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Government argument for 7ft longer lorries is flawed

Philippa Edmunds's picture
Graphic comparing lorry lengths

The Government has just issued the 2016 longer lorries report, compiled by Risk Solutions, which claims that longer semi-trailers can reduce congestion, pollution and collisions. Freight on Rail, which has campaigned against these 7ft longer trucks since they were first envisaged, still believes, five years into the 15 year trial, that these findings are based on flawed data and incorrect assumptions and ignore important safety factors.

The road haulage industry has an insatiable appetite for ever bigger lorries and each time uses the same justification for bigger trucks – that there will be fewer, bigger, fuller trucks  – which is not the reality.  At the DfT briefing last week, one of the participants in the trial asked for more weight allowance which is typical of the industry even though they do not fill existing trucks. First the hauliers ask for extra length and then say they need extra weight to accompany the extra length and then next time they say they need extra length again and so the see-saw continues.

Furthermore, given that all the safety, environmental and economic arguments for longer lorries are based on them resulting in fewer but bigger, fuller, longer semi-trailers, Risk Solutions should be analysing the usage and loading patterns of existing lorries to find out what will happen in real life if these longer semi-trailers are allowed in general circulation. Instead it is using modelled data instead of actual information and planning to scale up the trial figures even though the trial participants are not representative of the haulage industry because the operators involved are self-selecting, the majority of whom are large operations who use specialist drivers.  

The reality is only 34 per cent of HGVs on the roads are fully loaded and 30 per cent are travelling around completely empty. Current industry practice is to buy the biggest lorry available and use for all jobs, big or small.

Even load data from the trial fails to support this claim with the trial lorries fully loaded for only a third (34 per cent) of their journeys with the extra length not being used at all for around half of their journeys. 

There is no question that longer semi-trailers save operators money and could reduce their costs by up 12 per cent. But that is because these bigger trucks result in HGVs paying even less of the costs they impose on the economy and society with the taxpayer picking up the bill in terms of more road crashes, road damage, congestion and pollution.

The most worrying aspect of the trial is that it is ignoring or discounting safety concerns surrounding the increased tail swing and blind spot of these longer lorries - which is almost double that of standard HGVs when making right and left turns - when negotiating urban roads. Many urban and town centre roads in the UK are not able to accommodate such large vehicles, forcing them to perform movements that put other, more vulnerable road users at risk such as entering adjacent lanes and swinging over kerbs or traffic islands.

And this is at a time when the Government has reported that 1,792 people were killed in crashes on Britain's roads last year - 62 more people than in 2015. DfT stated that this 4% increase is 'not statistically significant'.

Despite what the Department for Transport claims, longer semi-trailers are not the answer to reducing collisions, congestion or pollution and are actually more dangerous than standard HGVs on urban and town centre roads, because of their 7ft tail swing and extended blind spot.

Freight on Rail wants to see future reporting using real GPS data so that the trial can establish the exact routes and types of roads the longer semi-trailers are using with special attention to urban and town centre use.

The Treasury has indicated that it will review the existing, old-fashioned, time-based HGV levy and may introduce a distance-based levy. This would incentivise HGV efficiency and would - along with the use of less polluting lorries - be a far better way to reduce HGVs' emissions and improve productivity than supporting even longer lorries