On Balance  

The price for rider safety

It occurred to me, after the last couple of columns, that I may have been giving the impression that price is no object when it comes to safety equipment. Passive and active rider assistance systems, top quality riding gear and helmets, just go buy it, right?

Sorry. Not so fast.

For myself, and obviously for many others, there’s a distinct limit on “funds available” when it comes to motorcycling. There’s enough nail-biting every year just about renewing the insurance on the bike, let alone finding the price of a new helmet, better jacket, or fresh tires. I won’t even start on the bitter and cynical joke that is the Consumer Price Index, pegged at what, 2% rise annually? Sure.

So, I get it. Adding a new bike to the mix, with all the contemporary safety engineering now available, is nowhere on my personal horizon. Never has been. But what we do find room for, once in a long while, is a newer bike, when the list of issues with the current one drops it to “project” status, future restoration or whatever.

The new helmet isn’t subject to quite the same constraints, I hasten to add. Protecting the brain comes before riding anything. Either replace the helmet on schedule, or the bike stays put. 

The budget for motorcycling requires some careful managing at the best of times, then. Meanwhile, because of the various involvements in road safety, I’m regularly studying the relevance and effectiveness of contemporary engineering, a bit like the kid I once was, staring through the window of the candy shop. Short in more ways than one.

When you have a wander around the world of advocacy about road safety, one of the themes that reliably emerges is exactly that: the problem of access and social justice. In a nutshell, the theoretical availability of more effective safety engineering and equipment, sweet as may be, does nothing to improve safety outcomes on a population basis if none of that population can afford the extra cost of the option.

Which is why safety advocacy groups like Consumer Reports, and the various automobile associations, keep pressing the vehicle manufacturers and the government regulators to make safety features available as standard features, rather than extra cost options. And to make them available on all model levels, rather than bundled with packages of luxury equipment. 

In other parts of the world than ours, Europe, India, Brazil, and Australia for example, regulators have accepted this line of argument, and made motorcycle ABS required standard equipment on all new bikes, except under 125CC. This is because the regulators in those and other trading groups have listened to the science, recognized that this feature saves lives very effectively (30% to 40% reduction in fatalities) and made it mandatory.

The effect of this policy is at least two-fold: firstly, it addresses the tendency of new bike buyers to avoid the extra cost of optional ABS. The most recent figure I have is that only 10% of new bike purchasers in the U.S. have chosen the option of ABS, which dramatically reduces the capacity of a very well-established safety measure to have much real effect on motorcyclist outcomes.

 People just don’t get that you have to stay alive to polish the chrome accessories that seemed so much more important on the options list.

Secondly, new bikes are used bikes once the key’s been turned. And used bikes are the ones most riders are more able and likely to buy. This is how ABS becomes affordable for the majority of riders. Me, for instance. So, if all new bikes had ABS when they left the showroom, there’d be a far bigger supply of used bikes with that feature than in our current situation. Especially because they don’t crash as much either.

A fancy term for that effect is the “democratization of safety.” Being Canadian, my understanding has been that we’re generally in favour of democracy. 

This is where we came in. If I and my peers are to have any shot at owning a bike that’s equipped with a reasonable amount of contemporary safety equipment, we need to be able to buy one used. To do that, and to have some reasonable choice of type, size, and general suitability, we need as many of the new ones as possible, at all levels, to be leaving the dealers’ doors with the goodies on board. 

So when I’m waxing lyrical about new bike safety technologies, what I’m doing is trying to get across the safety rationale for new purchasers to choose them. Doesn’t mean I’m blind to the problem of cost.

But speaking of cost, we also can’t afford as a society to keep covering the cost of failing to value and legislate available safety measures. The cost to B.C. of one road fatality is $8 million, and injury $2.5 million. We’re paying, alright.

Maybe it’s time we pushed harder for a bit more democratization, so we can all better afford the individual and the collective price of safety. 


How can we reverse the trend of waning motorcycle ridership?

