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.


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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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