European countries have found remedies we could usefully considerby Mary Dejevsky / August 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Archive/PA Images Earlier in the summer my family and I took a road trip across Europe to Ljubljana and back, and there were perilous sections along the way—some adventurous Italian overtaking in the Aosta Valley; a lot of jockeying on the Milan ring-road; pot-holes and fickle signposting in “new” Europe. But the scariest bit of all was the section of the home stretch from the Channel Tunnel to the M25. Now that might come as a surprise to those used to regarding the UK’s roads as some of the safest in the world. But there is one reason why the M20 feels so dangerous, and this is the preponderance of lorries, especially foreign lorries, whose drivers flaunt a variety of national driving styles, while seemingly sharing a disregard for the rules of the road. The anarchy that evening was terrifying. In so far as the blinding evening sun allowed, I observed lorries exceeding 70mph (forget the 56mph speed limiters they are supposed to use); pulling out with scant or no indication; overtaking each other on up gradients, only to tail-gate each other and cars on the way down. The mostly British-registered passenger cars mixed up in all this were outnumbered, outweighed (by a lot) and outmanoeuvred, as they tried just to keep out of the way. Avoidance, though, is not always good enough, as I know to my cost. I was driving on the same motorway in January, when our car was hit by a lorry that pulled out without warning. Astonishingly, thanks to good brakes, laminated glass and the capsule-like protection built in to most modern cars—we were both unscathed. But by no means is everyone so lucky. Figures for 2015 show that almost one in four car-lorry crashes result in serious injury or fatality, compared with one in eight of other crashes. Staff at the Kent hotel where we spent the night said that such accidents as ours occur with sickening regularity. Depending precisely which part of your car is hit, you end up either on the hard shoulder (like our car) or smashed into the central reservation, with much more serious consequences. They also confirmed my impression that the police take little interest unless there are injuries, while insurance companies prefer to settle for no fault because of the expense of pursuing a foreign driver. As for preventative measures, the safest solution—a complete separation between heavy goods vehicles and cars—is not going to happen because of space constraints and expense. But this does not mean that nothing can be done. Our road trip this year and through northern Europe the year before, showed that other countries are taking the dangers from the car-lorry disparity much more seriously, with remedies we could usefully consider. First, the police. Just as traffic policing in cities has been delegated to CCTV, there is now almost no police presence on the UK’s motorways. Any car you glimpse is likely to be rushing to an emergency. Yet visible police patrols have a restraining effect, which is why in some parts of Europe they are being increased. Second, the rules. Where other countries, including France, greet drivers with enormous boards setting out the basic rules of the road, which are then repeated at points beyond the actual border, lorry drivers arriving here from the Continent receive few explicit instructions beyond the gentle advice to “keep left.” Nothing, it seems, about the requirement for speed limiters, the position of their mirrors, even about the ban on lorries in the fast lane. Still less is there any evidence of enforcement. Once out of the Tunnel or ferry, the drivers are free to put their foot down and go. Then there is technology. The UK has resisted levying motorway tolls, in part because the rest of the road network is so inadequate. Whether and how tolls are charged varies across Europe. But Germany has—controversially—introduced tolls for foreign lorries only, which can now be done without the costly infrastructure of cash and booths. Could we perhaps do the same? Not only could it raise cash, but tracking might encourage better behaviour. There are other measures, too, short of tolls, that could help rein in lorries. Some countries, including Sweden, ban lorries overtaking at certain times or when the road is particularly busy, or even at all. This hugely improves traffic flow and safety for the rest, especially on two-lane motorways. Another is the prohibition, in force pretty much Europe-wide, on most lorries using the roads on Sundays, public holidays, or all weekend. Given that this is when families are more likely to be out and about, it makes sense to reduce the number of lorries on the roads and the danger they represent. Why don’t we follow suit? Of course, any new restrictions will be fought tooth and nail by those used to our ultra-permissive regime. And we know the arguments: prices of food and other essentials will rise; the UK will become less competitive; the economy overall will suffer. Well, maybe. But other European countries seem to manage—and after all, what price a life? To anyone who doubts that we should consider a more Continental approach—and, crucially, enforce it—I recommend a drive in a car on a motorway from a Channel port at almost any hour of the day or night. But be careful; please be careful.