On Balance  

Not designed for women

A question that often comes up, and probably should come up a lot more often, is whether there are bikes that are designed, or better suited, for female riders. The short answer is no, not something specifically designed for women. There are bikes that tend to be marketed more to women, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that some people – who often, but not always, are women – are poorly served by products designed and manufactured with a person in mind who is 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 to 200 pounds. Yeah, I’m that old, and there’s a calculator around here that will do the metric conversions, but you get what I’m saying.

Actually, I’m an old cyclist, and in that role I spent a good deal of time helping women find a fit in the bicycling world. This was made far easier when Georgena Terry came onto the scene in the late 1980s, introducing the concept of “women-specific design” as it related to bikes and bike saddles.

Terry noticed, and actually did something about, what everyone else was either ignoring, or trying to put up with: lots of women, particularly the smaller ones, were horribly uncomfortable even on bikes that were, according to the standards of the day, “properly fitted” to them. 

In a nutshell, her thesis was that there are patterned differences between the standard physiques of men and women, and those differences needed to be addressed in the actual design of bikes, rather than masked or accommodated by messing with the components (stems, handlebars, crank arms) after the fact.

The science that describes and documents the differences, both in gender-typical physique, and in proportioning of musculature, can be found in such places as PeopleSize and NASA. It’s also somewhat controversial, depending on who’s selling you what.

Terry started building bikes that were configured to better fit women’s shorter torsos, narrower shoulders, and wider pelvic bone structures. Terry Precision Bicycles began the women-specific design “thing” that has risen and fallen in the cycling world ever since; right now it’s been largely abandoned by the big manufacturers that are happiest selling generic products, but still very much in play with the smaller producers and custom builders.

OK, this is supposed to be about motorcycling and rider safety, isn’t it? Well, I’ve spent the last decade or so watching women trying to deal with motorcycles, and feel safe; they were experiencing many of the same “bike fit” issues. Some of those issues I share, being a buck short of the full adult male admission. 

My observations are these:

  • People who are struggling to control devices that don’t fit them, or to use controls that are cumbersome or poorly fitted, are at risk. Those risks increase dramatically in user contexts that entail high power, high speeds, critical response thresholds, and high impact vulnerabilities. Like motorcycling.
  • Efforts to adjust the fit of devices by changing the position and configuration of the control interfaces (like handlebars and levers) can create more comfort, but introduce limitations or dangerous changes to the device response characteristics (like handling and braking).
  • “Getting used to it,” as in learning how to manage around the problem, is not the same as getting proper service, value, or safety from what you’re using, and paid for. When that’s a motorcycle being ridden at speed in the stream of traffic, this is a very critical difference.
  • Size, weight, and power are not the only important elements in the “fit” of motorcycle to person. Rider positioning, and their ease of access/use of the controls are equally, if not more, crucial.

In this time of #MeToo, after so many decades of the Women’s Movement, and with so much long-overdue attention to issues of gender-based inequalities, I’m flatly dismayed when I see yet another woman bravely struggling to manage a motorcycle that’s obviously been designed, built, and marketed for someone completely other than her.

I’ve also heard too many stories of women who have had that “close call,” or crash, and decided that the problem was them, when the selection, the adjustment, and the servicing of their motorcycle were all handled by some “expert” twice their size with a completely different physique.

Women could be much better served by a motorcycling world that lived by an appreciation of the value of genuine fit, rather than just offering lessons in “getting used to it.”

Some thoughts: when you’re choosing and setting up your bike, look for help from someone who looks like you. Someone who has the same ratio of lower and upper body strength. Same hand size and shoulder width. If you can’t find that person, then try for someone who starts by listening to you, instead of prescribing to you.

Look for a bike that fits you as well as possible without having to make significant changes to the bars and seat height, so the thing handles the way it was engineered to in the first place.

Find some female riding friends, like Women on Wheels, Motoress, or WomenRidersNow

And ride on International Female Riders Day – Aug. 22. 

PPE: A faint hope clause

Everywhere we look these days, personal protective equipment (PPE) is a predominant preoccupation equation. It’s quite the turn-around for everyone who’s been involved in occupational health and safety efforts over the years. Finally, some serious traction.

