“Sorry mate, I didn’t see you” … a phrase so common that it even became an acronym – SMIDSY. When I was first learning to ride on the road (I’d been riding for around 5 years before that), my all-knowing Dad drilled one phrase into me; “Ride as though every single car driver hasn’t seen you, that any car waiting to pull out from a side turning will pull out in front of you”.
Surely that was just paranoia? It really couldn’t be that bad could it?
As a 17 year old kid, I relied on my reactions to keep me safe, with sawdust between my ears, two-stroke fumes filling my nostrils and my pals all on similar 12hp bikes, there was just one common goal between us – who was the fastest.
Or perhaps that should read ‘who was the most reckless’, because looking back at those days now, we were nothing butreckless. This wasn’t much after the leaner laws had been changed, which meant that learner riders could only ride a 12hp 125cc bike, rather than the 250cc bikes like the 250LC or the KH250. At the time, I was outraged that the powers that be should do that, now though … I’m glad they did.
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There are two types of motorcyclists, those that have been down the road, and those that will go down the road, or at least that’s what urban legend tells us, but the difficulty with that is being able to prove it statistically; what constitutes a crash? Anything above walking pace, or only when there’s injury needing medical attention?
If we bypass things like falling off, losing your footing etc while doing low speed manoeuvres – such as turning the bike around on a slight gradient, where your left testicle gets trapped by the seam in your leathers and causes you enough excruciating pain that you slide off the side of your bike while work mates look on (because that sounds random enough to have happened to everyone, doesn’t it?), and look at minor spills while riding, then it gets a little easier.
Statistics are still a little vague. Sure we can find stats and figures that tell us that fatality rates in the U.S. reached as high as 25.85 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles travelled for bikes (source), but looking closer to home, how many of you have either had a spill, or know someone that’s had a minor off?
Personally speaking, I don’t know any rider that’s never been down the road at least once, and that’s from all walks of life; medical professors, teachers, hooligans and even bike cops – they all tasted gravel at some point. You could say that it was inevitable.
I’d already lined up my first ‘big’ bike for the day I passed my test, I’d looked at various bikes – a GPZ750, ZXR750, even as something as big as a CBR1000, but insurance was a problem so I’d settled for a grey import of a ZXR400. I was the Daddy.
I’d been riding for years, I was a good rider, I knew the risks and I knew I was good enough to avoid them, until the day I wasn’t. Excessive speed wasn’t the issue, nor was alcohol, poor weather or bad judgement, it was pure split-second bad luck.
That’s what I believed at the time, and for many people, the facts would bear that out, I was literally inches away from avoiding the (illegally) u-turning taxi, and yet he clipped me. At the time of writing, I’ve suffered 23 years of pain and bent or broken bits as a result of that accident.
Bad luck, pure and simple.
Except today, with decades of riding experience under my leathers, I ask myself if it was avoidable, perhaps someone with more experience couldhave avoided it? Of course the answer is yes, it’s more than likely that a more experienced rider wouldn’t have ended up being completely spammed by that taxi.
Experience is Everything
I’ve already mentioned the wise words from my Dad – “Every car’s trying to kill you, even if you think they’ve seen you, act like they haven’t, yada yada yada … “. And in the second paragraph, I give an explanation of exactly why I didn’t avoid that accident – because I was relying on my reactions.
I wasn’t proactively avoiding trouble, I was literally just reacting to a bad situation, there was no reading the road or situation, no forethought or planning, and more importantly, no anticipation, just pure blind panic and gut instinct; reactive rather than proactive, and therein lays some of the problem.
Car drivers have it easy, they needn’t worry about manhole covers, white lines, diesel or high winds, their contact patch with the road is at least twice the size of a bike’s, they ultimately have more grip and stopping power, and if another motorist is myopic enough not to see them, it’s unlikely to result in major injury or death; you could put a relatively inexperienced driver out in the world without too much fear of getting that phone call, but you can’t say the same for a novice rider.
I’ve seen road race riders climb off their bikes at speeds approaching 2.5 x the national speed limit, go through fence posts like they’re matchsticks and get up to ride another day, and I watched in horror as F1 driver Jules Bianchi hit a recovery vehicle at just 78mph (he left the circuit at 132mph, but at point of impact, his car was travelling at 78mph), the consequences of which, killed him.
Does that one statement make riding a bike statistically safer? Of course not, but the broad generalisation that “Speed Kills” is nonsense, and despite there being numerous statistics that road safety charities trot out every week to show just what devilish people we are for daring to enjoy a little more than what’s legally permissible, it really isn’t that simple.
Of course speed can play a factor in any accident, in fact, it could be argued that speed plays a part in every single road traffic accident that happens – if you were driving slowly enough, you’d be able to avoid any collisions or ‘moments’, it simply wouldn’t be dangerous whatsoever. Perhaps we need to go back to the days of a man with a red flag walking in front of any moving vehicle to warn of danger?
