Commercial lorries, concrete mixer trucks, skip lorries, tipper trucks, 60-foot articulated beasts . . . the freight industry has a lot to answer for. Although I must benefit from them in some way that doesn’t come to mind right now, I avoid the heavyweights of the road like the plague. If I met Mike Tyson on my way to the shops, I might do the same. Alarm bells start ringing, and I can feel danger close at hand, palpable. One chilling statistic confirms that they’re not just ordinary motor vehicles: lorries account for 5% of the traffic in London but are responsible for half of cyclists’ deaths. So they put my life at risk. And they get their own post.
Of course, we never think of that when we set off in the morning, clad in cycling gear and astride a beauty of a flying – sorry, cycling – machine. We don’t feel fragile and vulnerable. And in any case, we can’t let that vision get at us and mar our enjoyment of the ride. But from time to time we’ll cross paths with a Heavy Goods Vehicle. The first warning sign is the noise, the rumble coming from far off. Trying to identify whether it is an innocuous red bus or a full-on giant lorry. The latter. My heart sinks. The roar swells, drowning other traffic sounds. Then the vehicle overtakes me. If the driver is somewhat considerate, he will leave a comfortable margin and pass me wide. But he may not. In any case, the displacement of air and side wind are impressive. The lorry finally fades into the distance, unless I catch up with it at the traffic lights and we resume our cat-and-mouse game.
Now, imagine a lorry driver in a rush. For example, a driver who is paid by the load, the way some haulage companies operate. Or a driver on his mobile phone, or overworked and tired. What chance do I stand, down below, on my bike, to get noticed? Then I only need to stand in the lorry’s blind spot (yes, such massive vehicles have blind spots!) and I become completely invisible. Utterly frightening. Which is why on my mental map of roads – graded from pleasant to awful depending on road surface, width, traffic and timing of traffic lights – the short stretch of Kennington Lane that I use regularly is classified ‘awful’: most of the traffic consists of speeding white vans, container lorries and cement trucks heading for the East End and the City.
I know the safety messages, the London Cycling Campaign’s advice, Transport for London’s Stay Safe Stay Back campaign. I also know things are changing for the better, with campaigners succeeding in asking for more mirrors and sensors on lorries and cycle-awareness training for drivers. And still . . . Another safety video shows fruit getting squashed and a milk bottle smashed to pieces. The relationship between lorries and the frail bicycle reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s short film, The Steamroller and the Violin: no need to ask who won (it seems we need winners in this world). Like the violin, we’re the beautiful and delicate machine that may one day find itself in the path of a lorry/steamroller. The damage would be irreversible. It’s a question of size: picture a vehicle of up to 18.55m in length next to a bike. If a lorry rolls over a bike, it may not even feel it. We’re not built on the same scale, and we don’t belong in the same space. How could we coexist happily?
Deep down, I resent lorries. For one thing, they’re responsible for dragging fear into my perfect cycling world and they give me the part of potential victim. Plus, they stand for the many motorists and decision-makers who don’t want to see me on the road and don’t even see me when I’m actually there. A lorry is this senseless monstrous machine for which I do not exist. It does not care. Perhaps its driver does, but, up in the cab, he looks straight ahead and I never manage to make eye contact. I’ve jumped at the chance to swap places and experience the view from the cab before but I find it impossible to put myself in the driver’s shoes: I cannot comprehend what it’s like to have the power to kill. Lorries, and by extension lorry drivers, are alien to me because they symbolise a world of big corporations, consumerism, tough business deals and faceless technology, where speed is money and more money is the ultimate goal, a dehumanised world where each one of us is too far away to reach out to others. The polar opposite of the world I want to believe in.