Also, we’re carefully and tentatively starting up the rider training season at the Kelowna Safety Council, with some changes around protective riding gear. The obvious problems with trying to sterilize “loaner” gear mean that new riders are going to have to bring their own, rather than borrowing riding jackets, helmets, and gloves.

So this week it seemed timely to have a chat about PPE in general, and motorcyclists’ gear in particular. Theme music today is Jimmy Ruffin’s big hit from ’66: “What becomes of the brokenhearted.” It’ll make sense later.

For quite awhile during the early going with the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists kept asking the provincial and federal medical health officers why they weren’t mandating the wearing of masks. The assumption seemed to be that face masks were the obvious answer to protecting people from a respiratory virus, so if everybody had to wear them, we’d be home free.

The response was a tricky piece of work for scientifically-minded officials trying to address broad public policy issues about safety, and I felt their pain. The challenge was to find some workable balance between complacency and mass panic, while trying to maintain some scientific integrity. This is how it goes about PPE. You want people to use it reliably, but knowing its limitations, you don’t want them to rely on it. Hmmmm.

You can get a feel for this dilemma by putting on your mask and going for a stroll through the local greengrocers. First thing you notice is what a ruddy nuisance the thing is, how your glasses keep fogging up and it keeps falling down unless you have it so tight it rips your ears off. Oh yeah, and now you have to keep repeating yourself like the whole world suddenly went deaf. Great joy.

Second thing you notice is the great cultural divide along aisle 10: some are wearing masks, some aren’t. Wait a minute. Didn’t Dr. Tam say to wear this damn thing in stores? What gives? Where’s the mask cop? 

Ahem. Where was I? The third thing you notice about masks is that the “user practices” vary enormously. Some are over the nose, some below. Some are taken on and off, depending on the need to be heard or the need to read the microscopic price labels. The rest are falling off or otherwise just driving ol’Jim at the frozen meals section to the breaking point.

This is the nightmare of PPE. It works, but it only works if people can manage to get the right stuff (recent flawed shipments from China come to mind) and if they can manage to put up with wearing it effectively. 

This brings to mind the firefighter problem. Firefighters are granted Workers’ Compensation for various types of cancer by right of their occupation, because the science has proven that their PPE has not protected them adequately from certain toxic exposures known to give you cancer. The problem with PPE, then, is that it only kinda sorta works, at some times, in some cases.

Nurses around the world are acutely aware of this about their masks and gowns and gloves. Six hundred of them have died so far of COVID-19 because their levels of exposure just overwhelmed best PPE practice.

What we have to remember, whether we’re riding or we’re out shopping, is that there are other measures we can take that are more effective than relying on masks and gloves and helmets. Safe practices, safe environments, safe equipment all need to be first in mind. In occupational health and safety, in public health, and in rider safety, these are the levels of response to hazards that generate best outcomes.

Does rider gear work? Yes, to some extent it does afford a reduction in injuries and fatalities, but the limitations are huge. Studies do confirm injury reduction if the gear is worn properly, and if it’s manufactured to meet relevant standards. When you’re buying, to make sure those gloves are actually protective, look for the “CE” designation on the label. This is the body of standards for protective equipment established by the European Union. 

But that protection only extends to “survivable incidents.”

When you’re down to relying on your gear, you are indeed one of the brokenhearted. Your relationship with riding is well and truly blown, because you didn’t successfully use the other, more effective measures above. Maybe you skipped safe practices, like keeping good enough physical distancing (two seconds minimum), or observing safe cornering protocols (look through the corner, slow before entering, steady throttle).  

Maybe it was an unsafe environment, as in dangerous road surfaces on a curve, or blocked sightlines at an intersection. FEMA has some great research materials on that element; look up femamotorcycling.eu.

Or maybe your equipment was faulty, poor tires for instance.

Now what becomes of you depends on one last, marginal thing: your PPE. Uh-oh.

Gap in motorcycle safety

Not exactly “breaking news,” sorry. But it strikes me that Safety May could do with a little more emphasis than it’s had from, say, the provincial government or ICBC.

