A Case for Direct Vision

For the future of road safety, we must ask ourselves how to think beyond the box and do what’s right for all road users. We have a proposal.

People on bicycles share a narrow street with imposing black SUVs.
(Photo by Scott Heins)

By Dave Braunstein

For years, the Vision Zero community has worked diligently to solve the intractable problem of serious injuries and fatalities on our roads. We’ve raised alarms using the ever-rising statistics proving road users are at risk. We’ve humanized the problem, and shared horrific anecdotes on morning shows, in newspapers, and at conferences like Vision Zero Cities to call one another to action.

At Together for Safer Roads (TSR), an organization that seeks to unite public and private safe-streets efforts, we recently held our inaugural Vision Zero Fleet Forum where StopDistractions.org’s Jennifer Smith shared, “Families that have been impacted help move past the statistics and the numbers, and put that personal face to the story, and move past that complacency because then it makes it real. It makes it past the numbers, past the science, past the data. It’s a real human being in a real family who has been changed forever.” However, (and here’s where I take a risk), for the population at large, startling statistics and human stories alone don’t work.

TSR believes that the only way to move us towards Vision Zero is to address road safety on multiple fronts. To that end, we have been tackling the issue of blind zones. To put this disproportionate problem in perspective, we asked the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Director of Strategy, Kate Fillin-Yeh, who shared, “Trucks, in general, represent 12 percent or so of the total fatalities, but the interesting thing is the trucks themselves are only about 4 percent of the vehicles operating on the road. So there’s some sort of a disproportionate effect happening here. And of course, the question is why... Two other reasons are really specifically tied to vehicle design itself… where the driver sits compared to where the front of the vehicle is. Basically the higher up and the further back, the worse the blind spots are. And those blind spots, particularly in the front, particularly on the side, are deadly for people walking or people biking.”

To address the issue of blind zones and thereby reduce traffic deaths and collisions across the globe, TSR has been working on retrofittable solutions, such as cameras that give fleet vehicles 360° visibility with our partners, including New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Republic Services, and others. Retrofitted safety solutions are critical to road safety, but we cannot forget the shortcomings of existing designs, such as what vehicles coming off of the manufacturing line currently look like, and what they must look like. This leads us to one place: a fundamental redesign of truck cabs.

We need new, fresh approaches to shedding light on road safety. We already know humanizing the problem alone doesn’t work, and that blind zones are a major contributing factor, but even telematics and retrofittable collision avoidance systems are a workaround to the root cause, poorly designed cabs. As explained to TSR by Alex Epstein from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, this is what happens when you can have all the safety equipment in the world, but your line of sight is impaired by design: A heavy vehicle driver, in a classic conventional cab, is following all the rules and pulls to a stop as instructed. Federal guidance for the stop is set four feet back from a crosswalk. But, according to Volpe Center research, that driver, who is operating correctly, would still be unable to see twelve preschool-aged children in the crosswalk.

A graphic illustrates the blind spot caused by large front cabs on trucks. Twelve elementary school children can fit in front of the truck without being seen by the driver.
Source: Volpe/USDOT

Or, this recent example in Toronto: Toronto dump truck pushes sideways Mini down highway: Sideways Mini Cooper stands its ground, saves its driver. If the driver is given the ability to be more aware, if they can make eye contact with pedestrians, these types of collisions can be avoided, and tragedies can be avoided. That’s why cab redesign is so important.

There is research that suggests about a quarter of all truck-pedestrian collisions involve poor visibility since blind zones frequently occur in close quarters with low-speed maneuvers. In fact, there is no wide-scale quantified understanding of this problem. TSR envisions partnering with others like the Santos Family Foundation, which is developing the Vision app along with the Volpe Center to help understand the problem on a granular level, one that helps prioritize efforts within an action plan. There currently is no way of categorically measuring whether one truck cab has smaller and safer blind zones than another, which is another way to say that we have a long way to go.

Why start with cities? Municipal fleet vehicles make up a large proportion of the trucks in the U.S. and therefore carry a lot of weight with manufacturers on the way trucks are designed. Cities can decide what they want on municipal fleets, which means they can decide on what they require for cab design.

Better cab designs already exist in some regions, but not enough. We aren’t asking for anything new. Kate Cairns, whose sister Eilidh Cairns was run over from behind by a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) in London in 2009, has campaigned for 10 years to eliminate the danger of HGVs through her See Me Save Me campaign. She lobbied the European Parliament and was successful in changing EU law on cab design. Cairns says, “following the death of my sister — an extremely fit and competent cyclist — I was compelled to understand how this tragedy had happened. She did nothing wrong. But the driver simply said ‘I didn’t see her,’ even though she was in front of his cab and there to be seen. There were no consequences. Nothing changed.”

Cairns is a chartered civil engineer and worked in construction for many years. She is concerned about a blanket complacency within the industry, including the shocking frequency of young fatalities. She worries each time the driver says “I didn’t see.” That’s why the name of Cairns’ campaign is See Me Save Me. Now, through her work and others, London has achieved success with its Direct Vision Standard. Cairns says, “Lorries that don’t meet the standard are not permitted on London’s streets. This is saving lives. And it’s good for responsible operators who win business over those who refuse to manage their road risk. ” Direct Vision is well on its way to becoming the standard in the United Kingdom, and it must become the standard everywhere.

The problem of serious injuries and fatalities on our roads has only gotten worse and it doesn’t have to be that way. If humanizing the problem has not worked, then perhaps standardizing designs from the cities outward will. At TSR, we believe we have an opportunity to move toward direct vision for cabs. Now is the time to make this change.

To find out more, you can get in touch at communications@togetherforsaferroads.org.

David Braunstein is President of Together for Safer Roads (TSR). Braunstein’s leadership has helped scale and sustain the global coalition’s efforts to improve road safety and save lives. He is responsible for overseeing the organization’s strategic direction on behalf of TSR’s Governing Board and membership, implementing TSR-supported local demonstration projects, advancing TSR’s thought leadership, building key partnerships, and increasing the coalition’s connections to the international road safety community. Braunstein holds an MBA from Cornell University and a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University. He resides with his wife and two children on Long Island, NY. He is an avid soccer player and enjoys traveling, hiking, and cooking in his free time.

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