On Balance  

What's stopping you?

We motorcyclists are a pretty unstable bunch. Sad, but true.

Oddly, this didn’t come up when I was grinding through the obligatory psychology degree. It came up when I was studying the problems with motorcycle safety.

Turns out that one of our big problems is that we fall down.

A lot.

Most often, when there’s something getting us overexcited, like another vehicle turning in front of us, or when we’ve gone into a corner too fast.

We jump on the brakes, lose control, and throw the bike on the ground. Or into something we needed to miss.

In any case, a sudden lack of upright attitude, with consequent injuries, at the very least to our pride, but more usually to our person. And the bike, of course.

This has a lot to do with the fact that motorcycles don’t stand up on their own, like cars and trucks. They need us to balance them on their pointy little rubber toes, there being only the two of them. Unstable.

Because of this, a lot of safety experts globally have taken to stating the (blatantly) obvious:

if we don’t come up with some way to keep motorcycles upright, especially when they need to stop quickly, then it’s best to get rid of them.

If we can’t keep bikes upright, and we don’t get rid of them, then motorcyclists are going to keep being injured or killed. The goal of road-safety programs is to prevent injury and death, so there’s your problem.

Here’s the scope.

  • In B.C., we average about 35 rider fatalities a year, and 1,600 injuries.
  • In Canada, about 200 rider fatalities annually.

That is one very large group of people who aren’t coming to this weekend’s Thanksgiving blow-out, or whatever other family event is on the horizon. A lot of families who really, really wish the motorcycle of note had stayed upright and stopped all in one piece.

Put another way, that is a massive financial cost to society. According to the coldly analytical document, “Default Values for Benefit Cost Analysis”, 2018,  BC Ministry for Transportation and Infrastructure, there is an average total cost for collisions.

And that cost is part of how we make decisions about the relative benefits to making changes in our transportation systems. CBA.

Here are the numbers: fatal collisions cost society roughly $8 million. Each.

And those 1,600 serious injury crashes in B.C. — if it got reported to ICBC, it was a serious injury  — $2 million. Each.

Ouch. But what to do?

Better stops.

Riders need help to stop bikes in emergencies, instead of losing control, falling down, and whacking things at speed. The common-sense standard prescription for that is: riders need more training, or in most cases, some training. And more experience.

Training is what I do, so I agree. Every rider instructor out there is very willing and able to describe, demonstrate, and coach riders both new and “seasoned” in the fine arts of using the brakes effectively.

That is, unfortunately, a major fly in the ointment. The fine arts.

People in trouble are often not at their best or most proficient. In an emergency, we do what we do, not necessarily what we can do when it’s a nice calm day in the studio. Or in a training session on a parking lot.

You see this when you root around in the research about motorcycle crash causation. Riders with training, without training, with extensive experience and without, tend to screw up in pretty much the same ways and to the same extent, in emergencies. Skid, crunch.

There’s a doctrine in law about this, called “agony of collision.”

In a nutshell, the courts have noticed that people acting in what they feel is an emergency can’t be expected to exercise perfect judgment or do the perfect thing. There are legal precedents built on this point. I’m no lawyer, so you should look this up yourself.

I came across it in a case referenced by Tim Schewe (Castanet columnist who appears on Tuesday) in his most recent DriveSmartBC posting.

We need, therefore, to move on. Can’t just expect riders to be perfect when they’re freaked out and reaching for the brakes.

Instead, all riders need better brakes. Ones that help us stop the bike upright, without skidding and losing control. With Anti-lock Braking Systems, or ABS, that’s what we get. This has been comprehensively proven.

See: https://www.iihs.org/topics/motorcycles#motorcycle-abs

Motorcycle ABS reduces fatal collisions by 30-40%. Injury collisions by 25-30%.

Whoa! You’d think that would be standard equipment, wouldn’t you?

It is. In Europe, India, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia……… Not Canada.

Here, when you go shopping for a bike, like you’re probably planning this weekend, (falling leaves bring falling prices), you have to ask for ABS. And on lots of bikes, you have to pay the extra cost for the option.