Missing: new riders

What do we know about the state of the motorcycling industry in the developed world? Well, since around 2008, there’s been a very long moan in the shops and in the periodicals about how nobody’s joining the party anymore. There’s a conspicuous shortage of new riders and an accelerating rate of current riders aging out, hanging it up.

Oh, and just to be as bleak as we can, there’s an additional problem for older riders (male older riders): an increasing rate of fatalities and injuries. The older rider, when bad things happen, is more seriously injured, and spends more time hospitalized and in recovery. 

If they get to. Recover, that is. Here’s your look-up for that.

So, too many players leaving the field, and not enough junior all-stars replacing them. Demographics are tough. 

There’s been lots of discussion and debate about whether the issue’s real, and if real, then what it’s about, who’s to blame, and who should do what (if anything) to turn the tide around. Without getting into a major scenic tour of that whole landscape, there are a couple of features that interest me for today.

Firstly, the declining enrollment in the motorcycle-of-the-month club is, as far as I can tell, part of a much larger societal shift away from ownership/operation of the personal use vehicle. I know, I know, sure doesn’t seem like it on the morning commute from the South Slopes, but it’s happening. Starting in roughly the mid-1990s, there’s been a steady decline in the percentage of the population who are seeking driving licences.

For lots of practical, sensible reasons, people who don’t currently drive are choosing to continue getting around by other means that don’t entail the cost,  complexities, and risks of owning and driving the old lead sled. So for all these people, motorcycles, which in most cases are second or recreational vehicles, are obviously just not on the radar.

Secondly, there’s the long-standing, marginally addressed problem of the “entry-level” motorcycle, the starter set. You want to set my hair on fire? Just mention whatever tediously overweight, under-engineered, poorly equipped bike some local worthy has suggested makes an ideal entry-level bike for a new rider.

Let’s look at this “entry-level” concept. What do we usually mean by that term?

  • Cheap and expendable. New riders crash lots, so here’s a bike that you can trash and toss with no tears. Regardless, you’re going to need to replace it with a good bike, so you can’t waste money on something nice at this stage.
  • Basic. New riders should learn to ride on bikes that aren’t all loaded up with safety and assistance features. The only way to become a “real” rider is to learn proper technique, and you can’t learn that with safety features in the way.
  • Accessible. New riders always fall down a lot, so they need something as low to the ground as possible. That’s what makes a bike accessible.
  • Old. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the old ways are the best, so the only way to join the motorcycling club is to deal with the same ancient creaking anachronisms that “everybody else” learned on.
  • Small. Even if you’re six-foot-eight, (whatever that is in centimetres) you should learn to ride on something little, that makes you look like a circus bear on a tricycle.
  • Handy. It’s handy that there’s a good enough starter bike for you in the back shed.

Overall, whether intentional or not, the assumptions and inferences about “entry-level” are misleading and derogatory.  More often than not, they are either neglectful or dismissive of proven safety measures, and of currently normative uses and expectations of technology.

Seems like rather a backwards marketing strategy, to treat potential new customers, or club members, as dimwitted, inept, and unworthy.

I humbly offer an alternative approach, a welcoming entry point, informed by some broader research.

People who want to become motorcyclists deserve to be treated with full respect for their intelligence and capabilities. They also deserve full provision, at least to the extent of available engineering, for their safety.

Traffic safety science has comprehensively proven that all vehicle operators, especially (but not only) the inexperienced, are best served by safety standards and safety engineering, not by the sacrifices and hazing rituals endemic to the traditional entry-level bikes and process.

Clearly, operator error is fundamentally involved in crashes. But it is equally clear that error is a universal, inextinguishable element of human functioning, and should not needlessly be compounded by inadequate equipment.

That’s what safety engineering addresses.

Therefore, be it proposed that all “entry-level” bikes, the starter set, can and should be as well-equipped with contemporary safety engineering and technology as possible. Absolutely, minimally, ABS. But also Motorcycle Stability Control. It’s been done, see KTM’s 390 Adventure.