In the United Kingdom, there has been a push to lower residential speed limits from 30mph down to 20mph, the reasoning being ‘safety’, and yet all evidence suggests that it has an opposite effect; inattention goes up, either through complacency or boredom, both motorists and pedestrians take more risks, and it’s been proven by the Department for Transport that it does nothing for the environment, and accident rates generally rise (source).
Learning to ride is so much more than machine control, but that’s a great starting point.
I was fortunate enough to pass my test before any restrictions came about – the 33hp, 400cc bikes, Compulsory Basic Training (CBT), and whatever else has happened since. That in theory, meant I could go from a small 125cc 12hp bike one day, to whatever was the fastest missile available the next, with no thought given to how that may end up. This was part of the argument against the lowering of capacity from 250s down to 125s, but as I’ve already stated, for me personally, and I suspect most ‘kids’, it has probably been a good thing.
When the CBT was introduced, it was seen as a way of ensuring a degree of safety to those just starting out, but the emphasis was machine control, nothing else. My girlfriend at the time was desperate to get into bikes, she had her CBT booked, bought herself a Loctite coloured TZR125 and was all set to rock and roll.
She came back from the CBT, raring to go, I watched from our window – a small flat overlooking a busy high street, she gingerly walked the bike to the kerb, got suited and booted and started it up. Snicking it into gear, she waited patiently for a gap in the traffic, obviously nervous. Spotting the gap coming, she went for it.
A half-wheelie straight across the road, nose diving just before the kerb on the opposite side, which she mounted, narrowly missing pedestrians. I’m an arse. Yes I laughed. I was the all-cocky 20-something that could show Schwantzy a thing or two given half the chance. I’m glad to say that she persevered and went on to get her full licence though.
Machine ‘control’ isn’t everything, but it certainly helps.
Learning to Ride & Drive
Depending on your chosen transport, you can officially start learning to cruise the roads when you’re 16 or 17, as a father of a 14 year old lad, that terrifies me to be honest.
Assuming they’ve gone through the basics of machine control, be that four or two-wheels, the process of ‘learning to drive’ (or ride) begins, but in my opinion, the system is heavily flawed, on both sides.
Unless you find yourself with an exceptional instructor, the whole premise isn’t about learning how to drive safely, it’s about box-ticking, and learning to pass your respective test; you’re taught to satisfy the examining board, not the real world environment of motorists, poor roads and pedestrians with their heads bowed as they update their social media. (OMG!!! … I’ve just had my leg torn off by a car, how cray cray is that. Please call me an ambulance).
When I finally went for my full bike licence, I did an intensive two-day course. Things may have changed now, but at that time, I felt (as a relatively inexperienced rider) that a number of issues needed addressing, the least of all being road positioning, and after taking issue with my instructor, his words were: “You and me both know it’s b***ocks, but that’s what they want.”
Of course you can’t teach spatial awareness, anticipation, reading the road (properly) or physics in the space of a few one hour lessons, but it seems that we’re going backwards – with part of the driving test being that they understand how to check their washer bottle fluid, or programming a sat-nav, and how to operate their wipers safely while driving. To me, that is ‘cray cray’.
As a fully-fledged car driver, you can jump in your car anytime of the day or night, a pair of flip flops on your feet, shorts and t-shirt and you’re away – even if it’s snowing outside, you’ll be warm and toasty in the car, there’s no condemnation for inappropriate clothing, no fear of gravel rash, or the bullet-like stings of bugs hitting you while ‘making progress’.
We’ve all seen the riders having similar thoughts – sweltering summer, jeans t-shirt and helmet, perhaps a scruffy pair of trainers on their feet, I’ve even done that, and I’d suspect that those of you reading this have at least considered it at one point in your riding career, but I wouldn’t do it now. I may not dress in full leathers, but I’d wear my Kevlar jeans and lightweight armoured jacket.
Just yesterday, I watched a rider who was clearly on a commute, solid boots, textile jacket and trousers, quality helmet, dayglo vest, he was Mr Safety, and yet he wore no gloves, not even those fashionable soft leather ones that a trendy motorcycle accessory dealer wants to sell you because … fashion. How could any rider not understand the importance of gloves?
Travelling through Germany some years ago, riding through a city centre, we came across a young lad on his dirt bike, he was wearing nothing but nylon swimming shorts, flip flops and some sort of chamber pot dropped on his head. Every single one of us shuddered as we went past him, we all knew what would be waiting for him at some point, but that’s the recklessness of youth, of which we’ve all been. You can be sure of one thing though – he’ll only go down the road dressed like that the once.
Motorcycles vs Cars
So, to the big question: Are motorcycles inherently more dangerous than cars?
