Last reviewed 21 May 2013

Paul Clarke examines the new HGV Directive that will save fuel and save lives, according to the EU.


The 6.5 million heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) on the EU's roads are all ruled by Directive 96/53/EC, which was adopted to meet three key objectives.

  1. Protecting infrastructure.

  2. Ensuring road safety.

  3. Promoting free competition within the Single Market.

Vehicles that comply with the limits set by this directive cannot be restricted by Member States from performing international transport operations within their territories. While this was intended to ensure that no hauliers are exposed to unfair competition on an international basis, a number of national derogations are allowed, which allow States to apply standards that deviate from the directive for transport within their own borders, eg the transport of large loads such as timber in (sparsely-populated) Nordic countries.

However, the provisions on weight and dimensions set out in the directive date back in part to the 1980s and take little account of energy efficiency or environmental objectives.

All that is set to change if a new Commission proposal is adopted.

Time for a change

COM(2013) 195 is a European Commission proposal to amend Directive 96/53/EC "laying down for certain road vehicles circulating within the Community the maximum authorised dimensions in national and international traffic and the maximum authorised weights in international traffic". The original directive, apart from the derogations mentioned above, states that HGVs cannot weigh more than 40t (44 in combined transport) and must be restricted in length to 18.75m. Around one-fifth of the EU's total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions come from road transport, of which HGVs account for one-quarter. Despite some improvements made in fuel efficiency in recent years, these emissions are still rising, mainly due to increasing road freight traffic.

One of the main reasons for the new proposal is that the Commission has recognised that the current rules are, in practice, preventing the introduction of innovative designs, eg more rounded cabins, which it sees as being essential to increase fuel efficiency and safety. "The existing rules urgently need updating to keep pace with technological progress," the Commission said. Of the 6.5 million lorries currently on Europe's roads, at least one million — regularly travelling long distances — could take advantage of the new measures.

Greener …

The new directive aims to facilitate the introduction of more aerodynamic vehicles, in particular by allowing manufacturers to design truck cabins with a rounded shape and to equip vehicles with aerodynamic flaps at the back of the trailer. While these are small changes, the Commission believes that they will have a considerable impact on aerodynamics and fuel efficiency, particularly over longer distances. Taken together, these improvements can reduce fuel consumption and emissions by up to 10%, with no change to loading capacity, the proposal states. This would mean a saving of up to €5000 (£4200) per year in fuel costs for a typical long-distance truck covering a distance of 100,000km.

… safer …

The proposal argues that having lorries shaped like a brick, as at present, is the worst design imaginable for safety and efficiency and can increase the severity of injuries to road users in a collision. "Allowing a smarter truck cabin design will enable truck manufacturers to make cabins both safer and more aerodynamic," Gerd Götz, Director-General of the European Aluminium Association, has said. The current design also reduces drivers' sideways vision, while the more rounded shape of an aerodynamic cab will increase the field of vision and, in the event of a low-speed collision, can reduce impact, helping to save the lives of 300 to 500 vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians or cyclists, every year. This would represent a 10% reduction in EU road deaths involving trucks.

… and heavier

The proposal allows for additional weight, specifically to accommodate the use of heavier batteries required by alternative propulsion systems (hybrid, electric). However, loading capacity will not change.

Other advantages

Lorry drivers will be pleased to note that the proposed new cabins will increase their comfort and safety, as they will provide more space and allow for the use of airbags. Given the Commission's interest in intermodal transport, it is also significant that the proposal includes measures intended to make it easier to switch 45-foot containers (the most-used long-distance containers) between ship, road and rail. For example, a special permit will no longer be required.

The proposal also aims to tackle the problem of overloading, given that up to one-third of controlled vehicles are currently overloaded, which causes damage to infrastructure, compromises road safety and costs taxpayers some €950 million every year. On-board weighing systems and weigh-in-motion stations on the main roads will allow overweight vehicles to be targeted automatically. The development of automatic targeting will, the Commission calculates, save the unnecessary stopping of around 75,000 vehicles per year. This will allow control authorities to avoid around 140,000 hours of unnecessary work. It will also benefit manufacturing firms that rely on “just-in-time” deliveries, as unnecessary stops are weeded out.

Will this mean the advent of mega-trucks?

While the UK's “Campaign for Better Transport” (CBT) has welcomed the plans to make lorries safer and greener, it has also warned that the Commission's plans could result in double-articulated "mega trucks" being allowed on British roads. The proposals include provision for these 25m trucks to cross borders between countries that allow their use. Longer heavier vehicles (LHVs), as the Commission terms them, are not permitted on UK roads because of concerns over safety and suitability. However, the CBT believes that the rule change is likely to lead to pressure from the road haulage industry for their introduction.

Last year, the Commission published guidance on the conditions under which LHVs can cross borders. The main point of this guidance was to underline that the use of such vehicles is an issue for individual Member States to decide, based on different local conditions. "No Member State is obliged to authorise the use of longer vehicles if they do not deem it appropriate," the guidance stressed. However, it indicated that the use of longer vehicles could be authorised by adjacent Member States as long as it remains restricted to transport between only those two countries and does not significantly affect international competition. The guidance is incorporated in the revised directive and it is this that the CBT believes could lead to calls for the UK Government to change the rules applying to LHVs.

There is some history to support its argument. Applications from two hauliers wishing to trial LHVs in this country were considered (and refused) by the Department for Transport in 2005, and the Freight Transport Association, in 2008, called for trials in order to ascertain the prospective benefits to the economy and the environment of such vehicles. More recently, in November 2012, Lincoln-based Denby Transport Ltd used a 25.25m LHV to carry a load to the Netherlands. The two containers making up the LHV were actually pulled by two individual cabs from Kimberly-Clark's factory at Barton-upon-Humber to the nearby port at Killingholme, where the LHV was assembled for the ferry trip.

What's next?

The current proposal must be adopted by the European Parliament and Member States before becoming law. Once it is in place, newly-designed trucks could be seen on the roads by 2018/2019.