On Balance  

Into the unknown

Into the Unknown: Who’s Your Data?

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it.

That is what I’ve been up to with this motorcycle safety caper for roughly the last decade.  Hate canned presentations of any sort, so to satisfy my itch to be useful to riders new and old, I’ve spent an unconscionable amount of time staring into the magic window, looking for answers to the basic question:

What actually makes rider safety?”

Not just opinions about it, but credible scientific study, test results and data analysis.

After all, if people go out of their way to take a course, and one of their main reasons is to learn how to look after their safety on the bike, I figure they’re looking for more than my opinions. Which, together with five bucks or so, will just about get you a cup of coffee around here.

This really kicked into high gear for me when ICBC was working on standardizing rider training in the province, in response to recommendations from the Coroner’s Death Review Panel on Motorcycle Fatalities, 2008.

During the consultation process, rooms full of us instructor types got to grips with some of the motorcycle mysteries of the ages, including this one:

“Why doesn’t ICBC give insurance discounts for riders who have taken training?”

Brace yourself. There isn’t credible scientific support for such a discount. It’s unknown.

Collective gasp in the room. WTF????

Seriously. The most authoritative source on the subject, a Cochrane Public Health review of all the international research into whether motorcycle rider training has any effect on rider crash and injury rates, found no reliable relationship.

You can look this up, best if you have institutional access (college/university).

I did. And I’ve kept looking. The problem is the data. There isn’t much of it, and what exists is a mess.

“Training” is all over the place. Lots of it has no on-street component, and no significant coverage of proven safety measures. 

David Hough, an expert in motorcycle safety, puts it bluntly. He says too many well-intentioned courses are just making it too easy for new riders to put themselves in harm’s way, and the collision stats prove the point.

Most rider training is once-and-done. A vanishing percentage of riders ever take any further street-related courses or coaching of the sort we do at the Safety Council.

Remember that first-aid course you took once, 10 years ago? Quick, the guy lying on the ground over there needs help. You’re it. Know what you’re doing?

Training doesn’t provide a “safety vaccination” good for a lifetime.

As well, collision data, to add insult to (literal) injury, is all over the place. Much of the reported information from motorcycle-involved collisions lacks rigour, if you will.

We very often have no record of the riders’ history, particularly about whether they’ve had formal training.

There’s more, lots more, but let’s move on.

This is just one of many mysteries about rider safety: the unknown.

Others include the relationship between the bike and the rider and the crash outcomes. We often see people struggling to manage bikes that are too big, too ungainly, and too poorly equipped.

Motorcycles should be fit for purpose, and fit for the person. Many are neither.

But to provide useful help about that, we need good, solid information about what’s actually proven to increase risk, and what reduces risk. Where it all goes horribly wrong, and why. What prevents that.

Here’s an example.

The control for the front brake, and for the throttle, are both operated by one hand. In the same movement direction. When a rider is desperate to stop suddenly, she risks rolling the gas on, not off. You may remember the stunt rider who died recently in Vancouver. This way.

This strikes me as unsafe, and frankly idiotic, control ergonomics. Everyone who teaches riders struggles to help them overcome this problem of full gas instead of full stop. But.

Can I find research that clearly and reliably relates this control design flaw to crash rates and outcomes? Not yet, and not for lack of trying. The unknown.  

I did find this: BMW have just introduced an option that tells me they know about the problem. Their “Dynamic Brake Pro” feature overrides throttle input when there’s strong pressure on the brake lever. Should save some lives, but we’re not likely to see research that confirms that.

Just like traction control, inertial measurement units, cornering headlights, variable response modes. Been around for years, but no research relates those features to proven safer outcomes on the street.

From a more local perspective, I’ve mentioned before that we have a higher collision severity rate than the rest of the province. Riders who crash here are more likely to die of their injuries.

Why? Unknown.

In February of 2018, I submitted an additional data request to ICBC to try to get comparison data of the types I’ve mentioned here: rider characteristics, bike characteristics, collision alignments, and so forth.

Still waiting. But sooner or later, we’re going to venture together into that particular unknown.


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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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