The truth about London’s killer HGVs: a third of them are empty

Another Londoner was killed last week after being subject to brutal, callous and unnecessary violence. Peter McGreal is the 9th cyclist  to have been fatally injured by an HGV on the capital’s streets this year. Also last week, an as yet unnamed cyclist was dragged under a tipper truck in the City.

Additionally, at least three pedestrians – all of them women over 70 – have been killed by HGVs in London so far this year.

Boris Johnson tells us that goods vehicles are the “lifeblood” of London. A few fatalities here and there are unavoidable. Right?

Who is killed?

Overwhelmingly, the people killed by HGVs are people walking and on bikes. Data split by severity of casualty from the most recent year available (2008) shows the extent to which this is the case:

London HGV KSIs 2008: Note how the fatalities fall on the left of the graph

Source: London Freight Data Report 2010 (p31).

Whatcha gonna do?

No one really likes lorries. They kill and maim dozens of people in London each year. They contribute significantly to both particulate and carbon emissions. They’re noisy and not exactly pretty: lorries don’t make our streets pleasant places to be.

But they’re just a fact of life, aren’t they? Construction, deliveries, waste management – these are all integral to the running of a city.

Much like the occasional case of gonorrhoea for the gallivanting Lothario, HGVs are just the price of doing business.

What do the numbers say?

Like our promiscuous Prince Charming, if we’re going to engage in risky activity, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the probability that someone ends up in pain.

Currently, around a third of all HGV journeys in London are made by empty vehicles (p61).

The London figure is higher than the UK average, 28% (DfT, Section 1, Table 1.12). And the UK average figure is not low at the moment – in fact, the number of empty running HGVs has gone up since 2001 (p43).

Can it get lower?

The answer is a definitive yes. In Germany, the Maut Road User charging system has resulted in empty running lorries being reduced to about 19%, while our numbers have steadily risen:

Click image for source – page 20 (pdf)

The Swiss road charging system has produced similar trends.

Are longer lorries the answer?

Roads Minister Mike Penning is currently arguing that longer lorries are the answer to our HGV woes, as they would require fewer journeys to be made. But actually, the highest empty running figures are with the heaviest vehicles: in London, 39% of goods vehicles weighing over 25 tonnes are empty (p61).

So what is the answer?

Driving empty lorries through London costs the city’s residents and visitors dearly. It needs to cost haulage companies.

Current incentives are insufficient for hauliers to efficiently use their fleets – there are massive logistics companies out desperate to get their hands (and RFID tags) on London’s lorries. But companies aren’t using them, because logistics costs money.

There are all sorts of solutions to this – increasing vehicle taxation for weight, carbon usage, emissions, or vehicles running below a certain capacity.

I won’t pretend to be able to weigh up the merits of each of these options. The point is, they make driving HGVs expensive enough that people think carefully about their journeys – apparently this is needed, because dead people doesn’t seem to be enough.

Until running empty vehicles becomes a lot more expensive, HGVs are going to continue to unnecessarily blight our cities, and to kill their inhabitants.

11 Responses to “The truth about London’s killer HGVs: a third of them are empty”

  1. livinginabox Says:

    This would appear to be one of the haulage industry’s dirty secrets. It never occurred to me that the industry would be so inefficient.

    I suspect that because empty vehicles would inevitably have a much increased power to mass ratio, that the likelihood is very likely to be a difference in driving style and I suspect that may well increase the danger to the Public. One thing’s for certain, if these vehicles weren’t being needlessly driven around, they wouldn’t pose a risk to the Public.

    The problem is that haulage companies don’t bear the costs of the injuries and fatalities. Or at least as far as I can tell, they don’t. Therefore, since it doesn’t affect their bottom line, they don’t give a s**t. I suspect that were the directors of a haulage company liable to prosecution and imprisonment for corporate manslaughter every time one of their vehicles killed a VRU, I feel pretty certain that casualty numbers would plummet.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Chris Says:

    Even if they do try and avoid running empty through load sharing and delayed returns, there will always be a state of emptiness during their journey to the next pick-up. Loads are not in the same/correct location, hence the need for delivery vehicles.