This set should also encompass the various bike configurations, and each should be adaptable, to properly fit the rider.

This, I believe, best respects, welcomes, and encourages people who want to live riding motorcycles in the contemporary stream of traffic. Not dying to ride.

Schooled on rider safety

Well I’m off the bus. And a fine one-day tour it was.

That bus trip to the bike show at the coast is always a treat at this time of the year. A great way to get to the show and avoid both winter driving and the lineups at the front gate, plus the chance to renew old acquaintances and meet new ones. 

Here’s a big thank you to Dave and the gang at Bentley Motorrad for organizing it for us! 

I’ll mention right away, though, that next year’s trip is skating on thin ice, because it takes a pretty full bus to cover the costs, and there were some empty seats this year. So, do think about plugging that into your calendar for next year….

There used to be enough buses at the show that you had to make note of which one you were on. There was always the chance somebody would wake up halfway to somewhere they hadn’t planned to visit. Multiple buses at the exit from the beer garden made for all sorts of fun. But this year there was, well, ours. Don’t quite know what to make of that.

Anyway, I said I’d be looking into the future at the show this year, but I’m afraid the view was a bit constricted. Sure, there were quite a few of the latest models from Whizbang and Whoopdedoo Inc., but by this time of the year they’re all pretty much old hat, having been introduced to the press and friends sometime last fall.

Not me, of course. Like you, I just get to read the purple prose of the paid guys who get invited to those parties and do a little riding as well, in the course of things. By now, all that vicarious excitement and enthusiasm has rather taken the edge off the buzz about the latest update on the previously revised and updated model, you know?

There were, however, several electric offerings that I did finally get to see up close and personal, so job done there. Happily, some of the people representing the e-factor in the industry were not only very knowledgeable and keen, but also more than willing to talk at some length and detail about product and plans. Which they did.

Before I got to them, though, I got well schooled in the problem of rider safety from the industry perspective. There are several categories of problem, apparently, so in no particular order:

  • It’s too difficult. There are way too many complications to deal with to ever figure out how to build in anything like forward collision warning, or blind spot warning, that sort of thing. Could take forever, if they’re even working on it.
  • It’s too expensive. All that R&D, all those computers and sensors and wires and everything, that stuff would make bikes cost way too much. Nobody would buy them.  
  • It’s too bulky. There’s no place to put all that freakin’ fat heavy stuff, all those processors and modulators and, well, all that stuff. A bike’s small, not like a car, where you have lots of space. Well, OK, only some bikes are small. But there’s still no space.
  • It’s too, mmm, invasive. Gets in the way of the riding experience, ruins all the fun. Takes over and wrecks your day if you’re a real rider who’s on the ball and has proper skills. Motorcyclists want total control.
  • It’s not allowed. Those government regulators, you know, they just don’t let companies put safety technologies on their bikes, even when they really want to. No sir, government won’t let any of that stuff into the country.
  • It’s too soon. Bike customers aren’t anywhere near ready to deal with all that modern technology, they still need bikes to be just like they always were. Change anything too fast, and pow! There goes your customer base.

This could get long, but you get the drift. As a lifelong gearhead, with an interest in automotive safety engineering, let me just say it’s all pathetically familiar, too. 

So, then I went down the hall, and visited the new kids on the bike block, to see what they have to say about all the “problems.”

Damon Motorcycles is a genuine breath of fresh air — fresh B.C. West Coast air. They’re a new start-up, in Vancouver, and they’ve already built a high performance fully electric bike with state-of-the-art rider assistance technologies (ride modes, IMU-based motorcycle stability control, etc.) as well as a package of electronic rider positioning adjustments. But that’s just where it starts. 

Damon’s mission is rider safety, and to that end they’ve already engineered and built full 360-degree proximity alert systems that give riders both visual and haptic warnings of potential hazards. Those systems upload rider events to Damon, to allow them to continuously develop the bike’s sensing and response capacities. 

All that for $25K starting. 

