On Balance  

Social-biker distancing

I struggled a bit with the idea of writing about motorcycling, concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic having trumped most of our day-to-day preoccupations.

For example, instead of ramping up the teaching season, we’re suspending operations at the Safety Council for the time being, so it all feels appropriately weird here at Happydog Acres.

However, that said, the issues of motorcycling as they apply to traffic safety, and vice versa, are as relevant today as ever. This was brought home to me when I drove (alone) to town for necessary provisions on the weekend.

What I saw on the roads was a surprisingly high proportion of motorcycle traffic, pretty much all of it running at the same speeds, in the same groups, and in the same ways as every other nice spring weekend.

Seems a lot of us had the same idea, that going for a ride was a great distancing measure.

While I was considering that, what also struck me was that all the traffic, while somewhat lighter than usual, was behaving very much as usual.

  • People tailgating
  • Speeding
  • Passing at unsafe locations
  • Stopping too close to vehicles ahead of them at intersections.

Except when there wasn’t a vehicle ahead, in which case stopping was only grudgingly practised, if at all.

The same key safety factor was missing, that’s always missing, but it was really highlighted by the current boldfaced and underlined instructions to all of us from the public health officers:

Keep your distance!

To protect ourselves, each other, and the health care system, we’re supposed to be trying to change our behaviours, recognizing that the usual interpersonal push and shove is a major risk factor.

And we are. For the most part, with some well-publicized exceptions, we’re “social distancing,” leaving space between us in the grocery store, and the other store, and avoiding unnecessary trips and crowding.

It’s a strain, and feels awkward, but we’re doing it.

Not so much once we’re on the road.

But it’s on the road where we’ve been struggling with another major international pandemic for years. Injuries from traffic collisions place a massive strain on health care systems all around the world.

Since we’re getting daily updates on the COVID impacts, you’ll have some useful context for the traffic outcomes data, so here goes:

  • According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 1.35 million traffic deaths annually, or 3,700 fatalities daily, around the globe. Just let that sink in for a minute.
  • In Canada, there were 1,922 traffic fatalities in 2018, so roughly five lives lost a day, all year. Fatalities are 2-3% of total injuries.
  • B.C.’s 2018: 271 fatalities and 95,000 injuries. An average day in this province sees 175 crashes, generating one fatality and 10 acute care hospitalizations (think ventilators, N95 masks, that sort of thing). Daily.
  • And then there’s the motorcycle piece: we all know the disproportionate levels of risk entailed in riding our little motorized ponies out there. Our collisions are almost all injury collisions. We average 13% of the B.C. fatalities, even though we’re less than 3% of the daily traffic volume.

So here’s my thinking. I’ve seen the bit of humour circulating about how motorcycling is perfect for social distancing, and the logic is really tempting.

  • We ride more than two metres away from each other
  • We wear personal protective equipment
  • We’re not stuck in a box breathing other people’s air
  • We avoid crowded areas like, well, the plague.

Makes sense.

But. Motorcycling as it’s most commonly practised is a social activity. People get together to go for a ride, and often meet up with other people who got together to go for a ride.

Then, everybody gets off the bike and has a beverage and some really delicious fast food. Together. You see where this is going.

Non-essential gatherings, transactions, and passing stuff back and forth.

Also. While we’re together, riding socially, we tend to “encourage” each other to ride more aggressively. Whether we’re with someone else, or solo, we tend to ride about 10% faster than surrounding traffic, which is already 10% above the speed limit.

We also tend to seek out rural roads. The relationship between aggression, speed, rural roads, and injury/fatal collisions is well enough documented. It isn’t good.

This is the stuff that was troubling me as I pottered along to the greengrocer’s on the weekend.

We’re in the midst of a major health care crisis. Governments across the country are instituting unprecedented, some would say draconian, constraints on individuals and businesses in a desperate effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The point of that effort is to prevent unnecessary deaths, by giving our already overstretched health care system enough time and space to accommodate the sudden rise of acute care hospitalizations.

