It is the most dangerous of all forms of road transport. But now, in response to congested roads, the government is starting a drive to make motorcycling a mainstream mode of getting about. What can be done to reduce the casualty figures? Simon Threadgold finds out
A motorcycle and a car raced each other recently on a country lane, until the biker ran out of road and hit a signpost. The result was a catalogue of injuries: fractured collar-bone, three cracked ribs, broken ankle, broken pelvis, severe bruising to back and arms and internal injuries.
The rider survived, but many are not so lucky. While motorcycling equates to only 1% of traffic, 20% of the people who die on the road are bikers. The fact is that when a motorcycle is in collision with another vehicle, in most cases it is not the biker's fault. This is little consolation: the biker runs a much greater risk of injury (even falling off at 10mph can result in a broken thumb), while the other motorist will probably walk away unharmed.
Indeed, motorcycling is more dangerous than any other form of transport, including riding a bicycle. So the fact that the government is strongly encouraging it may seem surprising. On 22 February, the Department for Transport issued a motorcycling Strategy Document, setting out an action plan to make life better for bikers. With attention having previously been focused on pedestrians and pedal cyclists, it was high time bikers' needs were addressed.
Road Safety Minister David Jamieson asserted at the time of the strategy launch: "Our aim is to 'mainstream' motorcycling, so that all organisations involved in the development and implementation of transport policy recognise motorcycling as a legitimate and increasingly popular mode of transport. We want to see an end to old stigmas and stereotyping. Motorcycling can be a modern, practical way of getting around, and we all need to recognise it as such. We want to make sure that motorcycling takes its proper place in the mainstream as a safe, affordable means of transport."
The operative word here is "safe"; it implies that the current toll of death and injury can be drastically reduced. Unhappily, however, the trend since the mid-1990s has been in the opposite direction. Biker deaths rose to 693 in 2003 compared with 609 in 2002, according to DfT figures.
One contributory factor may be the rise in sales of higher-powered bikes. Out of more than a million machines in the UK, 560000 have engine capacities of over 500cc. This compares with only 200,000 in 1994. Of course, the bigger the bike, and the faster it goes, the worse any injuries will be but bikers' purchasing decisions are mainly influenced by comfort, power and performance.
The 2004 Bike Report commissioned by specialist motorcycle broker Bennetts revealed that 55% of riders thought biking was becoming more dangerous. This was particularly the case among respondents aged over 40 (59% compared with 51% of younger riders). Both younger and older motorcyclists are conscious of the risks involved and accept them.
The growth in the speed and power of bikes is, however, far from the only contributory factor to the high rate of casualties. Motorcyclists agree that congestion is a major impediment to safe riding. With the number of vehicles on the roads increasing year by year, it is hard to foresee improvement, unless car drivers are dissuaded from entering the most congested areas, namely city centres. In Greater London, motorcycle use has grown, especially since the introduction of congestion charging in the centre of the capital in February 2003, because bikes are currently exempted from the charge. With fewer cars around, biker casualties have been decreasing in inner London.
If congestion charging was extended within London and introduced in other cities, further reductions in the casualty rate could be achieved. There are, however, strong suggestions that the congestion charge in London is to be extended to mopeds and motorcycles. This would surely be counterproductive as regards the government's intention to promoting motorcycling, because it would remove the incentive to switch.
The highest priority in reducing motorcycle accidents must be the re-education of car drivers. This is not an easy task. Drivers do not always look before starting a manoeuvre. Even more frequently, they look but do not see.
Terry Beale, senior accident investigation officer for Somerset County Council, thinks this is sometimes a result of the size of modern cars' windscreen pillars. "The pillar is quite wide in MPVs," he says. "I can lose a Transit van in mine." The DfT is currently undertaking research to quantify the risk from the increasing size of windscreen pillars but it will be several years before this is compete.
Improving pre- and post-test training of bikers is the next priority, with an emphasis on hazard perception. Jonathan Gulliford, head of legal affairs at RAC Legal Services, calls for greater uniformity of standards at training centres. He also thinks it is too easy for riders with insufficient experience to become authorised to ride higher-powered bikes.
Former police instructor Gordon Kemp says training is lagging behind the times, being based on requirements laid down 30 years ago. "We're teaching what the Driving Standards Agency wants for people to pass their test. I tell students to look over their shoulder before turning right but motorcycles now have mirrors, and you can't see behind with a full-face helmet on. By proper positioning, you can do away with the so-called 'lifesaver' look behind."
Mr Kemp teaches enhanced motorcycling, and describes typical candidates for advanced training as 45-year-olds riding new 650cc or 800cc machines who have frightened themselves. "We don't capture the younger ones, who are most in need," he warns.
