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29th January 2004

Opinion: Too Fast?

The speeding debate won't go away (and we're not talking about Graham and Daisy this time), and what affects modern motorcyclists will inevitably afflict classic bike riders too. Paul Friday looks hard at the statistics...

There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times motoring section at the end of last year. It was about the shocking death toll of motorcyclists blasting themselves into oblivion on their overpowered and uncontrollable mounts.

You know what? Unless you lot stop dying, the government will have to do something. And since the response will be a knee-jerk reaction to pressure from the news media, it will be punitive, stupid and dangerous. And since the definition of good legislation is 'that which does not have totally the opposite effect to what was intended', you can expect the outcome to be worse than you feared. Even Triumph has apparently stopped development of what would have been the fastest bike in the world.

FW, speeding while imagining a Vauxhall Vectra.

The Sunday Times article starts 'Imagine a Vauxhall Vectra powered by two Formula One engines and with most of its interior stripped out to reduce weight... No manufacturer would ever build such a car...' Actually they do, but they build them for racing. The article compares the new model R1 with this mythical Vectra, and calls it faster than a Ferrari for the price of a Fiesta. So why does Yamaha make such a ludicrous machine? Because they can, because they help sell the rest of the range, and because people will buy them. Ford used to make a 3-litre Capri, knowing full well that the 1600 was the big seller. Status sells.

What the article does not mention is how easy the R1 is to ride. Unlike a stripped-out and focused rally car, it can be ridden to the shops or trickled through traffic. It will tour and it will commute. It's very fast, because it's difficult to build a bike that is slower than a car. There is also the strange bias towards sports machines to consider. If you ask why so many people buy race replicas, the truthful answer might be because they already have a car. Transport is taken care of, so the bike is a toy. And no-one buys boring toys.

RH, speeding on someone else's non-boring toy.

The article is no worse than much of the press, and better than most because it did at least quote some more sensible views from the Motor Cycle Industry Association. It did play with some alarming statistics, though. Apparently; 'One in six people killed on the roads is a motorcyclist, but motorcycles account for just 1% of road traffic' and; 'The number of motorcyclists killed in crashes is already 25% up this year compared with 2002'. Dreadful! Something should be done!

You might want to put your rational head on, though. The place to go looking for the truth, because it is out there, is the government's statistics web site at (click here for the road vehicle stats page).

They publish Department of Transport figures going back to 1991. The raw data on motorcyclists and passengers shows that the number of casualties has been falling, but peaked again in 2000. The best year was 1996. But then you have to ask if these figures should be divided by the number of motorcycles on the road, to get a figure that can be compared with other vehicles. These raw figures also don't show the cause of the accidents. If there really is a problem with too much speed and power, you might expect to see a significant proportion of 'no other vehicle involved' accidents. The raw figures also show only the number of casualties, not the number of accidents. Riders are much more vulnerable than drivers. Bikes could crash less often than cars, but result in more injuries.

This chart is sponsored by Specsavers Opticians

As an example of the difficulty of interpreting figures, take a look at the accident rates by type of road from the same website. At first glance this would have you believe that motorways in London were the safest roads, while built-up A-roads in London were the most dangerous. Then ask yourself what might be the main type of road in London...? If you look instead at the actual number of accidents recorded, the roads in the north-east are the safest. But how busy are they compared with London?

So what is the real answer?

As the senior accountant once said; 'what sort of figure did you have in mind?'.

If you want to figure this out, you need to work out how to make a fair comparison. Air travel is very safe per passenger mile, but each plane carries lots of people and covers a large distance. Compare safety per trip for a single passenger, and it might be the same as driving a car. And the seat belt on a plane won't help you when you do crash.

So the moral to the story of the numbers is that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Trust no-one who bases their arguments on statistics, until you understand the basis of their figures.

But that doesn't solve the problem of all these bikers acting like lemmings. Would a horsepower limit work? Since a bike can do 100mph on around 40bhp, or more if it is properly streamlined, the answer has to be no. The supercar manufacturers seem to have agreed a top speed cartel of 155mph. Would that help? Probably not, as there are only a few bikes than can do more than 155, and the reduction in casualties by slowing them down could probably not be measured.

Real Mart (right), preparing to exceed 155mph.

There are lots of lorries on the road that are limited to 56mph. This has certainly saved the haulage companies fuel, but I doubt if it has reduced the number of accidents. It may even have increased them, due to the antics of lorry drivers trying to slipstream or pass each other, and the antics of car drivers trying to leapfrog them in turn.

What about the power to weight ratio? This would set the acceleration of the bike. It would make a better basis for road fund tax than the engine capacity alone, as it would penalise the sportier cars and bikes that use more fuel and might be driven more aggressively (assuming that the go-faster models are more likely to be toys than transport). It might increase the number of accidents though, using the same logic as the limiters fitted to lorries.

What about training? Bike riders already face a tougher training and testing regime than car drivers. And let's face it, bad driving is seen as a joke rather than a danger. Everyone laughs at a television programme on celebrity bad drivers, but The Thunderer gets all hot and bothered when motorcyclists appear to be dying.

Training would be great, but I would like to see the playing field leveled first. Let's have car drivers brought up to the same level as motorcyclists, and let's see a scheme of restricted licences until the novice drivers have gained some experience.

And how about compelling every driver involved in an accident to retake their test within three months or lose their licence? What about requiring a theory exam re-test every five years, with a failure requiring a driving test too?

Are we serious about road casualties, or just annoyed with motorcyclists? And why are motorcyclists the target of all this unwanted help, when car drivers get away with murder?

Graham and Daisy, preparing an excuse after getting caught speeding. 'It wasn't me, it was a man in a kilt.' 'Bollox!'


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