    Maybe the correct stance is to train and advance the skill sets of drivers allowing greater consequences for illegal behaviour. Following the system used for black cab drivers.

  3. skiddie Says:

    It would be interesting to see what percentage of people (pedestrians and cyclists) are killed between 8-10 am and 4-6 pm, when HGVs really have no place on the urban road network.

  4. Angus F. Hewlett Says:

    It’s not just illegal behaviour, it’s the entire attitude to safety and accidents. Owners of HGV firms whose lorries cause fatalities – even in cases where the driver of the truck may not be the guilty party – should be prosecuted under health & safety in the workplace laws in the same way as any other business owner is when employees or members of the public are killed on their premises. Only then will haulage firms have sufficient incentive to prioritise safety at an operational level.

    Many of these HGVs probably do need to be there (even the empty ones, unfortunately), but how they’re handled on the road is a completely different story – and not one that can be addressed succesfully by targeting the drivers themselves.

  5. Colin Says:

    I normally agree with your analysis but this time I take issue with the idea that haulage firms are wilfully running empty HGV’s on London’s roads.
    I’m certain the reason so many HGVs are running empty in London is not a lack of incentive for the owner but that the city is primarily a drop-off point (as Chris suggests); Haulage firms often run on very low margins and the return-load is as important as the main one, however, in order to pick-up the lorry needs to visit a production or distribution centre and these are overwhelmingly on the outskirts of the city.

    The real problem is that there are any HGVs in London in the first place, and that it is more efficient to run a lorry into London than deposit goods in a peripheral distribution hub for re-distribution in the city with smaller vehicles. This could become the norm by restricting large HGV access to all but the largest city roads.

  6. Futilitarian Says:


    London is of course a net drop-off point – and the London rate will probably always be higher than the UK rate.

    But the UK average rate is still 50% higher than Germany’s, even though they were the same 15 years ago.

    I don’t know about the margins of haulage companies. But if running HGVs became more expensive, they’d be forced to do either do it less or if levies were sufficiently high then (perhaps through a distribution hub system as you suggest) not do it at all.

  7. Colin Says:

    I certainly agree that we need fewer lorries on the road but I dispute that there is a great deal more that can be done to reduce empty trips as opposed to total trips beyond existing market incentives (fuel costs etc).

    I don’t know enough to compare the German and UK road haulage environment but as you point out something significant has been happening in Germany in the last 15 years that hasn’t happened here.
    Indeed, the downward trend in proportion of empty HGVs began way before their road user charging came in; in fact, as that scheme begins the decrease seems to bottom-out.
    This suggests something else has been going on in Germany- maybe a general consolidation of road haulage between larger distribution hubs across Germany and much of Europe (a fall in empties is also consistent with an increase in overall road haulage)?

    As for reduction of HGV numbers in general, London could ramp up the C-Charge for HGVs or try another form of charging. However, it seems to me that HGVs are manifestly unsuited to modern city streets (another collision between artic. and cyclist yesterday on Southampton row hammers home the point ).

    The time has passed for financial disincentives that would still allow some HGVs on the streets; we need outright prohibition on most city streets, at least during the day. Charging can be unpopular, seen as punitive, and harder on small businesses. Absolute prohibition at least levels the playing field for operators and can be directly based on the safety, environmental and health implications for local people.

  8. Jessica Says:

    they need to sort out the bike lanes in london there are so many tourists that its difficult to get around on your bike, i have come across a really good website called which has a summer sale on at the moment so was able to get everything i needed for commuting to work but now i can’t even get around in london!

  9. DB Vehicle Electics Says:

    I have fun with, result in I found exactly what I used to be looking for.
    You’ve ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day.

  10. David Says:

    Fact…….not all HGV’S can see cyclists
    not all HGV’S can see cars
    BUT……..All cyclists see HGV’S
    All cars see HGV’S

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