About three-quarters of accidents involving a car and a motorcycle occur on urban roads. One solution could be to separate the two by allowing bikers to use bus lanes. The current DfT advice on bus lanes recommends against motorcycles being allowed to use them but the department recognises that individual traffic authorities may have different ideas, according to what works best in local circumstances.
In practice, several authorities already permit bikers to use bus lanes. The DfT concedes that the evidence so far suggests that there are no apparent safety disbenefits, and is, therefore, to review its advice in the light of ongoing research.
The government's motorcycling Strategy Document states: "Experience in the M4 bus lane (set up a few years ago on the motorway's western approach to London) has shown that, in those particular circumstances, allowing motorcycles into the bus lane appears positively to have improved safety for motorcyclists. While this is a very different situation from a typical bus lane on an all-purpose urban road, it underlines the need for highway authorities to look at individual cases on their merits."
Certainly, most bikers are in favour of the idea - 74%, according to Bennetts' research - and feel it would make a significant improvement to road safety but not everyone agrees. David Pipkin, an associate at law firm Davies Arnold Cooper, remarks: "Buses overtake each other in bus lanes and show no regard for two-wheelers. We've seen a significant increase in cycling accidents in bus lanes and cycle lanes." He fears this would quickly spread to motorcycles. An education campaign would definitely be needed to make other motorists aware of the biker's right to occupy bus-designated space.
Besides training and making more road space available to bikers, the government's action plan addresses highway design, protective clothing, improvement in motorcycle design, quality of spares, car design, and publicity to increase motorists' awareness.
Poor road conditions are often mentioned by bikers as a hazard, though they are usually referring to potholes, loose gravel and protruding iron covers rather than the design of the road itself. Tony Sharp, vice-president of the Institute of Highway Incorporated Engineers, identifies central reservation guard railings, nearside guardrails protecting against drops, safety barriers and wire-rope safety fencing as specific obstacles against which riders come to grief.
Street furniture such as signs can also cause problems, especially because of the number of posts that hold signs up. Mr Sharp says: "Engineers need to 'think bike' when designing roads. Things such as partially drilled wooden posts, chevron signs that fold down, and better positioning of cats' eyes, can be part of the answer." He also draws attention to the insufficiency of parking provisions in towns. Crowded motorcycle bays lead to people standing bikes between car bays and on pavements, leading to danger and inconvenience to bikers and others.
The IHIE is today due to publish new guidelines for highway design, drawing on best practice from the UK and abroad. All improvements will be helpful, though street furniture and road design are not the most significant factors influencing bikers' safety.
Speed limits have their part to play, but are not universally viewed as helpful. Mr Kemp believes that there are too many. "It's a real problem to remember what the speed limit is when it changes from 30mph to 40mph and 50mph, and then back down to 30mph - or 20mph. There's no evident logic behind it."
He thinks this contributes to critical information overload on a rider, and points to an experiment in Holland where a number of road signs in towns were removed. This led to road users having to think for themselves instead of being 'driven along', and contributed to an improvement in the accident rate.
When it comes to protective clothing, most motorcyclists have enough sense to wear full sets of leathers and gauntlets, though bikers dressed only in T-shirt, jeans and trainers can still be seen in summer. In the Bennetts survey, only 63% claimed that they always wear protective clothing, while as many as 15% of males under 25 said they never did.
Furthermore, Matthew Gledhill, managing director of Bennetts, says: "More than one in 10 bikers aren't wearing a proper helmet. Some leave them on radiators, which can damage the protective coating; as can dipping a helmet to repaint it."
Protective clothing can certainly reduce injury; for example when a rider slides on spilt diesel or gravel, yet is of limited use in high-speed collisions. Insurers are naturally keen to endorse wearing the right gear, though they tend to balk at the idea of making it mandatory.
Craig Martin, marketing manager for motor products at Norwich Union, comments: "If the whole industry went that way, we'd support it." But given the difficulties the police already have in imposing the wearing of seatbelts and non-use of mobile phones, they would be stretched to enforce any new regulations.
Meanwhile, solicitors will invariably allege contributory negligence if full clothing is not worn. If a motorist neglects to fasten their seatbelt, a 25% reduction in damages is now standard. With motorcycling, the issue is less clear-cut, and Mr Pipkin argues that some parameters would be very useful.
The government's new focus on biking, together with initiatives by the British Motorcyclists Federation, the Motorcycle Industry Association and other interested parties, means that at last there is some joined-up thinking on safety. The main problem is that it involves changing attitudes and behaviours, including those of bikers themselves.
The strategy document states: "A proportion of motorcyclists speed more excessively than car drivers and this is particularly noticeable on single carriageway roads with a 60mph speed limit." Unless everyone can be persuaded to act less selfishly, the hoped-for reduction in casualty figures may prove elusive.
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