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Where riders crash - dispelling some myths
Starting work as a courier in late 70s London made me very aware of the consequences of crashing - after all, if I couldn't ride, I couldn't eat. So not only did I do my very best to avoid crashing out on the roads, I also researched the topic as I tried to find out as much as possible about where, how and why motorcycle riders crash. The result was that I survived sixteen years and around half a million miles as a courier. Not surprisingly, once I became a motorcycle trainer, it became a self-appointed goal to educate other riders about why we crash.
Naturally, avoiding crashing has been a feature of my Survival Skills advanced rider training courses but I've also been writing on the topic for well over twenty years. My very first column for the Motorcycle Action Group's magazine back in 2002 addressed crashing, but unfortunately it seems the topic needs revisiting on a regular basis.
Let's start with a fact. There are a lot of urban collisions between bikes and cars. In 2019, just before re-publishing this article, MAG launched a new safety intiative online and one of the very first comments was along the lines of "it's time we stopped drivers killing bikers". It's an attractive belief - after all, we hear a lot about bikes colliding with cars and now we have YouTube as an easy means of posting up the 'evidence'.
Unfortunately, it's largely a myth. Whilst there are fatal collisions at junctions, the fact is that far more riders kill themselves running wide in corners or through a badly-judged overtake.
But so is the idea that it's power which is the problem. Here's the text of an article that went up on my website in the early 2000s as I researched my first MAG articles in response to threats of a power restriction on bikes.
Since then, I've kept an eye on each new report or study into motorcycle crashes. And here's the bad news. If you care to dig out the latest stats on motorcycle accidents, you'll find nothing's changed. We're still having the same crashes in the same places. Some elements have changed since I wrote the article below - the 'gentleman's agreement' on power went out of the window - but the essential analysis of crashes is still entirely relevant two decades on.
If you are a member of either the BMF or MAG, or just interested in motorcycle politics, you'll know that the EC and various member governments have had serious concerns about power and motorcycle accidents.
Motorcycle manufacturers are slowly waking up to the fact that there has been a change of approach by road safety campaigners, and that vehicles capable of such high speeds are being targeted as socially unacceptable, and possible solutions include compulsory bhp limits and speed restrictors.
Limiting speed of traffic has been on the agenda in the UK for months, and Dutch and German governments have shown concern over recent high performance models. Euro-wide plans for a power limit have been around in one form or another for ten years. Some countries have had power restrictions in place for years. Since 1984 French bikes have been restricted to 98 bhp and Swiss riders have to make do with 85 bhp.
A 125 bhp "gentleman's agreement" in the UK was scuppered, ironically enough, by Triumph when they released their 143 bhp Daytona 1200, and since then the power race has been on, and speeds have climbed to match, to the point where the Hayabusa and ZX12-R are nudging the 200 mph barrier. The result of concerns in the UK is that the Big Four Japanese manufacturers have put in place a voluntary speed limit of 186mph on their most powerful models.
Power limits are generally justified on the grounds that power equates directly to speed, and that speed causes accidents. The mid 90s Martin Bangemann-inspired 100 hp limit was only ditched by the EC when the research on which it was based was shown to be flawed. More recently a Dutch safety study into motorcycle accidents found no link between accidents and bikes of 100 hp or more and clearly showed that power is not an issue in motorcycle accidents. The study, which was carried out by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, included a survey of existing reports, as well as evidence from the Dutch police.
Existing reports clearly showed that the major factors in accident risk were not engine power, but the motorcyclists themselves
and the accident circumstances
type and condition of the road
Evidence from the Dutch police accident investigators showed that high speed and taking risks was also a significant factor :
losing control on a bend
other road users wrongly estimating speed
Even there though, there was no evidence that more than 100bhp was being used at the time.
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) figures published in February 1999 show that in 1998 there were:
24,969 Injury Accidents Involving Motorcycles
498 Motorcyclist Deaths
5,944 Serious Injuries
18,168 Slight Injuries
Motorcycle riders and passengers accounted for 15% of those killed or seriously injured in 1998, but powered two wheeler traffic represented less than 1% of all road traffic.
There were 17,422 two vehicle accidents involving motorcycles in 1998 and 5,529 single vehicle accidents. Of the single vehicle accidents, 1,446 involved one or more pedestrians; in these accidents there were 1,490 pedestrians hit, of whom 29 were killed and 344 seriously injured.
On built-up roads, over three quarters of motorcycle accidents occurred at junctions, and almost a half at T or Y junctions. By comparison, on non built-up roads, less than a half of motorcycle accidents occurred at junctions, and just under a fifth at T or Y junctions.