What do we not get, then, about the critical importance of preventing unnecessary hospitalizations for traffic collision injuries?

Right now, and for the next while, “social distancing” for motorcyclists really does mean giving it a rest, and a wide berth.

It's riding season

es it is, it’s riding season out there.

Sun’s out, mercury’s above the freeze-ya-stiff level, buttercups are blooming, and there’s even some traction to be found, in patches between the piles of sand.

Of course, for some of the truly determined, riding season is all year long around here, but for most of us, this is it.

When the world starts to dry out and green up, we can come out to play.  Every day now, I’m seeing more riders doing just that. Hooray, enough of winter already.

But why, Bill? Why do you even want to ride, let alone actually riding? All you ever write about is how we’re all gonna die (theme song for the article: Country Joe and the Fish, the Vietnam Song), so what’s up?

Related conversation goes something like this: why don’t you write about all the great stuff about riding, the reasons people should want to ride, instead of all that negative safety and misery guts stuff?

First things first, there really isn’t anything quite like being on two wheels, slicing through space on the sweet edge of balance and momentum.

Plenty of people have written enough pages about the delight of balancing the elements of mass, momentum, and traction; the purity and discipline of controlling the forces at the edge of chaos. 

There’s a rich and consistent vein in all that writing, one of shared experience of the joy, and the freedom, found only on two wheels. So that’s why I ride — the total joyful focus and immediacy of the thing.

But, not being a pure hedonist, there’s the practical side of things to consider too. If it’s worth doing, then it only makes sense to find ways to do it again, right?

That’s where all the safety stuff figures into it. I plan to be on two wheels as often, and as long, as possible in this life. Not getting killed seems like an important practical part of that plan.

Besides, we’re not all gonna die, at least, not riding. Not even close. Every year, the riders just in B.C. alone cover millions of kilometres on their bikes, and very  few of us wind up in hospitals or morgues.

Overwhelmingly, the experience is good, and we get home safe. Even when we’ve done some dumb stuff, still, momentum’s your friend, and it all kind of works out for us.

While I do go on a bit about the bad side of the statistics, the fact is that probability is actually on our side. We’re probably going to be just fine. Whatever, and wherever, we ride.

Most of us. But, make no mistake, we still have work to do to make sure motorcycling isn’t a death sport for anyone. The annual fatality count (35) can, and damn well should, be zero. Nothing else is OK.

Another way of looking at the probability tables, when it comes to motorcycling, is to consider how life generally works.

In general, there’s no single Big Deal you can put your finger on about most things. Say you get a better job.

Was it some one thing you said in the interview?

Was it some single thing you do really, really well?

Not likely. It was probably a combination of factors that put you in the right space, with the right skills, on the right day, talking to the right person in the shop.

Same thing with rider crashes, only backward. The wrong thing, in the wrong space, at the wrong time. 

We always focus on some particular aspect of what happened when a rider went down (“Speed!” “Alcohol!”), but the reality is always going to have been more complex.

A bit too much corner speed

A slippery spot on the road

A crappy helmet

Brakes or tires not quite up to the job.

An unfamiliar bike.

A bit of alcohol or happy weed.

It doesn’t just add up. There’s a multiplier effect.

To keep the already good odds on our side, we need to reverse that multiplier effect. That’s the safety equation.

Each time we take one of those risk multipliers out, we make a much bigger reduction in the overall risk than you’d expect if you’re just considering that single factor.

Because it’s how that one factor magnifies the dangers of other factors that really blasts us out of our safety zone.

Some FEMA research out of Norway really illustrates the point. They found that most fatal crashes were on stolen bikes.

And, that those crashes almost invariably involved impaired riders. Not all stolen bikes crash, nor do all impaired riders. But put the two factors together, and the probabilities suddenly and dramatically tilt against life.

 I said I love to ride. My focus on safety isn’t to suck the life out of riding, it isn’t to be a killjoy. It’s to preserve the joy. And I do that by reversing the multiplier effects, because the research tells us that’s the way to keep the odds on our side.

Shiny side up!

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.

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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