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The Sideguard Debate: Unresolved

Posted: December 2, 2016 by Rolf Lockwood

There’s renewed interest in mandating sideguards for trucks, and just as much disagreement as ever over their efficacy.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says that half of all cyclists killed by a truck first impact the blind side of the vehicle, as collisions typically occur when the truck does a right-hand turn at an intersection. The issue goes much deeper than that, of course, and involves more than just heavy trucks. Toronto Police statistics show that 541 cyclists have been hit by cars since June 2016. That’s nearly 10 collisions per day.

After recent cyclist-vs-truck deaths in both Ottawa and Montreal, plus written pleas from both the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Ottawa’s mayor, the federal government is once again studying sideguards that fill the gaps along a truck or trailer’s wheelbase. A new task force created by the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators will not only re-open the book on old-school sideguards, but will also study new-school technology like cameras and collision mitigation sensors that may help prevent cyclist/truck interactions in the first place.

I’m placing my own bet on a high-tech solution eventually.

“Transport Canada believes there is a potential to save more lives if efforts are focused on improving the ability of large commercial vehicle drivers to detect vulnerable road users around their vehicles,” says Transport Canada spokesman Daniel Savoie. “Emerging technologies, such as camera and sensor systems, have the potential to improve safety for not only cyclists and pedestrians, but also for other motorized vehicles. To this end, the department has initiated a research program to investigate collision-avoidance technologies with the aim to help drivers of large commercial vehicles detect vulnerable road users and prevent impacts.”

CRITICS FROM WITHIN THE TRUCKING community cite the reckless actions of many cyclists on city streets as a key cause of these accidents. Some even want cities to register and further regulate cyclists, an idea not widely accepted. Their greatest fear is that Transport Canada’s latest investigation may end in a mandate for collision-avoidance technology that simply isn’t affordable after years of stagnant rates.

Sideguards, on the other hand, have been the go-to option to enhance intersection safety in some of North America’s largest cities. New York, Boston, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., along with the Montreal suburbs of Westmount and St. Laurent and the City of Halifax have all made sideguards mandatory for heavy-duty trucks in municipal fleets. Chicago, about the same size as Toronto, is currently looking at the sideguard option after six cyclists died there so far this year, all at the wheels of heavy-duty trucks.

Sideguards are far more common in Europe than here, and I believe they’re pretty much universally mandated, though not on all vehicle types.

DR. DAVIS ROBERTS, A UNIVERSITY of Toronto assistant professor of urban studies, says “…there is just not enough [road] space to share…It gets boiled down to who really belongs. Right now it’s about who backs down first. It’s a waiting game, and there hasn’t been significant political leadership on either side.”

While Roberts concedes that roads were built for vehicles, he says it’s a city’s responsibility to adapt to change – such as the strong upswing in cycling over the last 20 years. Toronto roads, he says, were simply not built to handle so many users, and poor public transit shows how the city has failed to adapt to the challenges of increased population density. Other cities are no different.

Transport Canada last dealt with sideguards in 2010, when a Phase One study commissioned by the department failed to convince the federal government that lives could be saved by blocking the gaps between wheels. No wonder, when one of the most quoted lines from that report states that, “It is not clear if sideguards will reduce deaths and serious injury or if the guards will simply alter the mode of death and serious injury.”

While many experts agree sideguards are just one part of the puzzle that will make intersections safer in major cities, there are some strong statistics that show sideguards may be a strong transitional option until better long-term solutions are found. In the years following the United Kingdom’s 1983 mandate for sideguards, blocking gaps between truck wheels does appear to have saved lives. Only one in four bicyclists was killed or seriously injured in crashes when the truck was equipped with a sideguard. Two out of three bicyclists were killed or seriously injured when the truck was exempt and not equipped with a sideguard.

A HIGH-TECH OPTION FROM DAIMLER Trucks was formally introduced at the recent IAA Commercial Vehicles Show in Germany, with the news that it’s making pedestrian detection in trucks available for the first time. The new Sideguard Assist and Active Brake Assist 4 are now offered on Mercedes-Benz Trucks.

The company noted that truck safety systems have aimed first and foremost to avoid serious accidents on highways, but these new tools attack urban traffic dangers and offer protection for pedestrians and cyclists. As well they should, apparently.

In Germany, for example, around 30% of all traffic deaths occur in built-up areas. And with regard to fatal traffic accidents involving freight-hauling vehicles, this figure is in the region of 50%. Critical situations here are vehicles turning off or onto roads and traffic at junctions.

Active Brake Assist 4 is the first emergency braking system for trucks that can markedly reduce the risk of accidents with pedestrians in towns and cities, Daimler says. Whereas Active Break Assist 3 already initiates braking fully automatically in response to stationary and moving obstacles such as slow-moving vehicles in front or at the end of a tailback, the new ABA 4 now also detects pedestrians in urban traffic who are walking between parked cars onto the road.

DAIMLER SAYS SIDEGUARD ASSIST is the first assistance system available that draws the truck driver’s attention to pedestrians and cyclists in cornering situations. The German Insurance Association expects that with Sideguard Assist, about half of all accidents between trucks and pedestrians and cyclists could be avoided.

