All about cycling in the Netherlands
“Crashes with trucks and vans are mostly caused by the driving style of the drivers.” That is not what I think, but what is stated on a site of the Dutch national Government. It is clear who the Dutch Government thinks is responsible for these crashes.
If you cycle straight-on in the Netherlands, you always have priority over turning trucks. This is the basic rule of priority. But it often happens that drivers of HGVs miss people cycling to their right (legally undertaking the truck or on a cycle path) and that can lead to a so-called “right hook” where a cyclist is crushed by the truck turning right. Because of the nature of the two road users, one with a huge mass and one who is completely unprotected, the consequences of such a crash are very severe, often deadly for the person on a bicycle.
According to that same site by the Dutch Government there are some ways to decrease the number of these particular crashes:
“Vehicles can be made safer and the driving style of the drivers can be improved. But infrastructure can be improved as well. HGVs can be banned from urban areas and in city centres deliveries can be allowed only in specific time windows.”
One of the recommendations reads as follows:
“Education about the dangers of blind spots for drivers in the transport sector.”
The Dutch Government focuses primarily on the HGVs and their drivers, not on people cycling or other road users. And other road users are at risk:
“There is every reason to keep giving long-term attention to the safety of road transport. Of all traffic accidents with fatalities, 15% involved a truck or a van.”
So isn’t there any shared responsibility also for other road users than truck drivers? Well, yes there is:
Other road users often do not take into account that trucks and vans are limited in seeing objects/persons near their vehicle and that they have to swerve to one side to make a turn to the other side.
To teach other road users about these factors there have been national campaigns.
On the site of motoring club “ANWB” we find that most of the right hook crashes (75 to 90 percent) happen right after traffic has come to a full standstill. So the crash sites are usually traffic light controlled junctions, right after the lights turned green. ANWB, representing motorists in the Netherlands, also advises to ban HGVs from urban areas and to build distribution centres at the edges to transfer freight into smaller vehicles. Utrecht has long had such a system with small electric vehicles.
So just how bad is the situation with regard to trucks and cycling in the Netherlands?
Since 2007, the figures fluctuate from 4 to 10 cycle fatalities in right hook incidents per year for the entire country. A decade earlier there were twice as many deaths. But new legislation requiring extra mirrors or cameras and a national campaign to raise awareness reduced the number of deaths considerably. These right hook incident deaths are a small percentage of the total cycling fatalities in the Netherlands, which are around 200 per year. Considering that 5 million Dutch people cycle an average of 14 million bike journeys every working day in the Netherlands this still is a very low figure. But because the consequences of these right hook crashes are so severe, they have a considerable impact to society and this leads to a lot of attention from traffic experts.
In their factsheet about road transport SWOV state:
“The development of a safety culture in transport companies is important. Because of the huge difference in mass between trucks and other road users infrastructure adaptations should not be overlooked, for instance separate lanes for specific road users, but also different traffic rules, like a ban for HGVs in city centres.”
This is completely in line with the Dutch policies of Sustainable Safety. These policies seek to prevent road crashes. For that reason the Dutch already try to separate vehicles with a huge difference in mass and speed on specific separated infrastructure. Well-designed infrastructure also leads to predictability of behaviour. Sharp curves in urban areas force truck drivers to take those corners at low speeds which gives people cycling time to anticipate the next ‘move’ of that truck. Separate cycle paths give people cycling also a safe place to wait for a truck driver who makes a mistake, something that is inevitable according to the same Sustainable Safety principles, for the simple reason that humans are fallible. You cannot expect every road user to always follow every rule, humans simply do not work that way. You should therefore design streets in such a way that the mistakes people make (accidental or deliberate) do not cause the deaths of themselves or others.
Video showing interactions in the Netherlands between people cycling and truck drivers
The video shows how this all works in reality. I have collected these images over the years I have been filming. It is very strange, and hopefully a coincidence, that the only three truck drivers I ever recorded on film making mistakes all drive a truck with foreign license plates.
The Danish truck driver in the video unexpectedly leaves the carriageway to park while crossing a cycle lane, without indicating this direction change. I had stopped to film this lane but I could just as easily have been cycling there. Maybe indicating is not required in Denmark but I would think this is a universal rule.
The Hungarian truck driver leaves a roundabout and should have given people cycling straight-on the right of way. The woman who approaches first sees what happens and has enough time to pull her brakes and stay on her protected cycle path to wait for the truck to pass. In the short time the truck makes the turn two other people cycling and one person on a moped also have to wait. Annoying, but no harm done. They did not have to jump for their lives because they could stay in the safety of their separated cycle path.
The truck driver from the United Kingdom makes the most blatant mistake. The light had long turned red before the driver decided to simply continue his right turn. Other traffic, like the car driver approaching from the opposite direction wanting to make a left turn has to wait a bit before accelerating, but other than that, no real harm was done here.
Creating an environment in which making mistakes does not lead to people’s deaths is what the Dutch are after. Modern infrastructure in the Netherlands reduces the number of dangerous interactions between different road users. Infrastructure may not always be up to the latest standards everywhere, but the figures are already a lot better than those in other countries and cities. (In London alone “nine of this year’s 14 cyclist fatalities have involved a heavy goods vehicle”). People do still die in right hook incidents and people do still get severely injured, but especially considering the high number of cycle trips that are made in this country, it would seem the Dutch approach is a good way to keep people cycling as safe as possible around trucks.