Your call. I paid the extra couple of hundred bucks. I figure that’s a better deal than the $8 million. And missing out on turkey.

What’s stopping you?

Dead man's curve

Our beautiful B.C. is a land of fantastical landscapes, of deep and winding valleys through steep and rugged mountainous terrain.

Those of us who love riding motorcycles are doubly blessed because our roadways, for the most part, follow those contours, up and down, twisting and turning, coiling back on themselves, endlessly fascinating and challenging.

Each turn or rise is a new vista, often a whole different topography, and every shift of shape drives us to deeper connection with our bikes and ourselves.

That’s the good part.

Not so good is when it all goes horribly wrong on one of those curves.  

In a moment, a heartbeat, we’re down and gone.

That particular moment has come this season for far too many riders in the Southern Interior. 

By my count, based on the media reports I can find, 13 riders have died of their injuries this year. Can’t tell how many more are badly injured, but from previous year statistics, at least 500.

I combed the media reports to find those numbers because we need to be able to talk about this year now, not two or three years from now, which is when the official statistics come out.

These aren’t just numbers we’re talking about. These are people, families, communities. In a river of pain. Right now.

So I want to be very, very careful here to be heard as a person who gives a damn about those people, and not just some wonk playing around with the numbers about their lives.

Before we go any further, let me introduce you to some other people who give a damn, and actually do something about it:

AIM, the Interior BC Association for Injured Motorcyclists, in a community near you, is a group of people who volunteer their time and energy to provide some help to downed riders and their families. They get out there and lend a real hand.

You can find them if you or somebody you know needs them, by phone or by e-mail:

250-306-4561; [email protected].

Go ahead. They’re the real deal.

Now, it’s cold and wet outside, and I’m happy about that, because what it means today there are fewer riders on the road, so fewer chances for another rider to be hurt or worse.

But “fewer” isn’t good enough.  

Relying on rain to wash away the problem is just daft.

I’m looking for zero. Zero fatalities on our roads.

Nothing else comes anywhere close to what I expect, and we should all expect for each other. That’s the plan, and Vision Zero is what it’s called, around the world.

You can look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Zero

The idea, originated in Sweden in the 1990s, is straightforward.

We need to stop accepting that some people will die, others be harmed for life, just trying to get from A to B.

Mobility is what we want from our transportation system, not death. And to get there from here, we need to stop kidding ourselves about what works, and what doesn’t, to create safety.

What works is a systematic way to deal with the problems of getting people safely from A to B, instead of just forever hectoring people to “straighten up and fly right."

That system, the “Safer Systems Approach” is based on a very clear-eyed, honest appraisal of the human being.

  • Fact: people make mistakes. All the time. That’s never going away. We can reduce error rates, but it’s ridiculous to base everybody’s safety just on the wild notion that we can somehow magically get
    100% of the road users, 100% of the time, to be 100% correct in their decisions and their actions.

For this reason, we need all the elements of our road system to make it possible for people to survive human error; to arrive alive in spite of it.

  • Fact: human beings aren’t built for hitting. If we’re hit too hard, we perish. This is a pretty major flaw in our design, but we’re not making any useful headway in genetically modifying our way to indestructibility.

For this reason, we need a road system that has designed-in limits to the amount of impact force a person will have to deal with when a mistake is made. The limit for pedestrians, for example, is very familiar.

Remember those reminders earlier this month about school zones? 30 kilometres an hour, right?

Why? If a car hits a person at that speed, they have about a 90% chance of living. At 40 k/hr, they’re five to six times more likely to die.

So, to get to Zero rider fatalities, we’re going to use a Safer System that works to reduce riders’, and other drivers’, mistakes, and at the same time prevent fatalities from them.

It works on four channels:

  • safer riders
  • on safer roads
  • riding safer motorcycles
  • at safer speeds.

Starting now. Channel Two:

All those curves on B.C. roads? Predictably deadly.

Seventy per cent of the riders who died this season in the Southern Interior lost control and crashed on curves, into oncoming vehicles or into trees and rocks, for lack of simple protective barriers. Some concrete protection.

