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TWO-WHEELED GREY POWER


August 22, 2014
By Dave Steward

The trends for motorcycle deaths over the past nine years have improved somewhat, especially in some jurisdictions. Unfortunately this picture is not consistent throughout Canada. The years 2004 to 2006 were marred by a 41 per cent increase in fatalities as compared to 1996-2001. The factors relating to these fatal collisions have not changed. What has dramatically changed is the age profile of the motorcyclist involved. It is clear that so-called mature “returning riders” make the same fatal mistakes as the younger enthusiasts.

The fatality rates for returning riders in the age group 45 to 54 doubled between the period 1996/2001 and the period 2002/2004. It might be expected that these male motorcyclists approaching their middle age, most probably with long experience driving cars, would have learned when and when not to speed. One might even expect that they would have a reasonable amount of experience motorcycling. If so, they need a wake-up call!

Recommendation: Require returning motorcyclists to undergo mandatory refresher courses or re-testing after a significant gap in riding (five to 10 years).

{Alcohol}

More young riders seem to have heeded the message to not drink and ride. Alcohol-related crashes declined from 25 per cent in the period 1996-2001 to 13 per cent in the period 2004-2006. There is still room for further improvement, particularly in Ontario, where the decline lags behind the national average. It dropped from 38 per cent in 1992 to just 25 per cent in 2006.

Recommendation: There should be ZERO tolerance of alcohol when riding a motorcycle. Even the first drink impairs the rider’s balance, co-ordination and judgment – critical for safe riding on two wheels.

There is a widely-held myth among motorcycle riders that four wheel drivers are always more at fault in collisions. This is perhaps true in multi-vehicle crashes but single vehicle collisions have increased dramatically. Far too many are directly attributable to excessive speed and/or alcohol.

Recommendation: Motorcyclists should recognize that their safety lies primarily in their own hands. Annual refresher courses and/or advanced rider training may save their lives.

{Government/agency responsibilities}

Motorcycle riding is governed at the provincial and territorial level so that’s where any plan of action to halt road deaths must originate. Such action plans should prioritize enforcement of traffic laws and propose education and training to address the causes of fatalities. Even though causation factors are similar nationwide, to date there has been no concerted effort to create a common enforcement program.

Whilst it must be acknowledged that national campaigns have focused on speeding, motorist drunk driving and, in some areas, heavy truck enforcement, motorcycling hasn’t received the same degree of attention. Do police services have a “blind spot” about riders? Could it be that individual officers are more at home driving a car rather than riding a motorcycle? Do they prefer a reactive rather than a proactive approach?

Motorcycles are designated as “vulnerable vehicles” for good reason. Therefore it is appropriate for police to check their road worthiness, e.g. lights, brakes, tires and rider protective equipment. In the light of all the available information, both enforcement and education should apply to motorcyclists.

The motorcycling season in Canada lasts from May through the end of September. Many organizations try to publicize a safety awareness program in May to remind car drivers that motorcycles are back on the road. Called “MAY – Motorcycles And You,” this program has run for decades. In support, many local governments declare May as motorcycle safety month and media outlets are encouraged to publicize events put on by the groups.

In some larger, more pro-active jurisdictions like Ontario, the transport ministry and City of Toronto have placed motorcycle safety messages on electronic highway information boards. Other jurisdictions could usefully adopt this approach. Government could also promote safety messages to motorcycle groups and individuals on zero alcohol use and responsible use of speed.

As all road users require insurance, insurance companies could warn their customers of the severe consequences of riding after consuming any alcohol. Automatic forfeiture after drunk riding could prevent loss of life.

Recommendation: All agencies, authorities, motorcycling groups, insurers, motorcycle manufacturers and other relevant players should collaborate on improving safety through a spectrum of measures, including enforcement, education, training, technology, publicity and sanctions.

{Speeding – Education and enforcement}

The loss of any life has personal and economic costs. Paying for improved technology, however costly, should not be measured against the cost of even one life. We already have the technology to help lower alcohol related deaths and enforce speed limits. Debate rages about whether this leads to dangerous chases to identify the motorcycle or its rider.

Perhaps lessons may be learned from the experience of other jurisdictions. Speeding is not confined to young riders. Riders 16 to 19 years old used to make up 56 per cent of motorcycle fatalities; that number has decreased to 33 per cent. Given that the peak period for motorcycle crashes, whether due to speed or alcohol, is May to September, that’s when enforcement should be heightened.