The motorcyclist casualty rate was higher on built-up than non built-up roads. Less than half of motorcycle traffic was on built-up roads, which accounted for 72% of casualties. The lowest casualty rate was on motorways. However, the proportion of accidents involving serious injury was higher on non-built up roads and motorways, reflecting the higher speeds on these roads.
London had the highest rate of motorcyclists killed or seriously injured in road accidents but was only slightly higher than that for Scotland as a whole, but twice that of the South West region which had the lowest rate. London had the highest rate and the North East had the lowest rate for all severities of casualty.
Per registered motorcycle, Great Britain had a high death rate in comparison with other countries. Ireland had the highest and Japan the lowest. Britain's death rate of 6.8 per 10,000 licensed motorcycles is about eight times that of the Czech Republic, with the lowest rate.
When accidents occur
The average daily casualty count was higher during the week than at the weekend, with Fridays having the most casualties in 1998. However, the proportion of casualties killed or seriously injured was higher at the weekend, at 32% compared with 24% during the week.
There is a marked difference between the proportion of motorcyclist casualties injured during summer and winter, whilst there is much less seasonal variation in all road user casualties. The highest percentage of casualties occurred in August for motorcyclists and in November for all road users.
Who causes accidents?
Riders have long taken (cold) comfort in the findings of the Booth Report (1987) which, looking at accidents in urban areas, concluded that car drivers were at fault in two thirds of accidents involving motorcycles. Equally, high casualty rates amongst the under 25's were often put down to youth and lack of experience.
The DETR figures show that accidents involving a motorcycle and another vehicle still account for 2/3rds of all motorcycle accidents. However, they also show that single vehicle accidents with no pedestrians or other road users involved accounted for 18% of all motorcycle accidents resulting in injury. This compares with 14% for cars and 7% for goods vehicles.
However, an in-depth analysis of accidents in Cheshire between 1 April 1998 and 31 October 1998 reported in Street Biker (Feb-Mar 2000), the MAG newspaper. John Moss MBE, Chief Road Safety Officer for Cheshire (and MAG member) revealed that fully 67% of all the crashes studied were due to rider error and that the traditional view that most motorcycle accidents are down to blind Volvo drivers is badly flawed.
Let's look at the bald statistics:
lost control on right hand bend - 16.7%
lost control on left hand bend - 13.7%
right turning vehicle hit by overtaking motorcycle - 12.7%
motorcycle hit by emerging vehicle at junction - 9.8%
motorcycle collides with rear of stationary vehicle at junction - 7.8%
fell off - 6.9%
collisions on roundabouts - 6.9%
motorcycle crosses carriageway on l/h bend
and collides with oncoming vehicle - 5.9%
motorcycle crosses carriageway on r/h bend
and collides with oncoming vehicle - 3.9%
motorcycle collides with vehicle turning right across its path - 7.8%
stationary motorcycle hit from behind - 5.9%
others - 2.0%
Sports bikes were involved in 43% of these accidents and the 26-40 age group in an overwhelming 55.3%. The supposedly high risk group of under 25's accounted for 23.6%. Not unexpectedly in a survey area which includes the infamous "Cat & Fiddle" over 50% of riders lived outside the survey area.
How can we interpret these figures?
The fact that London dominates the casualty list is hardly surprising. The population of London is something like 6 million, around 10% of the entire population of the UK. In addition, several million drivers and riders more commute into and out of London. Traffic density is high over a very large area. What is rather more of a surprise is that Scotland was only slightly lower. What is not clear is whether the casualties are concentrated in the Glasgow and Edinburgh areas or whether rural accidents make a significant contribution.
Neither is it surprising that over three quarter of motorcycle accidents and just under three quarters of injuries occurred at junctions. If you hit a car, even at twenty miles per hour speed you are likely to be injured.
What is not so clear until you look at the figures more closely is that the DETR figures show that accidents out of town occur at higher speeds and result in more serious injury, even though the figures for in-town accidents appear to dominate the statistics. The problem is one of interpretation. Lumping together serious and fatal injuries is misleading and many serious injuries are not necessarily life threatening. As I understand it a broken finger requiring medical treatment would be considered a serious injury and relatively minor injuries of this kind are much more likely to occur when you ride a bike and are involved in a minor accident than if you drive a car.
The way the figures for serious injury and fatalities are taken together tends to disguise the consequences of rural accidents. Earlier statistics from 1994 show that 50% of all fatalities occur out of town.
