As a rider (well, when my hand's not busted) people, usually people I've just met, like to tell me crash stories. Often, these are things like "my uncle Trevor lost both legs and his ears when he crashed his motorcycle". You probe and you often find out that in reality Trevor merely now has a limp, is slightly hard of hearing but still rides. Other times, they tell you they lost a cousin to motorcycling but more often than not, said cousin was sixteen years old and as they say "dumb, young and full of cum". In other words, too much testosterone and not enough skill to cash the check he's making his tires write. In all cases, it's regrettable but the underlying message is always that "motorcycles are bad and they will probably kill you". That's simply not true, at least no more true than for any other activity that involves not watching TV.

And then there are the notices in the paper. A couple of days ago, a Toronto police office was killed on his leisure time. http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2011/08/02/18502561.html and http://www.insidetoronto.com/news/local/article/1052158--lovely-young-guy-recently-engaged-dies-in-motorcycle-crash cover it pretty well. But read more closely. Weirdly, they make no attempt to say what happened.

This is a more typical crash report I found: http://www.citytv.com/toronto/citynews/news/local/article/128192--fatal-motorcycle-crash-closes-gardiner-expressway-dvp In this case, the motorcyclist lost control and crossed lanes. Here's another: http://toronto.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20110606/motorcycle-crash-niagara-110606/20110606/?hub=TorontoNewHome Again, the rider "lost control"?

So, what's wrong with this picture? Firstly, why do all news reports have to make it sound like it's the rider that "lost control", whatever that means? Secondly, why is it that if the rider is young and male, and usually on a sportsbike he's "excessively speeding"- http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/199806 is a good example. 160km/h is cited. On the highways in this city, a lot of people travel at that speed, even cops with the blues and twos turned off. And thirdly, why do we not confront the very real problems: That the quality of driving in this country is abysmal, that road surfaces are an utter disgrace and that the design of the roads themselves only compound this problem.

But back to the sadly deceased cop. It took me ten minutes to find a story that indicated what happened - http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2011/08/02/toronto-hwy7-motorbike-crash634.html - So, he hit a dump truck that was legitimately turning left and he couldn't stop in time. And he was on highway seven, in Vaughan. I know that area. The roads are dead straight, for the most part. It sounds to me like a case of rider error, so why is this not stated initially? Because he was a cop. Because he was a motorcycle cop. To indicate he was at fault, through either speed or poor observation is to call into question their training. And that he hit it that hard, his bike exploded/caught fire? Sounds like a very fast crash to me. Either the truck turned without looking (unlikely or it would have been mentioned) or the motorcyclist was speeding or simply not paying attention.

I can't pretend to know which it is but his death is regrettable and my condolences go out to his family. The least they should know is he died doing something he loved, which is the case in all motorcycle accidents. While I could say there's something so wonderful about riding that it transcends the risks, that's not quite true. It just makes us all realize what they are more acutely.

So, how to fix this? Firstly, let's be more honest about why these crashes happen. Yes, there are lots of idiots riding bikes out there: too fast, no safety gear /etc but often that is because the traffic is so snarled up, it's the only way to keep cool. But for everyone of those idiots, there's another where the culprit is some soccer mom on a cellphone. Or a businessman in a BMW setting his GPS. Or some older buy in a buick eating a donut and drinking coffee. Taxi's slamming on brakes to pick up a passenger, or making an illgeal u-turn. Or a police car entering the highway, without lights, pulling straight across three lanes of traffic into the fast lane. Even bicyclists turning and full speed the wrong way into a one way street. I can say this as I've had near misses with all these people, and often more than once. Deal with this and the number of accidents goes way down.

So how do I deal with it? When I ride (I did over 14,000km last year), I ride like everyone on the road cannot see me. Yes, sometimes I may speed slightly, but only when it's reasonably clear to do so. I watch every car on the road and try to anticipate it's actions and more than anything, I give everyone room. I wear decent safety gear and I "move" in my lane and on the bike to present a more visible target to drivers. It seems to help. While I've had near misses, I've never had a road crash.

Lastly, before I sign off, there's a few other ideas I have that could help:

  • Fix the road surfaces properly. At the end of the road, hydro have torn up the surface numerous times and placed crappy tarmac patches in. Chances are, the "lost control" accidents were all related to hitting potholes or other road detritus, such as construction or farm material dropped by trucks as they exit sites
  • Relax the speed laws so they reflect the local conditions - anecdotally, several stretches of UK road show greater accidents with lower speed limits. If the roads are empty, they should be higher. Better yet, as they only serve to raise revenues and not lower speeds, stop enforcing them except as warnings unless it's an urban area such as school
  • Permit motorcycles in all HOV lanes, especially on the highways
  • If traffic is slow moving, make lane splitting legal, like it is in California, the UK and other places. It really helps. Moreover, make it mandatory that cars/trucks give bikes room
  • Enforce lane choices on roads - no more sitting in the fast lane for anyone, especially when there is no-one in the slow lane
  • For crashes where other vehicles are at fault, the legal system needs to push for tougher sentencing - if you read the story above where the pickup turned left and didn't "see" the motorcycle, they didn't look properly
  • Enforce road laws for all vehicles - cops, taxis, bicycles, motorcycles - all need to obey the laws
  • Tougher licensing standards - Make all car drivers take one hour of motorcycle/scooter riding as part of the test. That'll show 'em
  • Ban on all distractions while driving - eating, drinking, arguing with kids in the backseat, even applying make-up while driving (yes, I've seen them all) should be prosecuted as dangerous driving. And for that matter, enforce the cellphone ban
  • Ban automatic vehicles - OK, this is a pipe dream, but when the only controls are stop, go, left and right, most people think they can drive. They simply can't. Manual transmission weeds them out...
  • Best of all would be to invest in public transport and bicycle lanes to give those that shouldn't be driving a viable alternative

If you do ride, you know exactly what I am talking about and we should try to do something about it. If you don't ride, then you need to realize much of this reporting is fear-mongering. Motorcycling per se isn't inherently dangerous. Riding beyond your own limits or road conditions is. And if we all start to work together to do something about what those road conditons are, we can make it safer for everyone.

2 Comments
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  • alex
  • 2011-08-04T10:12:28-04:00

Thanks for the notes and yes, you're right. There's no substitute for staying vigilant.

 

Second hand motorcycle accident stories are pointless unless the person telling the story is also a rider and has all the facts.

As much as I agree with your list of ideas, unfortunately I believe it's ALL a pipe-dream and the only thing we can do is be more vigilant and promote rider education.

Finally, most modern motorcycles are rocket ships, and I've done more than my fair share of riding well beyond the speed limit. I have a feeling (and a few evidential cases) that many of these 'lost control' accidents do involve 'excessive speed', but not necessarily speeding.

You mention several times the poor road conditions. You've got to take that into account on every ride. Who knows when you might come around a fun twisty and there will be something in the road be it a pothole, road kill, stopped car or etc. There's lots of roads around me that I could ride WAY faster than I do, but the world is not our race track. We have to ride like there's danger around every bend, even if it's a road we've ridden down hundreds of times before. It goes hand in hand with 'ride like everyone is out to get you.' So is everything.