It’s based on a radar system with two short-range radar sensors in front of the truck’s rear axle on the passenger side. The system is oriented so as to cover the entire length of the truck. This applies equally to straight trucks, bobtail tractors, and tractor-trailers. The length of the monitoring zone extends by 2 meters (6.5 ft) beyond the front of the truck and 1 meter behind the end of the vehicle.

Sideguard Assist operates in several stages.

If there’s a moving object in the side monitoring zone, the driver gets a visible warning — a triangle-shaped LED lights up at the driver’s eye level in the A-pillar on the co-driver’s side. This lamp attracts the driver’s attention to the situation alongside the vehicle and in the direction of the exterior mirrors on the co-driver’s side.

If a collision seems imminent, an additional visual and audible warning is triggered: The LED flashes brightly several times in red. After two seconds it remains permanently lit in red. A warning buzzer sounds from a loudspeaker of the radio system on the side in question.

If the sensors detect a stationary obstacle such as a traffic light or lamp in the tracking pattern of the truck during the process of turning, there’s also a visual and audible warning.

Sideguard Assist also helps when changing lanes or when maneuvering in areas such as loading docks and parking lots.

THE PROS AND CONS of these two options aren’t especially complicated, though their application certainly would be.

Given the massively diverse truck configurations out there, especially in the vocational world, we’d never see a one-size-fits-all sideguard design. Ordinary trailers and P&D straight trucks might be straightforward but after that you’d be into custom design and fabrication work pretty often. Expensive, as the industry keeps pointing out.

Think of how much is hanging off frame rails nowadays.

The high-tech option obviously goes much further and would in theory prevent human-vs-truck collisions in the first place rather than simply trying to mitigate the damage done as sideguards might — possibly — do.

But tools like Daimler’s Sideguard Assist wouldn’t be cheap either, and it might demand the presence of other electronic safety systems before being spec’able. I don’t have a definitive answer on that but I think I’m safe in that assumption.

For what it’s worth I’m not at all convinced that a sideguard would do the job, though there’s evidence — as in the U.K. example above — to prove me wrong.

NO MATTER HOW THIS IS ultimately resolved, it surely has to start first with better education — or education at all! — of pedestrians and cyclists as to how to act around trucks. Anybody who has spent any time at all in a truck knows just how astonishingly dumb they can be. And that’s not to mention the unbearably stupid aggression that cyclists often display.

Just before I began writing this I saw that someone had posted a graphic on Facebook that depicted a tractor-trailer on a multi-lane highway with cars labelled ‘A’ to ‘F’ in various positions around it, including one directly behind. The poster asked, “Which of these cars is in the truck driver’s blind spot?”

In fact the driver would have been blind to every one of them, but the first response came from someone who said ‘A’, that being the car right behind the trailer. Just that one. I had to move on after reading a few responses (and I haven’t been able to find it again since!) but I can tell you that nobody got it right, or even close to right. Scary.

Truck drivers need education on this front too. Not that they don’t understand the hazards involved, so maybe just call it a refresher or reminder. If I were running safety meetings, I’d go over this every time.

And if I were running my own truck or a fleet of them, I’d install every kind of mirror known to man on both sides.

NOWADAYS WE ALSO HAVE CAMERA OPTIONS, long before we start talking about Daimler’s high-tech solution to the problem, and there are some that specifically answer the blind-spot challenge. Most of them are intended to deal with reversing but one — from an established British outfit called Brigade Electronics — seems to suit our purpose well here. It was actually introduced to North America back in 2013 at the Work Truck Show.

The Smarteye System offers a 360-degree view by way of 4 cameras that are strategically placed around the truck, each with ultra-wide 187-degree lenses. The 4 images that are generated are stitched together to create a unified, panoramic video image for the truck driver by giving a bird’s eye view from above.

It offers real-time viewing as the images are immediately stitched together for a complete 360-degree view. The Smarteye system comes with a high-definition 4.3-in. monitor that’s placed inside the vehicle and offers controls to monitor risk areas. It’s been tested in the field in controlled experiments where the driver’s windows are covered, forcing the driver to depend solely on the camera system to reverse the vehicle, says Brigade. The driver was able to perform his task safely and smoothly, we’re told.

Smarteye comes with real-time viewing at up to 30 frames per second; flexible camera positioning; 4 triggered output options; automatic light balancing; and automatic shutdown when malfunctioning. The camera system is approved by the CE and FCC and comes with a default set-up for what’s claimed to be “easy deployment”. It also has customizable options for displaying images.

Equipped with both a digital wireless transmitter and receiver, the Smarteye system is easy to use right away, says Brigade, and doesn’t need coiled or retractable cables. It can be used with both NTSC and PAL video systems, and at a wide range of temperatures from -20°C to + 70°C. 

If any of you have come across another useful camera option, please let me know.


THIS NEWSLETTER IS PUBLISHED every two weeks. For the most part it’s a heads-up notice about what’s going on with trucking technology. I also write here about interesting products that may not have had the ‘air play’ they deserved within the last few months, and maybe about issues that warrant attention in my occasionally humble opinion.

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