Although single vehicle accidents account for slightly less than 1/5th of all motorcycle accidents according to DETR figures, these accidents usually occur outside town and at higher speeds and lead to more serious injury. This is borne out by the higher proportion of serious injuries and fatalities occurring at weekends and in the middle of the summer, which implicates recreational riders rather than workday commuters.
So who is at fault for rural accidents? A common factor between Californian, Dutch and UK research into motorcycle accidents is that many could have been avoided it the motorcyclist had the rider shown more awareness of potential danger, been more visible or had been capable of braking, steering or cornering properly. Alcohol, experience, attitude, high speed and risk taking were other contributory factors, as were the type and state of the road and weather conditions.
The Dutch study in particular showed that losing control in bends was a significant factor. The Cheshire figures show that accidents involving misjudging bends make up 40% of accidents in rural areas. The fatality rate for these kind of accidents is high. This was made clear in our local IAM magazine a couple of years ago when a serving police officer revealed that out of twelve riders killed in Kent in a year, eleven lost control on bends. The Dutch study also found that many of the accidents investigated would have been less serious, or avoided altogether, if the rider had been able to make an emergency stop.
Other more recent statistics than the DETR report showed that there has been a shift in location of accidents from urban to rural environments and that the peak age for accidents has moved away from young to "born again" riders.
The Cheshire report should shake the traditionally-held view that bikers are usually the innocent victims of car drivers, which the DETR figures appear at first glance to support, or that only young riders are at risk. The reduction in accident rates amongst youngsters resulting from Compulsory Basic Training is well documented, and these figures highlight that the 25-40 age group of riders who largely predate the widespread emergence of training schools and would have been mostly self-taught are very much at risk too.
Mr. Moss goes on to consider what conclusions can be drawn from the research. He says:
"Consideration of the various factors relating to rural motorcycle crashes leads unerringly to the conclusion that riders are failing to ride their machines within their personal capabilities even though the bike itself may have been well within its performance envelope at the time of the crash. The vast majority of the "bend" crashes had clues which indicated that the riders had either braked or shut their throttles mid-bend, resulting in understeer crashes. In the crashes where right turning vehicles were hit by overtaking motorcyclists, it seemed that the rider should have foreseen the likelihood of the turning movement e.g. garage forecourt, side road etc.."
Look at the figures. 20.5% of the accidents, the total of bikes hitting cars turning right or hitting them from behind, can be largely attributed to poor observation and anticipation, probably made worse by excess speed, and in my opinion this is not entirely unexpected.
However, the fact that 40.2% of the accidents occurred when riders either lost control in, or ran wide in bends is chilling and far worse than I thought. Bend-swinging is so fundamental to our enjoyment of the sport that we take it for granted. Now it seems that we have to think again. As well as a lack of the observation and judgement skills we need to ride safely, it also betrays that most riders lack a fundamental lack of understanding of the way a motorcycle steers and behaves in a corner.
Mr. Moss recognises that whilst police enforcement of existing traffic laws is important in restricting the activities of a "lunatic fringe" of riders who flout deliberately regulations, it cannot by itself tackle the underlying problem of lack of skill, and cites the North Yorkshire BikeSafe 2000 initiative as kind of mix of enforcement, education and encouragement that police forces across the country should be pursuing. However, he rightly points out that it places heavy demand on police manpower so that its impact is not as widespread as would be desirable, and indicated that some forces have declined to join the scheme as they "do not have a problem", even though their riders may be crashing on another county's roads.
He goes on to say "there is a countywide need to equip riders with the skills needed for them to avoid or minimise crashes caused by their shortcomings in machine control, otherwise increased machine sales will be reflected in a parallel increase in casualties" and points out the valuable role that the IAM, RoSPA and commercial advanced riding schools have to play in rider training.
So, research shows that claims that power causes accidents is flawed. But so is the traditional motorcyclist's view that it is blind Volvo drivers that kill motorcyclists.
Riding experts like the IAM agree that speed and power alone don't kill. Speed in the wrong place, speed without judgement, speed without skill can and does.
The evidence also pinpoints the sad fact that a lot of us can't manage to negotiate corners without falling off or hitting oncoming vehicles, and when we get it wrong, the result is often very bad indeed. The message John Moss is giving is that it is down to us as riders to put our house in order. As a member of MAG, he can hardly be classed as a killjoy or a scaremongerer. "Get trained and improve your riding skills" he says. With the proper skills you can have fun, but be safe at the same time.
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