An interesting experiment in some European countries could help to reduce open road speeding. Riders are given access to local racetracks to learn how to ride safely at speed, under supervision. They discover that to ride faster you have to ride smoothly, increasing safety. Riders encounter traffic officers at the track who can teach them many more facets of road safety in a conducive setting. Several Ontario police officers have tried this type of education since 1986, however the pro-active program has failed to materialize in any significant manner due to lack of support from industry or government.

Another approach on the enforcement side is Ontario’s “stunt driving” law. Hundreds of high-risk drivers and riders have been taken off the road by impounding their vehicles and suspending their license for a month. Aside from the very severe fines, they also have to pay a reinstatement fee to get their license back.

Although the law’s introduction was well publicized, together with “zero tolerance” enforcement by police, hundreds of vehicles were impounded. This seems to indicate that there is a minority of high-risk road users whose attitude to driving never changes… until it is too late. Recent research tends to support a theory that this high-risk population should undergo psychological testing before their driving privileges are reinstated.

Recommendation: There is no simple solution to prevent road fatalities but a variety of educational and enforcement measures could be useful in all jurisdictions.

{Safer braking}

One technological innovation that could improve motorcycle safety is anti-lock brakes. This has been very slow in coming but has accelerated in recent years with the introduction of integrated braking systems for many two-wheelers. There are now race bikes with ABS and some governments have called for more systems to be installed on road bikes.

Recommendation: Motorcycle manufacturers should increase the availability of up-to date braking devices for all new production.

{Data collection}

It is evident that all levels of government urgently need to upgrade and revise computerized data collection. Many European countries – especially recent entries to the EU – now give public access to new current, detailed databases for research. Contrast this with Canada, where our national road statistics are usually two years in arrears. I was only able to gather much of the information in this report by requesting assistance from staff in the various jurisdictions. Better computer programs geared for collision data are available and it is incumbent that this information be applied to improve education, training and enforcement.

The numbers of motorcycle fatalities are numerically lower than the number of road deaths for car occupants but the ratio of motorcycle fatalities to the number of riders is relatively higher, hence the vulnerability of the rider. When statistical graphs for car and motorcycle deaths are placed on the same chart, the trends are understandably concerning.

The statistics and graphs may show comparative death rates but policy makers and politicians need to recognize that motorcycles are very different from cars. To date there is less scope for technology to save motorcyclists’ lives than for motorists so safety for the bike rider is much more dependent upon individual skill.

Recommendation: Data collection on the causes of road deaths should be uniform across the country; accurate, up-to-date and accessible for research purposes. Upgrading national and provincial computer systems is imperative. Only comparative motorcycle data can give clues about progress with motorcycle safety.

{Training}

Canada is known worldwide for its excellent national motorcycle training program but there is a growing recognition of the real need for retraining/refresher courses. There is a strong case for making them compulsory given the increasing death rates. Otherwise, without incentives, there is no easy answer that would encourage large numbers of riders to spend the time and money to upgrade their skills. It is worth recalling a little aphorism: “If you don’t use it, you lose it!” This seems particularly relevant in this context.

While there are a limited number of “advanced” rider training courses in some parts of Canada, a nationally accredited course in advanced rider skills would be very desirable, such as exists in the UK alongside an advanced car drivers’ course.

I and other Toronto police motorcycle riders and trainers have to undergo annual re-training each spring. Every officer, even trainers, needs the day’s work of skills revival to get back to the proficiency level needed in a busy urban area.

Recommendation: A nationally accredited advanced course should be developed in Canada to improve riding skills. Insurers should consider a discount for riders who pass it.

{Other vehicle turning movements}

The historic problem of car drivers turning left across the path of motorcycles must be addressed. Education should be one approach. The UK recently produced a road safety program dealing with the problem called “Inattentive Blindness,” where car drivers are aware of potential problems but fail to react before a collision. It is directed mainly at making motorists aware of bike riders before they change lanes or begin a turn.

The advert begins by introducing a sequence of people dressed in leathers and helmet. As each removes their helmet they reveal their relationship to the motorcycle rider: his wife/girlfriend, mother, child, mate…

Introducing all those nearest and dearest to the rider before the inevitable crash scene brings an added poignancy to the story and the message hits home. The motorist’s responsibility is not only towards the biker but also to his loved ones.

Another response to left turns is to modify road management. Traffic engineers and local authorities have greatly promoted crash prevention by installing more signalized intersections with exclusive access for left turning traffic. Much more work of this kind remains to be done. Traffic roundabouts also prevent head-on crashes but progress is slow because of their expense.

Recommendation: Car driver awareness campaigns and more road management schemes would help reduce fatalities due to left turn collisions.