Collision with reality

By Bill Downey

There is a huge, and dangerously misleading, misconception at play in the motorcycle world about who's at fault when motorcycle collisions happen.

To quote the B.C. Coroner's  document Aug. 29, 2018 (Motorcyclists Deaths January 2008 t0 July 2018):

Contributing Factors Summary

  • Analysis of completed investigations from 2008 to 2018 found the following:
  • 57% of motorcyclist deaths involved more than one motor vehicle
  • Motorcyclist speed was contributory to 38% of deaths, and motorcyclist impairment to 34% of deaths. Overall, motorcyclist/motorcycle factors contributed to 70% of deaths.
  • Environmental factors contributed to 23% of deaths, and factors related to other motor vehicles and their drivers contributed to 14%.

Note: Percentages may sum to more than 100, as one death may have multiple contributing factors.

Let me be very blunt here. The hard and unblinking truth about motorcycle collisions is that we are the main authors of our own misfortunes.

Other drivers are not the primary source of the problem.

Closer reading of the coroner's statistics tell you an even more chilling story than they have articulated:

  • the "Environmental Factors" cited as contributory in 23% of deaths are all, without exception, the responsibility of the rider to identify, plan and equip for, and to prevent from harming them.

Considered from an informed and carefully researched perspective, 93% of  B.C. rider deaths in the past decade were the result of single or multiple rider factors, either wholly or partly.

I do not subscribe to the long-held belief that drivers do not see or care about motorcyclists as such; driver error and driver behaviours are not specific to the presence or absence of motorcyclists.

They are, in fact, shared by motorcyclists, who, it should be noted, are predominantly drivers of other vehicles for most of their vehicle trips.  

Contemporary research, led by a SFU researcher, very substantially challenges the presumption that drivers do not see motorcycles, by demonstrating through a series of controlled studies that drivers are at least as sensitive, if not indeed more sensitive, to the presence of motorcyclists than they are to other vehicles.

The fault is neither perception, nor volition.

It is instead a judgment error, rooted in the limits to human visual processing: it is extremely difficult for drivers to accurately assess the approach speed of other vehicles, up to and including trains.

Our initial common error rate can be as high as 50% (i.e. the approaching vehicle assessed to be travelling at 60 km/h may be moving as fast as 90 km/h.

This is an effect exaggerated by the narrow frontal size, and the location on the road (lane position), of approaching motorcycles.

This research series (Sager et al) is reported in the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals annual safety conference proceedings.

The sad fact is that we have been guided for years in the motorcycle safety world by the exceptionally naive and unquestioning acceptance of two types of essentially nonsensical claims that in other contexts would routinely have been challenged and/or dismissed outright:

Rider: "I didn't have time to react.”

You had a clear sightline to an obvious vehicle, which you ought to have known, and a reasonable person in your circumstance would have known, was very likely to cross your intended path of travel.

You did nothing to protect yourself in advance from that probable hazard until you were immediately upon it, leaving not enough residual time to respond effectively.

You chose to spend the time you could reasonably have used to protect yourself doing what, precisely?

  • Accelerating toward that hazard?
  • Ignoring it altogether?
  • Directing your attention to some secondary task?  

Extremely basic vehicle operation guidelines require operators to maintain adequate forward attention to identify potential hazards in good time, and to implement commonly known and practiced defensive strategies immediately.

Driver: "I didn't see him, he came out of nowhere.”

Well, no, he didn't. This isn't Star Wars, and research now confirms that it is not just possible, but actually most probably the case that you did see him.

You screwed up, because you were wrong about how fast he was approaching. Grow up and acknowledge your error.

On the first point, the rider involvement, a close reading of the various motorcycle crash causation studies since 1979 (see, for instance, "Select Risk Factors Associated with Causes of Motorcycle Crashes, NTSB, 2018) typically reveals that riders panic in situations of preventable collisions, and make them worse.

Evidence consistently shows that riders either make no apparent effort to avoid a crash, or make contributory errors in their responses (incorrect response, or failed attempt at correct response is the typical profile).

That means that riders tend to throw their (often inadequately equipped) bikes on the ground or into other vehicles in circumstances where crashes were neither inevitable, nor the making of someone else.

This is precisely the point that the B.C. Coroner’s report identifies:

  • riders crash who are speeding and/or impaired and/or on slippery road surfaces.

They are often, as well, unlicensed and/or inexperienced.

Other drivers contribute in some instances to the problem, but it begins in most cases with rider error — note the very high frequency (43%) of single vehicle motorcycle crashes.

Why we have accepted this blatantly inaccurate testimony from collision-involved drivers and riders, who in many cases we ought well to have known were making it up from false memory typical of trauma situations, remains a mystery to me.

Naivete is the nicest possible explanation, but it seems unlikely to explain such a broad phenomenon.

The problem is that this weak level of analysis has been reported unquestioningly by the popular media, and has been used for decades to inform not just rider training, but also public policy, with the net result that generations of riders have been abandoned by safety regulators.

These regulators could long ago have acted on other available guidance from sound research and epidemiological analyses to ensure that:

  • motorcycles are more appropriately and adequately equipped at higher mandatory minimum standards
  • more adequate and effective traffic safety enforcement was in place to address the very well-documented issues with speed, impairment, and licensing.

I do know, however, we won’t be able to ignore the hard facts of the motorcycle safety problem.


Because as we move into the evolving environment of more refined and effective collision-scene analysis informed by on-board Event Data Recorders, external monitors such as intersection safety cameras, and by increasingly refined Naturalistic Driving/Riding Studies, the evidence will be over-whelming.

These real-time tools and techniques are not subject to the substantial flaws of witness accounts, and are much less easily ignored in favour of the long-preferred "he said/she said" game.

We have to grow up sooner or later, stop trying to create artificial and dangerous divides between road user groups, and start to use the scientific evidence to create actual road safety measures for all road users.

Bill Downey, an instructor at Kelowna and District Safety Council, is an avid biker who starting riding as a teen.                                                                  


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