I’ve never taken part in a “die-in” before…
…but this one was different.
Somehow the death of 21-year-old Filippo Corsini, dragged under a lorry while he was riding his bike in Knightsbridge last Monday, got to me more than a stranger’s death ever has before. I still can’t quite put my finger on why it’s made me so tearful, so often. Perhaps something to do with his being 21, that age where you’ve barely begun to be an adult and, to trot out a cliché, you have your whole life ahead of you. Or maybe because he’s the eighth person in 2016 to die on a bicycle in London; or maybe because he’s the second cyclist to die under a London lorry in a week.
But more likely it’s this: his death was entirely preventable. It should never have happened. Filippo’s promising young life was snuffed out for absolutely nothing, and it’s that needlessness that gets to me.
The problem for me is that less than a month ago, I saw a presentation by London Cycling Campaign on HGVs and how the standard design renders much of the road invisible to their drivers. Many of these vehicles are designed for construction sites, not city streets. The cabs are too high up and the area of glass is too small for the driver to see a cyclist alongside the vehicle. LCC have been campaigning for a safer design of HGV that allows the driver ‘direct vision’ (not just mirrors) of the street outside. This illustration makes the point nicely – which lorry would you rather cycle next to, or cross the road in front of?
Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to introduce a 5-star rating for HGVs according to how much direct vision the driver has, and to remove the zero-rated lorries from London’s streets by 2020. Sounds good – except it’s still 2016; eight people have died already on bikes this year; and more than 50% of cycling fatalities in London are due to HGVs (despite being a tiny proportion of London’s traffic). It’s not just cyclists, either. In 2014 it was calculated that 25% of pedestrian deaths in London involved lorries. The new law can’t come fast enough – it’s already too late for too many.
The driver who killed Filippo Corsini almost certainly hadn’t seen him. Look, in the photo below, at the lorry he was driving. Look at the height of the cab. Look at the position of the mirrors. How could he see anything next to his vehicle at cyclist height? Then, if you can bear to, look at the remains of the bicycle just visible under the front of the lorry. Filippo was dragged under the lorry for 30 yards across the box junction. He died of ‘catastrophic injuries’.
Can I say something really, really obvious?
THIS LORRY IS NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE.
No lorry with this design should be driven in London, or in any city. They are accidents waiting to happen. They are, in the words of Filippo’s sister, ‘death machines’. Here is what she said:
“The mayor wants to ban lorries with blind spots but not until 2020. That’s too late for my brother and all the others who have died. They need to stop them now. This can’t just be about economics, companies need to provide safer trucks. These are like death machines” – Ms Corsini, quoted in the Evening Standard.
This is the source of my grief and anger – how much more so for his own family? This accident should never have happened.
At the vigil last night, Caroline Russell (a Green Party London Assembly member who tends to make a lot of sense) pointed out the unfairness of it all. Not fair on Filippo and his grieving family and friends. Not fair on the many others who have died or had life-changing injuries and their families. And not fair on the lorry drivers. Vincent Doyle, the driver whose lorry (described as ‘the size of half a house’) killed 26-year-old Jenina Gehlau in London in 2014, was asked in court how the accident had affected him. (He had got out of the lorry and was holding her hand when she died.) He said: “I had a nervous breakdown … I was in psychiatric hospital for eight months.”
There were other speakers. The vigil was compèred by Nicola Branch of Stop Killing Cyclists, who organised the event. She read a statement by Val Shawcross, Deputy Mayor for Transport. (The gist was that most of the more dangerous lorries will already be phased out by the time the ban starts in 2020.) We heard from Andrew Gilligan, former cycling czar under Boris Johnson, pointing out how little Sadiq has done for cycling so far. We heard from Ruth Mayorcas, a SKC member who has a Dutch husband and spends a lot of time in the Netherlands. ‘The Dutch can’t understand how the UK has got itself in this situation,’ she said. And she went on to praise our own Cllr Daniel Anderson in Enfield, as a local authority which is actually doing something to make roads safer for walking and cycling. (There were whoops from our small Enfield contingent.)*
The rest of the speakers were harder to listen to. A family friend of Filippo’s described his character – boisterous, passionate, affectionate, hardworking – so that he would not be ‘just a statistic’ to us. A young woman who had suffered a cycling accident in London a few years ago told us that she could not step up onto the stage while she spoke – she had lost a leg. She tried to speak, broke down, and we all cried with her. For me, the hardest hitting moment was when a 9-year-old girl read out the roll call of the 53 people who have died on London’s streets this year, on foot or riding a bike. They included children aged 11,10, 3 and 1.
The one minute of silence was held with all of us lying on the ground, littered in front of the Mayor’s City Hall, bicycles dotted around and some holding placards. My own 9-year-old was with me. She curled up next to me, holding my hand, and we watched the Italian flags in honour of the Corsinis fluttering above us while I tried not to think about children dying on the road.
Just before the silence we were read a poem written by Tom Kearney, himself a survivor of a horrific collision with a bus, called But You Promised. It starts with a parent promising to come home in time to put the kids to bed ‘…but the police called, and we put you to sleep instead.’ It finishes with quoting Sadiq Khan’s election promises, and when it came to the emphatic ‘make London a byword for cycling’ the words seemed to ring in the air, bouncing off the walls of City Hall and across the Thames as far as Tower Bridge.
I pray to God that Sadiq Khan makes good his promises. May these blind, deadly lorries be taken off London’s streets immediately. May this tragic, needless lorry death be the last to happen in this city, ever. And may the Corsinis be given the meagre comfort of knowing that at least their son’s death caused London to change its laws, to put the safety of its people first.
*Ruth also made this point: ‘Looking at the horrific photo of the lorry – even with the best designed lorry in the world and the most careful driver it is sheer insanity that we on bikes should be sharing the same space – it is something the Dutch grasped and we fail to. Whilst I agree that lorries have to be made safer I do hope we will campaign that in the meantime a ban at certain times of the day and which can be implemented quicker should also be demanded.’