On Balance  

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.


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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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