To be fair, of course, everyone’s been kind of busy with other stuff lately, and that other stuff has actually been good for road safety. Fewer vehicles on the road, fewer crashes and injuries, one less worry.

But it is May, and there are way more bikes on the road than last month, just like any other year. So, more riders at risk, and not just from The Virus. Thus, time to talk about motorcycle safety awareness.

I’ve read the Proclamation. And it is good. Except, well, mostly it’s all about something other than motorcycle safety awareness. Lots of stuff as usual about driver awareness, wildlife awareness, even noise awareness. Helpful, but…

We can agree that safety would be improved by more awareness in general on the part of, and about, all road users. We can even agree to be more “aware.” Nice. 

Job done?

Not so much.  My good and trusted friend, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, offers this about “aware”: concerned and well-informed about a particular subject. Having knowledge. 

What facts, what knowledge, about what’s actually happening on the roads, and what actually generates real safety outcomes in this province, right now, do we have? 

Do we know, for instance, how many riders have crashed so far this year? Do we have any concrete information about those crashes? Do we know which bikes – makes, models, equipment levels, age – are crashing? Do we know which riders – age, gender, training, experience, infraction history, residence relative to crash site, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or anything else? Do we know whether helmets stayed on heads, or fell off? Do we know anything about those helmets, like their configuration (full face, partial, modular, beanie), their age, their manufacturer, their rating levels?

This can go on, obviously. The point is this: No, we absolutely do not.

Starting with the currency of the data that is available, we look to ICBC and to Transport Canada for reporting and analysis of the reported motorcycle crashes. There, we can learn today how many reported crashes happened two years ago. 2018. 

Not current, then. Not even recent.

And, very importantly, not comprehensive by a long chalk, because of the “highly variable” reporting thresholds. In something other than bafflegab, that means we don’t gather data at all about any number of rider crashes that don’t meet the requirements for police or insurance reports. 

Over at WorkSafeBC, where you look for a template for injury prevention, the standard is that all incidents that resulted in injury, or might reasonably have resulted in injury, are required to be reported, and to be investigated. This is because we have much to learn from worksite incidents, particularly in the area of keeping people safe, if we will only pay attention to them.

Plainly this is not the standard on our roadways. Where untrained people are operating high-powered equipment at significant velocities in close and varying proximity to other road users, both protected and unprotected.

If we want to do motorcycle safety awareness, then, I propose that we start by gathering, analyzing, and reporting all the data. In real time.

Does this sound impossible? Tomorrow, turn on the television, or go online, and listen to the national and provincial COVID-19 updates. 

Or scan reports about motorcycle safety from other jurisdictions. For instance, as of May 15, there had been 24 motorcycle rider fatalities in Washington State; in 70% of those cases, rider behaviour or action is the major contributor. In Colorado, 26 fatal crashes so far this year, motorcyclist at fault in 22 of those. 

Similarly, we can access public reporting at least for 2019 in Alberta, Manitoba, New Mexico, Virginia, and very many more. 

This reflects, and generates, some greater measure of “awareness” than the overdue and outdated information from ICBC and Transport Canada.  I do not accept our failure to meet at least that standard.

Then there’s the other stuff I mentioned, the bike, gear, and rider specificity that are needed by a policy maker or an educator seriously wanting to generate improved safety outcomes. For example, what if the 2009 Humpty Dumpty Numpty turns out to be the only bike involved in fatal crashes for the past four years? Wouldn’t consumers want to know? Wouldn’t we want to know why?

The fact is that we don’t know, and nobody’s prepared to tell us. The data’s there, in the insurance and police reports, what there is of them. The VIN’s part of the dataset, and it opens out a whole suite of information about the vehicle, including for instance, whether ABS was spec’d.

As to gear, we know that not all helmets save lives. But we don’t know which do, and which don’t. We deserve better.

Same goes for jackets: some fall apart, some protect. Which?

And riders. Some crash a lot, some not. Which ones, and why, here?

May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. Still hoping for some.

Pandemic and motorcyclists

A line from the movie “Moonstruck” comes to mind at times like these. It comes up when there’s a big (Italian) family brouhaha about who’s sleeping with whom, and the tension’s running pretty high in the room.

