10 years. Here are some responses:

  • Glancing at a blind spot camera is no more distracting than glancing in a mirror (and a lot more helpful and useful than a mirror if on a left hooker for instance). Checking a sat-nav is a lot less distracting than reading an A-to-Z while driving, and the sat-nav audible warning is no more or less distracting than a radio. It all depends on the individual driver and how he copes with his own personal perceived level of distraction.
  • Modern vehicles (usually) have at least six mirrors, often, a Fresnel Lens, cameras… the list goes on. But – and it’s a big but – drivers still only have two eyes and two ears. I fully appreciate that this oversight is all our fault [lorry drivers], but c’est la vie.
  • It was definitely easier 10 years ago. Most people doing town centre deliveries had FM and P cabs – nice and low etc. Now the trend seems to be bigger trucks with worse vision. I think the cameras are a welcome addition and not much of a distraction.
  • We’ve already got six mirrors, two side windows and a windscreen to look at/through – how many more cameras/monitors do we need? It doesn’t matter how you design a vehicle, you will still get people trying to sneak up the inside, outside, front and rear. Bring back cycling proficiency lessons in schools.
  • A rearward-facing camera is dynamite – it’s on permanently and is not a distraction at all. You can keep the audible warnings and blinking lights, however, as they are a distraction.
  • New mirror designs have created their own blind spots. When approaching a roundabout, it is now possible for a car approaching the same roundabout from the right to be hidden from view by the mirror.