I’m afraid that we already know the simple answer to that, and even trying to be clever with an argument of excluding the soft, squidgy organic lump controlling them, and looking at machine vs machine, then the answer is unfortunately still yes.
Starting with the very basics, both machines take a degree of skill or learning to actually make them move; balancing the power against the clutch biting point is pretty much the same, but that’s really where the similarity ends. Once a car is rolling, it really needs no further input – take your foot off the gas, hands off the wheel and it will eventually coast to a stop, whereas a bike needs to be balanced, you can’t roll to a stop and leave your feet where they are, and unless you’re travelling at a certain speed, you can’t even remove your hands from the controls.
A car has a greater contact patch with the road, even the skinniest of car tyres will give you around the size of a large mobile phone patch, over four points, whereas the fattest of bike tyres will give you around a matchbox sized contact on one point, with around half that again on the second point. More contact means more grip (let’s exclude fancy compounds & profiles), more grip leads to better braking ability and improved traction (in all weathers).
Typically, just over 70% of all cars and trucks in the USA have airbags fitted (source), that equates to around 163 million vehicles, and they’ve been proven to reduce the risk of fatal injury by 68%4when used in conjunction with seatbelts. For motorcycles, we have to look at Honda offering it as an option on their flagship Goldwing, and even then, it’s had its share of problems – having to be recalled at least twice over the previous few years.
Whether we’re talking about classic cars or brand new designs, the basic structure of a car means that there’s protection built in, and if we look at newer vehicles, the exterior of most cars has been designed to act like a safety cell from a race car, actually deforming and absorbing any impact. On a bike, the only impact absorption really comes from whether you’re lucky enough to be an 18st Homer J. Simpson lookalike, or if you’re unlucky, having the body of Brad Pitt.
The simplest way of thinking about it is this: If you took a standard crash test procedure, like being hit head on by another vehicle, and with no other interventions, there’s a good chance you’d walk away from the car, the same couldn’t be said for the bike.
So what stops us all instantly becoming statistics?
Ability, instinct, education, training … call it what you will, the fact that we, as motorcyclists, are still here today is down to the decisions we make as riders, and possibly a little bit of good luck; a study by the UK’s Department for Transport states that between 2009 – 2013, cars were involved in 71% of all bike fatalities, and 84% of casualties (source).
That figure hasn’t really changed over the decades – a study in America as far back as the early 80s gives a similar figure (75%) for fatalities, so perhaps we need to look at societal changes and better driver education before just claiming that ‘all bikers are dangerous’, maybe all car drivers should also undertake some CBT in the form of being made to ride a motorcycle for a minimum period before being granted their licence, be that provisional or full.
As much as it pains me to say, I believe there’s case for introducing stricter legislation before even being allowed to ride a moped on the road.
Maybe ‘legislation’ is too strong a word, but there should definitely be some sort of di**head test, perhaps just an interview with a responsible adult – “You understand that you can’t ride your scooter like you’d ride your mountain bike, on pavements, cutting through traffic, chasing your mates?” “Bruv, I swear I won’t do dem tings, innit”.
I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve gone to proffer some friendly advice to youngsters who are clearly going to become a statistic, the obligatory moto-x style helmet placed on their head so all but the very crown is exposed, riding flat out through lines of traffic, even if that means in the gutter, and nary a whiff of comprehension about ploughing on through traffic lights without a thought, just because they’re green.
But the ridiculous thing is, I know that I was the same at that age (albeit without the “bruv” & “innit”). I remember following a big FJ1200 when I was about 17, he was riding modestly quick through some roads that I knew reasonably well, I was wringing the neck of my little KH125, trying to show him just what a talent I was, and to be fair, this went on for a few miles, punctuated with a few stops for traffic lights. I could see him each and every time looking in his mirrors when we stopped, and it obviously aggravated him.
At the next lights we stop at, he gave me such a withering look, and then proceeded to launch his big FJ so hard that it briefly lit-up the rear before gaining traction and rocketing him off down the road, never to be seen again. At the time, I was full of the joys of my skill, it really only later dawning on me that I was the muppet, that he was riding well within his and the bike’s capabilities, whereas I was moments away from a serious accident or injury. But that’s what experience gives us, and by its very nature, you can’t just win that in a moment.
We all know that motorcycles are more dangerous than cars, even taking cars out of the equation, that would still leave nearly thirty percent of motorcycle fatalities, around 95 per year typically. But what we don’t know from statistics, is the overlap between serious injury and the same rider? Is it possible that a single rider could account for more than one accident a year? Without a doubt.
There are some things that you can do to lower the risk of becoming just another statistic, some are simple, while others take a little more dedication.