Stop the blame, and the pain. Fix the roads.

Taking mayors for a ride

The BC Coalition of Motorcyclists hosts an annual event in the spring, when they invite provincial MLAs to join them on their bikes for a run around Victoria and surrounds.

They do this to build awareness, at the decision-making level of government, of issues facing the motorcycling community.

Popular event, by all reports. But not, to my knowledge, mirrored by any similar tour for mayors and council members.

Recent local events suggest it probably should be.

Seems that a cabal of local mayors just rose up as one and did a radical thing.

They wrote a letter. Um, hm, yes they did.

They denounced the provincial government decision to make drivers for ride-hailing services get a Class 4 driving licence, like everyone else transporting small numbers of people for hire.

This, in their estimation, unnecessarily and unfairly impedes the development of ride hailing.

Now, as a motorcyclist with a keen appreciation of traffic safety, I know a thing or two about licensing. And we’ll come on to that in a bit, but first, following the excellent example of the BCCOM, I thought we should take the mayors for a local ride.

Saddle up, gentlemen.

We’re touring Kelowna, rolling along Highway 97 from the area near City Hall, toward Orchard Park, and then out as far as the Sexsmith Road junction.

Six lanes of traffic, all of it moving well above the local speed limits, as you do. Lots of level crossings, lighted intersections, access roads.

Lots of drivers of all sorts of vehicles demonstrating their usual habits and their various understandings of traffic law.

Man, it’s a busy space. No wonder ICBC doesn’t do road tests along here, eh?

  • How’s that helmet and jacket working for you?
  • Feeling really confident beside those cars and trucks?
  • Trusting, even?
  • Relaxed, in the certain knowledge that all those drivers are well up to the task, right?

Ah, here’s Orchard Park, we’ll do a lap around it to spend some quality time on Springfield, then off to a famous centre for roadside comestibles at Sexsmith.

Off you get, ease out of the bash hat, and let’s talk.

In that little ride, we’ve made it through the 10 highest crash rate intersections in the Southern Interior.

This is the region that has the highest rate of fatal crashes in the province, far out of proportion to our share of the provincial population. 

And the Thompson-Okanagan Highway 97 corridor is where the going is at it’s very worst. ICBC’s crash maps make it pretty plain.

We just rode through the heart of that corridor. This is the epicentre of traffic safety concerns.

Let’s trot back down the road again, see if we can get to No. 1 on the list, the very well-known and much-loved 97 and Spall Road.

Sorry, didn’t catch that, something about “not on the back of that thing”? Where’s your trust?

Standing at the side of the road, a few steps from yet another of the famous roadside eateries, we can spend awhile just watching normal driver behaviour. As I did, a week ago, with a group of other riders concerned about traffic safety.

We’re going to watch those red-light cameras flash, many times, in our half hour with coffee.

We’ll watch in fascinated horror as driver after driver races toward an amber light, whistling past others about to make last-minute left turns.

We’ll flinch as yet another group of drivers file nose-to-heel across the intersection, the first under an amber, then the next two under the red.

And then there’s the “efficiency experts” who race from their left turns all the way straight across three lanes to get into the gas station.

  • No signal
  • no shoulder check
  • no proper lane changing,
  • full bore.

All completely normal, every-day stuff. Performed by a legion of every-day, Class 5 licensed drivers.

You know the ones; the drivers who “don’t need” to undertake any further review or testing before they’re entrusted with the professional role of transporting vulnerable people.

No point in them going through the Class 4 licensing procedures, you say.

Well, here’s the thing about licensing. It may not be a perfect system, by any means. But in a world where 27% of fatally injured motorcyclists were riding without a valid Class 6 motorcycle licence, we have a very acute sense of how important that little extra piece of paper really is.

Typically, around 20% of fatally injured drivers – same thing.

And, thinking about that chauffeur role, 31% of the passengers who died in Canada in 2017 were not wearing a seat belt. A driver’s responsibility.

Licensing, and the licensing process, matter. Just like in firefighting, each level of certification means a renewed and upgraded competency. Like a person would want, putting their life in someone else’s hands.

