Motorcycling safely - is it possible?
Special E-report on Motorcycle Safety - 3 minute read
Ride Smart - Ride Safe
Just the other day as I set out for ride a friend said to me “ride safe”. It got me thinking. “Safe motorcycling” is almost an oxymoron - a combination of two contradictory or opposite words. The word “safety” means “the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss”. Using this dictionary definition, there really is no way to make motorcycling totally safe. In fact, for many of us the element of risk and “danger” is part of the reason we love motorcycling.
Motorcycling is more dangerous than driving a car. And not just a little more dangerous. The not very often spoken about and sobering reality is that you’re about 30 times more likely to be killed on Australian roads on a motorcycle than driving a tin top. According to Australian Government statistics 187 riders and 5 pillions died in 2014. In 2013 that number was 247. In keeping with the growing number of women riders, 10 of these fatalities were female. Most (54%) of these were in country areas and the majority involved a car.
2016 started terribly. In the first 12 weeks of 2016 an alarming 24 motorcyclists lost their life in Victoria – a 167% increase on the year before! At the time of writing, Victorian fatalities are sitting at 28. In South Australia where I live, the number of motorcycle fatalities in 2015 remained the same as 2014 at 11 fatalities BUT the number of serious injuries rose by 11% to 144. Out of the 11 fatalities for 2015, 8 were under 30. From the number of serious injuries, the 40 – 60 year old group is overrepresented at 85 injuries or 59% of the total. This seems to indicate that younger riders kill themselves whilst more ‘mature’ riders sustain more injuries.
As many motorcycle accidents involve some level of rider error, the question arises ….. what can you do to manage your ride and minimise your risk?
There is not a lot we as individuals can do to affect the overall fatality rate except to not become a statistic yourself. We can’t fix the terrible state of some of our roads (you could lobby local Politicians but good luck with that!). We can’t stop car drivers doing stupid things like texting, doing their make up or basically not paying attention. We can’t stop some truck drivers driving like a maniac to keep some schedule or another. And we can’t stop animals crossing our path in an unpredictable manner.
But there is a lot we can do to manage our personal danger and to ride as safe as we can.
Let’s state an obvious fact before going into ways to mitigate the risk of injury. Horrible stuff sometimes happens to good people - it can happen to any of us. In fact, my own interest in motorcycle safety grew on July 31st 2015. I was on a ride through the Adelaide Hills with a mate when he came off at about 60kph. In terms of accidents, this was minor. He and I were both surprised to learn as the day unfolded that he had two broken ribs, a broken shoulder in two places that required surgery and a punctured lung. It took several months to recuperate and he has since sold his bike and given up motorcycling.
My friend’s accident got me thinking – what is available these days to prevent or at least reduce “impact injuries”.
The human body is fairly fragile so wearing the right gear is essential. If you think the gear is bulky or uncomfortable you only have to slide down the road once to change your mind. I am continually amazed when I see people riding in shorts, thongs and a tee shirt! I very seldom go out without the whole kit on – helmet, jacket, gloves, bike jeans, boots and these days I also wear a Helite airbag vest.
The airbag vest is worn outside your usual jacket and is `tethered’ to the bike with a click-together lanyard. If the rider and bike part company, the Airvest is inflated by a C02 cartridge in just 100 milliseconds, offering much greater protection to the body. There are also touring jackets and a leather jacket with the airbag built into it.
I believe that if my friend had been wearing an airbag vest he would not have sustained the serious injuries that he did. Remember he didn’t have a scratch on him because he had all the usual gear on – but his bones and internal organs were vulnerable.
It’s probably no surprise that alcohol and motorcycling don’t mix. In the US, in 27% of serious motorcycle accidents the rider had a blood alcohol level of .08 or above. I was unable to find Australian stats but I’d expect it to be similar to this. At the risk of sounding like your Dad, the lesson is clear, limit drinking when you’re on a ride or just don’t drink alcohol and then get on a motorcycle.
But there’s other ways of compromising your riding experience. It’s simple - don’t ride when you’re impaired in any way. That means alcohol but it also means drugs including some prescription and even some over the counter drugs. Also remember to keep hydrated because being dehydrated and overheating can impair your judgement. Make sure you carry water even when you’re just out for a day’s ride. If you’re getting tired, take a break and get a bit of rest. It’s amazing how even 15 minutes off the bike can refresh you.
For those of us that are serious about motorcycling, taking a course to increase your skills makes sense or at least ask a more experienced rider for some mentoring and tips. Hone both your physical skills like cornering, braking and steering as well as mental skills like staying focused and learning to judge what other drivers are likely to do. I recently read that motorcycling is like a military fighter pilot on a dangerous mission through enemy territory. A good analogy I think. The advice I give to new riders is to ride as if everyone is out to kill you – think like this and you’re more likely to stay alive. Personally I also think that being on your bike regularly to practice your riding skills is a good thing as well. Some riders do just a couple of thousand kilometres a year and at least for some of them, their skills get “rusty”. As they say, use it (your skills) or lose it.
Of special interest is that according to TAC, 41% of deaths occurred on roads sign posted at 100km/h or more, 44% were involved in single vehicle crashes and 22% were involved in head on or overtaking crashes. It would seem to make sense that if you ride in country areas, learn how to do it well – how to overtake safely, what to be on the lookout for (like animals, slow turning traffic and loose gravel and branches across the road), how to overtake safely with the limitations your bike may have and how to ride in sunlight glare and extreme temperatures.
Being honest about your skill level is vital. We are not all like Casey Stoner or Toby Price so don’t pretend that you are. Be honest with yourself and if you want to ride better do a course, get practice and take advice – even read a book or blogs or YouTube riding techniques.
Riding a motorcycle means you have to develop a higher level of situational awareness than driving a car. Managing your experience including potential danger ahead and also behind you means you have to be constantly aware of what’s happening. This means developing good scanning ability to focus on far enough ahead to predict risk as well as checking mirrors, to pick up clues to unfolding situations. It isn’t always obvious what trouble looks like but scanning ahead helps you avoid potential hazards.
Riding is great fun but also comes with a range of possible dangers. Follow some of these steps and you can maximise your enjoyment and minimise some of the potential hazards. Ride smart – ride safe.
Wayne McDonald has been a motorcyclist for over 40 years and earlier this year founded Moto Smart focusing on gear for rider safety and comfort. Wayne is available for Helite airbag “detonation demonstrations” at clubs and bike gatherings – email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org