I have a firm foot in both camps, I’ve worked in the automotive industry for over thirty years all told, and in that time, I’ve noticed some patterns. Regular car drivers tend to ignore general day-to-day things on their car – tyres incorrectly inflated, low oil levels, screenwash only topped up when it runs dry; all just simple things, but that could have an effect on safety.
Motorcyclists tend to be a little more proactive when it comes to maintenance, but perhaps that’s because they understand that by risking a mechanical failure, they’re risking their own life, or at the very least, safety.
By ensuring that your bike is at least mechanically ok (tyre pressures and wear, chain tension, fluid levels etc), you’re minimising the risk.
I touched on this in an earlier segment, but the ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time) mentality should help to keep that risk low – whether it’s a minor scrape from a low speed tumble, or perhaps built-in armour helping to protect you from cracking things when you’re bouncing off road furniture, doing your best Superman impression. (And failing badly).
I mentioned that I don’t always wear my leathers, of which I have numerous sets (I try not to wear anything around my middle when I’m in my one-piece as I don’t want to look like a string of sausages), but I always do wear protective gear, head-to-toe when I’m riding, regardless of the weather. Yep, it can be damn uncomfortable, but having experienced just how uncomfortable a steel plate in my pelvis can be, I’ll live with that level of comfort.
Personally speaking, I’d never buy a second-hand helmet, and I’d always look for a good brand and excellent fit; I once bought a Shark helmet that despite it saying was bigger than my regular size, felt snug and comfortable and a safe fit. It was only when I was approaching prison speeds that it became clear that it just wasn’t the right fit for me. I’ve never worn Shark again, not for any other reason than they don’t quite fit with my head.
One piece of equipment that I never ride without now – a UTAG digital dog tag. It can store all of my medical information, contact details and medications, and works with most USB drives (simply plug’n’play) and has a list of selectable languages in case I’m abroad somewhere.
Know Your Limits
I feel this is of particular importance, especially when riding in a group. Never ever get tempted to ride beyond your safe limit.
‘Billy Big Balls’ was forever trying to show his speed and his bike control, but the reality was a little different – from badly executed wheelies through to following way too close, he was someone in the group that none of us wanted to be around when actually on the road (lovely fella off the bike though).
I’ve been around race tracks in both professional capacity and for fun for years, it’s all too easy for a novice to get sucked in with the wide open spaces, smooth surface and speed of the other vehicles, which usually results in needing a change of underwear at best. A trip to the Nurburgring meant one thing to me, danger.
Only my second time there, I was very cautious, I was going home on my bike, determined not to stack it. BBB was a racing god apparently, he came past me (him on a slower bike) like his bum was on fire. I gave myself a talking to … “he’s on a slower bike, he’s not a great rider, you can beat him, he’s … oh, hello, is that bits of fairing from a Gixer on the road …”
In his effort to prove to us all just how fast he was, he proved himself to be too fast, couldn’t make the corner and slammed into the safety barrier.
I’m no Joey, Michael, William or Robert Dunlop (pick your favourite), the closest I’d get would be looking like I have a spare Dunlop tyre around my waist, but experience has taught me where my limits are, and when to be irresponsible, and when not to be.
The bitter truth is that there’s nothing like experience to keep you safe. Yes, if you’re fortunate enough, you can be trained to be a better rider, you can learn techniques that just might stop you from damaging yourself, you may learn to understand that anticipation is one of the biggest allies to staying safe, learning how to read the road properly is an invaluable skill, but the simplest, cheapest and quickest ‘must have’ … understand that the throttle works both ways.
There are some situations that only luck will save you from; rounding a bend at speed, only to find a smushed animal on the road (which are kinda greasy) and being unable to change your line is pure luck if you keep it all together, but of course the more sensible among us would say that you’re riding too fast for the conditions, which I’d entirely agree with, but I’d counter that with ‘surely that’s part of the excitement of riding a bike?’.
And finally …
And that, in a nutshell, is the reason why motorcycles are more dangerous than cars.
We can talk about safety features, riding techniques and experience all we want. Yes we use them to commute, they’re a great way of avoiding traffic jams, congestion charging and ULEZ nonsense, they give us freedom and they’re totally badass in the cool stakes, but they’re visceral, offering us excitement by the bucket load, the sensation of speed, wind and noise, and for a moment or two, they offer all of that in one big thump to the chest, the brain has absolutely no say in the matter.
Fast cars are great, if you have the money you can get something that will come close to a performance bike, they may shake shudder and squirrel about under power, but it’s all rather civilised, stuck in an enclosed cockpit, huge windscreen in front of you, you get none of the sensations … the bugs splatting, different aromas, the tarmac literally under your feet, and it doesn’t have to be about performance, every single motorcycle will give you those sensations, and every journey will be different.
Riding a bike is fun, we’ve gone from post-war transport for the masses to lifestyle and pleasure, and surely, no one could argue that a little bit of risk doesn’t make that excitement just that little better?