Riders without a Class 6: think on.

Your Honourable Worships, you, too. How you getting back?


Crossing the golden line

Remember Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs?

Nah, me neither.

But right around now, Labour Day weekend, I can’t get away from their big hit in ‘66: Little Red Riding Hood.

What with the world and his seven daughters all headed for Grandma’s house for the last big blowout of the summer, the tune’s inescapable.

“Hey, there, Little Red Riding Hood, do you really think you should”...  go out riding on B.C. roads today?

The thing is, as your friend and mine at ICBC, Lindsay Wilkins, has again pointed out, the Labour Day weekend is especially fraught.

We seem to have about five deaths and 610 injuries every year on these three days.

And those numbers are getting worse, not better.

So, Red, you’ve been on my mind. I was going to write a whole different thing for this week (the mayors got on my nerves, more later), but something’s been bugging me through this season that I just have to get at right now, before you’re out the door for the weekend.

The centre line. The yellow painted divider between you going your way, and me going mine.

Turns out we’ve had a lot of very, very bad crashes that have gone worst for some motorcyclists, and the pattern is that the yellow line didn’t seem to work very well at keeping people from crossing into harm’s way. What with not being concrete and all.

I’ve spent way too much of my life looking at the ICBC published stats about traffic collisions, and at their crash maps, so to cut to the chase, those maps don’t show this pattern about crashes.

They show crashes at intersections, lots and lots of intersection crashes. So we wind up pretty focused on that sort of crash, and sort of lose sight of the stuff that’s happening right out our door, so to speak. 

Best we fix that. 


We have a lot of thousands of people heading out for Grandma’s this weekend. They’re going through “the spooky dark woods” on the very roads where there’s nothing to stop them from crossing the centre line except the vague hope that everyone will play nice and stay to the right side.

Life, though, doesn’t exactly work that way. Riders and drivers are people first, and only secondarily operators of vehicles.

Sometimes the people part, warts and all, is centre stage at the controls instead of the coolly rational and perfectionistic Operator.

And people have other priorities, and various little habits, that tend to override the rules and good guidance of such luminaries as W.J. Seymour, whose trendy 1937 handbook, Car Driving Made Easy, made a pretty good fist of being the last word on the subject of safe driving. 

Little habits, like say the five or 10 kilometres per hour drivers on average exceed the speed limit by. Or, in our case as riders, the extra five or 10 over that (the researchers have noticed, it turns out).

Little habits, like leaving a little late, because Mikey just had to “tweak” the bike as usual, but he couldn’t find the part that was “right there, I know it was.”

Little habits, like pushing just a bit too hard on the corners, and having to run a bit over the line.

There. That one. A bit over the line.

Like I said, I was going to write something else, but there you were this morning ahead of me, a bit over the line on every third or fourth bend.

You weren’t hauling fast at all.I was keeping up without breaking a sweat, and I was on my side of the line full time. So, just a little habit you have there. No big deal.

Except, well, it turns out that it really is a Big Deal. Most of the time, when people crash vehicles, it isn’t some huge and crazy thing they’re doing. Most crashes are people doing some "normal, everybody does it” thing that puts them at risk they don’t even recognize.

Until the odds catch up. Which they seem to do on this coming weekend, a lot.


Crossing that centre line seems to happen when people are tired, or distracted, or going too fast, or just have bad cornering habits.

Guess what shape a lot of the riders and drivers will be in this weekend? Trying to cover too much distance, too fast, too wiped out from working that extra shift, and too determined not to let everyone down by not getting to Grandma’s house for dinner or whatever. 

So, Red, do me a favour, and check your habits, would you?

Leave early for once, take it a bit easy, and remember that Golden Rule is all about not crossing the golden, yellow line:

“Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” (Confucius, 500 BC, give or take).

This particular wolf in sheep’s clothing is our own habit of taking little liberties with that yellow centre line, and it can bite us riders really, really bad.

Dinner, or Grandma, or that wakeboard will keep. Let it.

You matter too.

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.

Previous Stories