Hidden cost of the freight trade: pollution in the air, congestion in cities and danger on the roads

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Lorries are filthy; they're deafening, they kill people directly out of all proportion to their numbers, they wreck the roads, they intimidate other drivers, they clog up cities, they terrorise small towns and divide them right down the middle and they pump out more of the most harmful pollution than any other form of transport.

Lorries are filthy; they're deafening, they kill people directly out of all proportion to their numbers, they wreck the roads, they intimidate other drivers, they clog up cities, they terrorise small towns and divide them right down the middle and they pump out more of the most harmful pollution than any other form of transport.

The fuel protesters riding in their convoy down the motorway system for their demo in London next week may see themselves as knights in shining armour for an overtaxed public. But a close look at the impact their vehicles have on the environment, and on society, makes a nonsense of their assumed role of social saviours.

In a whole range of sectors, Mr Trucker and his big lorry cause disproportionate damage wherever they go - and this year the Government attempted to quantify the cost of it. Once it had done so, and got over the shock, it gave the findings as little publicity as possible.

For the neutral-sounding title of its short press release last June - "Advanced research on goods vehicle costs" - gives no hint of the most remarkable finding of the 220-page study commissioned by the Department of the Environment: that the external cost of a single heavy goods vehicle in terms of public health, noise, and wear and tear on the roads, can reach £28,000 a year.

For an older large articulated lorry in a city centre, the study found, the cost could be as much as 50p per kilometre.

But even these costs hide the true damage toll, because the study - reportedly after pressure from the road haulage industry - included nothing about lorries' contribution to congestion or accidents.

According to the environmental technology journal ENDS, the way the study was handled was "a further indication of the acute political sensitivity now surrounding road freight".

Lorries kill lots of people. They do so directly at a large, grim and disproportionate rate. In 1998, 576 people died in accidents with heavy goods vehicles, which represents 17 per cent of the road casualties that year, while lorries accounted for only 7 per cent of the vehicles on the roads. When a 40-tonner hits your car - never mind your bicycle, never mind you - your chances are not good.

But lorries kill even more people indirectly, through pollution. Heavy goods vehicles are overwhelmingly responsible for most harmful form of air pollution now affecting Britain - particulates. These microsopic specks of soot and other matter - less than ten millionths of a metre across and invisible to the naked eye - are regarded as more life-threatening than any other material, as they hasten the deaths of 8,000 elderly people a year by aggravating respiratory infections.

The Government admitted this year, in launching its air quality strategy, that particulate levels are steadily increasing and it does not know what to do about the problem. The strategy sets objectives for cutting eight key air pollutants, from carbon monoxide to lead, but ministers have had to abandon as unattainable the reduction target for particulates that was set by the previous Tory administration in the strategy's first version, in1997.

Nationally, nearly 50 per cent of particulate pollution comes from the diesel engines of the 400,000-strong lorry fleet.

Many other figures indicate the effect that big lorries have on our way of life. The pressure group Transport 2000 offers a bunch of them, minutely sourced. The European Union has calculated that the external costs of transport - accidents, pollution, climate change, congestion and noise - amount to nearly 10 per cent of gross domestic product, and over 90 per cent of these costs are attributable to road transport.

In the past 10 years, heavy goods vehicle traffic has increased by 38 per cent and van traffic by 40 per cent. Between 1988 and 1998 the average distance goods that are hauled by road has grown by 24 per cent. If nothing changes, between 1996 and 2006 lorry traffic will grow by 16 per cent, and van traffic by 44 per cent.

In 1998-99, local authorities in England spent nearly £1.5bn on maintaining and repairing their road network. And according to the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges (Highways Agency, 1994), lorries are almost entirely responsible for this - a 40-tonne, 5-axle lorry causes tens of thousands of times more damage than the average car.

There are also those costs to consider that are less easy to quantify numerically. Lorries clog up cities, but they can have a devastating effect on smaller towns and villages, and both the Civic Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England have campaigned hard to mitigate their impact. Heavy lorries not only cause noise and dirt and danger and damage to buildings and highways, they physically divide communities - making people intimidated and afraid to cross the road.

"They're an environmental disaster," said Roger Higman, senior transport campaigner for the Friends of the Earth pressure group. "They are just the worst way of moving goods around that there is."

And there is more to come. From 1 January next year, the 44-tonners arrive. These six-axle behemoths on wheels, bigger than anything seen in Britain before, are being allowed on to British roads by the Government in clear contravention of an unambiguous election manifesto pledge.

"We remain unpersuaded by the case for heavier 44-tonne lorries, mooted by the Conservatives," the Labour Party said on page 29 of its 1997 election manifesto. "Our concern is that they would prove dangerous and damaging to the environment."

Well, that concern did not last very long, and late in the afternoon of Budget Day 1999, when the national press was focused on analysing Gordon Brown's complex new fiscal proposals, the Transport minister Lord Macdonald of Tradeston slipped out the decision, which, after a 20-year fight, represented a huge victory for the road haulage lobby.

He said the heavier lorries would, in fact, prove environmentally beneficial. They were no bigger than existing lorries, he claimed, but were simply allowed to carry heavier loads, and they did less damage to roads because they had better weight distribution.

It was a spectacular policy U-turn, and proved that even though this Government may not like lorry drivers when they form convoys on motorways and blockade oil refineries, most of the time they have the hauliers' interests at heart.

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