Grandpa breaks in and says: “Somebody tell a joke!”

Well? Sound about right? Had enough bad news?

Now, overwhelmingly, people tend not to snort laugh and wee a little whenever I try to follow the Instructor’s Guide, Section 2, “Introduce Humour.” So this isn’t that; relax.

It’s like puzzles, which I’ve always hated. Rubik’s Cube and comedy both require a certain intellectual deftness I do not possess. And yet, here’s the oddest thing: I seem to spend my life endlessly poking away at one or another project that turns out to have all the hallmarks of puzzledom. Lots of bits and pieces that should fit together, but in my hands keep feeling like they’re from warring galaxies. 

Usually this results in plenty of comedic entertainment for those more gifted at whatever I’m “learning lots” about. Or it would, except I learned a long time ago to live well away from others, and to lie extravagantly about the ease and simplicity of doing whatever it was I made such a dog’s breakfast of for hours.

Or days --------. I work very slowly, partly out of fear of once again totally destroying whatever it is this time that’s almost useable, but just needs a little adjustment. I cling to my torque wrenches like the wretch adrift in the sea clings to his life raft.

Guess this is a big part of why I’ve enjoyed helping people figure out motorcycling. I feel more at home with folks who are scratching their heads a bit, and maybe even on the cranky side of frustrated and pee’d off about whatever isn’t working for them, than I do with the prima donnas and the naturally gifted wunderkinds.

There’s a thing. In mountain biking, and before that skiing, it’s always been that the most gratifying downhill runs were the ones we had to work for, to sweat the climb. When we’re learning anything, especially motorcycling, we’re climbing. When we’re climbing, we’re learning, getting the feel of the slope and of how we’re doing today, and how yesterday’s ride is affecting and informing how we deal with today’s monster.

My hope about the students I get to spend time with is that they’ll hang onto some sense of how much it matters to always struggle a bit with riding. That they’ll have joy and success with it, have happy confidence. But also that they won’t settle into being too relaxed and confident about it all. There’s more to learn, and if we don’t keep at least one ear to the wind, one day it’ll blow us right sideways.

Isn’t that a moment, eh? There you are, buzzing along in the left lane, and whoosh! In the blink of an eye, you’re in the right lane, going, “Whoa, that could’ve been messy!” Or it is.

This is what the current pandemic is doing, well and truly blowing us right off our regular day-to-day track. Now everybody’s getting some basic motorcycling lessons, being well schooled in issues of vulnerability. We’re finding out that a lot of things people thought were OK, or as good as they needed to be, were actually crap, and left lots of us at stupid levels of risk.  Exposing neglected vulnerabilities. Whoosh.

As vulnerable road users, motorcyclists have been put-put-puttering along, neglected in the shadows of traffic safety for a very long time. So I figure here’s an opportunity to use the public health lessons that everyone’s getting on the nightly news.

Fact: the virus is at its worst where too many people are jammed into too little space, with everyone hurtling along not actually paying much attention to basic safety, and no barriers to keep us from exchanging fluids. Especially where some of those people are old, or they have serious health conditions.

Well? Sound familiar?

“Vulnerable road users.” It’s a term you recognize, if you took a riding course and managed to stay awake during the theory part. It means we’re more exposed to serious harm if anything goes even slightly pear-shaped on the way to grandma’s house. It makes sense because like others in the category (say, pedestrians and cyclists), there are no airbags and such around us when that happens. Very high ouch factor.

But the problem with being labelled “vulnerable” is really well illustrated by what’s going on with the virus. It turns out it’s been too easy to assume that whatever’s happening for our vulnerable seniors is just hunky-dory, because they’re having a nice relaxing ride in their care facility, out of sight. Vulnerable, tragically, has been bureau-speak for “expendable.”

We’re not cyclists. Nor pedestrians. We need safety provisions (research funding, data sharing, infrastructure, regulations, monitoring, training, equipment) that are adequate for, and specific to, our needs as users of motorized cycles, motor vehicles, not theirs. Our nice relaxing ride isn’t an excuse for officials to ignore our safety needs.

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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