Not too complex, or difficult, or disallowed. Not too bulky, nor invasive. Safety and total control, right here and now, not some future date after all.  

All aboard for a road trip

Cold enough for ya? I’m sure wishing the tractor had heated grips and seat right now, that’s for sure. Man, even a windshield would be an improvement on today’s “in the wind” experience. Suddenly, we’re coming to grips with the fact that even in the Okanagan, we do get a little taste of conditions other denizens of our Great White North live with at this time of year.

So I’m really looking forward to my annual mid-winter road trip escape, my mini-break from shovelling and plowing and tending the wood stove. That’s right, I’m outta here, next Saturday bright and early. On a bus tour, of all things.

Didn’t see that one coming. Never thought I’d be the sort to enjoy bumbling through the countryside on a tour bus, but I guess a person has to be open to new experiences. Sort of. 

I have really gotten used to doing this winter bus thing because I ride it like we always ride: with a bunch of other riders. Shared passion for the world of motorcycling does mean we also share a host of other tastes and experiences. Some say that’s actually one of the reasons people ride. 

Anyways, we’re off. Hopefully without too much campfire singing and that sort of carry-on. There are limits. Speaking of that, the limited budget and other constraints being what they are, the bus tour winds up right back here next Saturday night. So not exactly an epic adventure, but one of great meaning.

Because we’re going to The Bike Show.

Aahhh. Now we’re talking sense, right? There’s nothing quite like a winter’s day inside a gigantic building full of spanking new bikes and gear, buzzing with the fresh currents of the coming season. Sort of like a greenhouse for gearheads instead of green thumbs.

I have a list, of course. Every year, I try to elbow my way into areas where there’s new varietals growing, where people are talking up fresh takes developed on the old themes. This is a chance to get up close and personal with the bikes, technologies, and the thinking, that show promise of making motorcycling more approachable and safer, especially for new and returning riders.  

Every year I make a point of pitching to regional and national manufacturers’ reps the need for serious industry support of rider training. I like to point out that, in other countries, manufacturers run their own riding schools, provide fleets of bikes to schools, or offer partial funding for training. Why nothing here? After all, the money Canadian customers pay for bikes and gear is just as real as anybody else’s. We don’t just print it off on the old dot matrix. OK, most of us don’t. 

So, why don’t we get the same value invested in our safety?

Same goes, by the way, for the bikes. ABS, traction control, and other safety features that are standard equipment on bikes in other parts of the world aren’t even offered on some of the same makes/models here. Or, they’re (very) extra cost options. Why is protecting a Canadian life not worth the same investment?

These make for some fun conversations over the old smokie and fries. Every once in a while, they even bear a little fruit. Long while. Little fruit.

Now, a person can only play that sort of game for part of the day, or it gets old. So I also like to wiggle into the booths where there’s some new technology on offer. Like, for instance, the rapidly advancing airbag technology in riding gear. Really looking forward to seeing the new computer-controlled airbag vests that can go under any riding jacket. Big step forward there.

And the helmets. Heads-up displays are still surprisingly rare, and so is the MIPS and similar construction systems that reduce the frequent brain injuries resulting from rotational forces on impacts, as I understand it. 

The list also is a listing, if you will, of how far into the product line-up each manufacturer has pushed rider assistance safety technologies. It’s handy to have most of them under one roof, so a quick stroll gives a good comparison of the price point and engine displacement thresholds for availability of inertial measurement units, for instance. Hoping we’re finally going to see some at or below the 500cc waterline.

But the really big draw this year is the prospect of seeing the new crop of serious electric bikes. Damon, Zero, Lightning, Energica, and Harley all have some well-developed and downright exciting platforms to show off, and I’m long overdue for some lessons in the future of motorcycling.

What we see on the news every day is making it pretty plain. That future has to be one where what we do (motorcycling) has to not poison people, or the planet, and has to let us get home safe in greater numbers than it does today.

This year’s bus tour is, more than ever before, all about the future.

More On Balance articles

About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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