Ever since bicycles were invented, riders have been crashing two-wheelers. It might seem obvious that making a hole in a hedge is a lack of skill, and that if riders crash because they aren’t riding well enough, then we should train them to ride better and keep our hedges intact.
As I’ve been writing about the challenge of reducing casualties in the forthcoming book ‘Survival Skills’, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the topic, so I was interested to see an article written by Graham Hay last week for the BMF, entitled: “Motorcycle road safety: Have we been missing out?” in which he promotes the role of further training.
As I have explained in ‘Survival Skills’, the leap of logic that infers that training is a short-cut allowing us to learn from someone else’s experience dates back millennia. Ancient Greek and Roman soldiers drilled to learn skills that had been found effective in battle.
So it’s perhaps no great surprise that the earliest rider training I have found involved the military. Motorcycles went to war in the Great War and a training camp for despatch riders was established in Buxton.
The police driver training school at Hendon opened between the wars. The official motorcycle test was introduced in the 1930s. Motorcycle despatch riders again played an important role in the Second World War and post-war, police training followed the military pattern. The first step to introduce civilian training to reduce the motorcycle accident rate was taken with the original voluntary RAC-ACU scheme back in the 1950s.
And so on, to the current situation where training is compulsory, led by commercial training schools and approved by the DVSA, with instruction undertaken mostly delivered by qualified instructors, whilst testing is a complex affair of the two-part test and stepped, age-related licenses.
Graham concludes that: “…motorcycling has achieved all that it has through rider-skills. The evidence shows that there has been precious little else.”
If I understand correctly, what underpins Graham’s argument is his conclusion that the car test hasn’t significantly changed but cars have got safer, while in the same time frame the bike test has changed a lot but the bikes we ride haven’t improved.
“The reduction in deaths and serious injuries for car occupants has, in the greater part, been achieved through safety engineering in the design of cars and the design of the roads they drive on. There is no evidence to suggest that fewer collisions take place; the cars are just safer to be in when they are crashed… so much has been added to modern cars to make collisions less likely and the consequences much less, motorcycles of a similar type have not really changed.”
To make his point that nothing much has changed in bike technology, Hay goes on to compare a vintage bike with a heritage replica, whilst showing just how much more technologically sophisticated cars have become.
Does the argument stand up to examination? I don’t think so. At best it’s a strained piece of logic.
He flags up the fact both bikes ride on the same Dunlop tyre, but a ‘heritage replica’ tyre in 2016 isn’t the same piece of rock-hard rubber as existed in 1971. The brakes may not be sophisticated but they work predictably and effectively, particularly in comparison with the earliest disc brakes that were just starting to appear on bikes in the early 1970s; who remembers wet lag? He fails to mention the heritage replica has a halogen headlight and a generally superior electrical system.
Fundamentally, though, the A65 Lightning was a relatively high-performance sports model in its day, albeit one at the terminal end of a long development cycle. A more honest comparison might have been with a machine like the Honda VFR800, another relatively high-performance model at the end of a long development cycle. Maybe modern machines perform no better IN a crash, but they certainly help riders stay out some of the crashes the old machines couldn’t prevent.
Nor do I agree with him when he says: “PPE has become better; of that there is no doubt but it is no comparison to multiple airbags etc.” PPE cannot replicate a safety cage, of that there is no doubt. Nor are there airbags or collapsible handlebars* on motorcycles to prevent the same sort of injuries that airbags and collapsible steering columns prevent in cars.
But we also have to remember that a serious injury that appears in the KSI statistics is just about anything requiring medical intervention. For a rider, the most important pieces of safety technology are abrasion-resistant clothing (which prevents a lot of soft-tissue injury) and the helmet (which is instrumental in preventing head injury).
Back then, riding kit was likely to be a leather or waxed cotton jacket, gloves and boots, and a pair of denims. I’ve a road rash scar myself caused by disintegrating jeans. Now, the average biker chooses to wear more protective clothing, and mostly the kit is much better quality. That will undoubtedly have impacted on the numbers of riders who walk away from the sort of crash that formerly required a hospital visit. A pair of modern gloves that prevented a broken finger means one less entry in the KSI stats.
In 1971, helmet technology was still in its relative infancy. Even in the early 1980s, if a lid stayed in one piece and on your head in a crash, that was an achievement. In a clear case where racing has improved the breed, modern helmets have undoubtedly reduced fatalities. You only have to look at the comparative death rates in US states with no helmet law to see that.
So has training had positive effects? I’d say the jury is out. I’ve previously reported research studies which fail to show training has long-term benefits.
One of the interesting observations I made when looking at the incomplete KSI figures I was able to obtain, was that the big dips in fatality rates did not match up with training. One dip did follow the introduction of the old Part 1 / Part 2 test that came in in the early 80s, but actually corresponded far better with the immediate slump in motorcycle registrations that resulted.
CBT, dating from 1990, didn’t produce obvious results in terms of a dip in the KSI rates either, nor has research suggested any link. Nor has the latest split test or tiered license system. In fact, the latest figures appear to show an up-turn in motorcycle casualties.
But rather than talk casualties, let’s look at where the accidents happen. And here’s the really interesting observation. In 2016, we’re still having the same crashes in the same places our great-grandparents crashed in the 1950s.
Drill back through the data, through the years covered by the RAC/ACU scheme of the 50 and 60s, the BMF training of the 70s, Star Rider of the 80s, compulsory training of the 90s, Direct Access, off-road Module One and on-road Module Two, or the latest EU-mandated tired licenses.
Ask: “what’s the most common crash?”
The answer? The ‘right of way violation’ resulting from the ‘looked but did not see’ error.
I can’t see any evidence training is achieving any improvement in terms of ‘standard accidents’ at junctions, nor in corners or when overtaking. They remain the same source of numbers for the KSI figures as they always have.
It’s actually quite illuminating that Hay made almost exactly the same factual statement as I have in the book – that rider KSIs have been falling since the 1920s – yet we have come to such very different conclusions as to why.
He concludes with a very valid observation, that it will take a while for the next level of technological innovation, compulsory ABS, to filter its way through the KSI numbers to see what the impact is. Even though ABS has been around for thirty years, there are still large numbers of non-ABS equipped machines in the circulating pool and it will be some time before the majority of machines are ABS-fitted.
He also makes a very valid criticism of the EU legislation: “It is a sad fact that the learner riders’ bikes, where price is a key concern, are most likely to have the linked [brakes] system as opposed to the ABS. So the riders who need [ABS] most, will be denied it.”
This observation – though valid in itself – reveals the paradox that Graham seems to have failed to spot when arguing that what’s been achieved has been achieved through training. If training – specifically CBT in the case of the L plate riders on 125s – is doing such a good job, why is that that they are “the riders who need it most”?
We think we know the answer. ‘No Surprise? No Accident!’ It’s not more of the same that’s needed, it’s a realignment of our thinking.
[*I seem to remember a recent model has collapsible handlebars – BMW?]