Is an accreditation system the answer to the city’s side guard problem?
With historically high levels of gun violence and the ostensibly insurmountable pension debacle, the city of Chicago hasn’t had much to brag about over the last couple years, but this past fall Bicycling magazine decided to throw us a bone.
In September Chicago was selected as the most bike-friendly city in the country, placing ahead of stalwart contenders like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. The article cited a growing infrastructure: more designated bike lanes, improved roads, and the promotion of the city’s ride-share program known as Divvy.
But shortly after Bicycling ranked us number one, the city saw an alarming climb in the number of bike-related fatalities at the hands of large trucks. Also a several months ago: a woman was riding downtown when she was abruptly pulled under a large truck, leaving her broken body in its wake. The crash prompted a response from Chicago Reader reporter and Streetsblog editor John Greenfield, who chronicled a series of crashes in and around traffic-heavy areas that resulted in the untimely deaths of four young cyclists.
Greenfield happened to write about one issue I deal with extensively as a member of the Trucking Litigation Group’s Side Underride Guard Task Force: the implementation of protective side guards—long metal rods or panels that prevent riders and pedestrians from falling prey to deadly “right-hook” turns—and how Chicago’s City Council might respond.
The response so far? Tame, at best.
There were encouraging signs that might change. In 2016, Chicago announced it would participate in Vison Zero, the transportation safety initiative developed in Sweden in 1994, which, for Chicago’s purposes, hopes to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities by the year 2026. Chicago enacted a pilot program to test the effectiveness of side guards on city-owned trucks, yet its commitment remains tepid. The best the city has come up with, according Streetsblog, is a statement promising to work with “private industry to create recommendations for safety equipment, such as convex mirrors and truck side guards,” in order to prevent tragedies from happening in the future. Meanwhile, proactive cities like New York and Boston have enacted legislation mandating side guards for all city-contracted trucks.
For a major city with a large population of cyclists, the promise of tomorrow seems inadequate for the problems we face today.
Why so complicated?
Relatively speaking, side guards are not cheap. Installing side guards could cost a trucking company upwards of $1,000-$2,000, and, sadly, many fleets view paying out for speculative lawsuits as the cheaper gamble. And in case you haven’t heard, the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are still dancing around a budget catastrophe, so an expenditure like mandatory side guards on city-owned fleets is bound to be scrutinized. We may, however, look to Europe for one example of an incentive program that might encourage legislators, drivers, and businesses to do more when it comes to things like side guards.
The FORS factor
Around 2008, the Transport for London took an interest in the number of cycling and pedestrian deaths associated with large trucks and decided that something needed to change. That led to a voluntary system called FORS (Fleet Operation Recognition Scheme), a European Union-wide accreditation program that promotes industry-wide best practices and, more importantly, provides incentives for companies that choose safety over convenience. For every best-practice, including the implementation of side guards, participants earn a set of ranks, and much like the LEED accreditation in the United States, the FORS badge stands out as a symbol of commitment and integrity.
“A major reason for the scheme’s successful uptake in London has undoubtedly been client driven, with businesses now using FORS in contracts with their supply chain,” according to a FORS information page. “A growing number of companies require fleet operators to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable fleet activities in order to tender for work with them.”
The stats from FORS are noteworthy. In 2015, FORS-designated Silver and Gold companies reduced total collision by 17 percent and minor injury collisions by 34.5 percent over 2014, according to statistics published by the group. More than 50 percent of FORS-accredited drivers are less likely to be involved in driving offenses related to hours of service. On top of it, trucking companies like D&P Hauling and ESG continue to publicize FORS accreditation updates and upgrades, much like a company like Amazon touts best-selling books on its website. When you consider that any good business partly relies on its reputation, FORS seems like a good option, even for skeptics.
In my home state, the Illinois Department of Transportation already anticipates that over the next year traffic deaths will rise to its highest levels since 2014, a consequence of more drivers on the road, more distractions, and less spending on crash prevention.
A significant percentage of those fatalities are likely to be commercial vehicle-related crashes, and in those cases, the legal implications far exceed any amount that it might cost for something as practical as side guards. It seems logical to reward those people and companies—whether it’s an accreditation badge or some kind of recognition—who take the matter seriously.