#307 – Slow Learners

Where’s the evidence that horsepower of and by itself is a determining factor in crashes? There’s none, it seems.

Slow Learners

When I first read in June this year that teenage motorcyclist Kevin Dhillon had been killed in a crash in Surrey, BC, I felt deeply saddened. By all accounts, Dhillon was a level-headed youngster who had been dirt biking for years. It was the classic “car-turned-left-in-front-of-him” crash, where the rider always comes off worse.
Then I read that Dhillon was riding (before it was totaled) a 2007 Honda CBR600RR, and I did a double-take. What was a 16-year-old doing riding a 118-hp, 165-mph sportbike on the street? But BC’s motorcycle licensing program allows 16-year-olds to ride any motorcycle up to and including an 1198R Panigale as soon as they’ve passed an on-screen quiz—as long as they’re “supervised,” and with some restrictions: daylight only, no passengers, and no freeway riding.
Accident reports seem clear that the driver of the Honda Accord that cut across Dhillon’s path was in the wrong; and there’s no suggestion speed was a factor. But with less than a year of on-road riding experience, it seems strange that Dhillon should have the power-to-weight ratio of Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR Chevy connected to his wrist.
In most other motorcycling jurisdictions including Europe, the UK and Australia, new motorcyclists are required to cut their street teeth on restricted horsepower bikes. And most also prohibit riding until age 17. In the UK for example, 17-year-olds are restricted to motorcycles with a maximum 11 kw, around 15 hp, regardless of whether or not they’ve completed Compulsory Basic Training, and passed theory and practical tests. At 19, up to 25 kw/33 hp is allowed, from 21-23, up to 35 kw/46 hp.
Only if you’re over 23 can you ride an unrestricted motorcycle (21 if fully supervised by an instructor and wearing hi-viz gear). In the UK, Dhillon would have been restricted to a moped with maximum speed of 45 kmh.
In most of bike-mad Australia, learners are restricted to “LAMS,” Learner Approved Motorcycles. These must be under 660cc, and with a power to weight ratio of less than 150 kw/tonne. So your typical 400-lb. motorcycle would be restricted to 34 hp. That excludes just about any sportbike over 350cc and all heavyweight cruisers. In the state of Victoria, the restriction applies for three years regardless of whether you’ve passed your bike test; and you’re also required to take a compulsory basic training program.
Around Europe, the situation varies by country, but generally speaking, you need to be 21 with at least a couple of years’ experience before you can get your hands on a bike with more than 46 horses. But is there any evidence linking age, motorcycle power and crashes or fatalities?
It’s difficult to find a smoking gun: the seminal Hurt Report into motorcycle crashes found that motorcycle riders between the ages of 16 and 24 were significantly over-represented in accidents, while motorcycle riders between the ages of 30 and 50 were significantly under-represented, but didn’t break the numbers down further. A recent report by A. F. Williams found that in the United States, 16-year-old drivers (not motorcyclists) were three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers aged 20-24, and 13 times more likely than drivers 40-44. Similarly, 17-year-old drivers were respectively twice and eight times as likely to be in a fatal crash as the older drivers. It seems reasonable to assume that a similar pattern would apply to motorcycle riders.
A 2008 report to the US Congress commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, again concerning teenage drivers, reported that motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death among 15-20 year olds. The report concluded that factors, such as immaturity, inexperience, faulty judgment, and a higher propensity for risk-taking all contributed to the high level of crashes involving teenage drivers. The report found that younger drivers are not experienced in hazard recognition: they do not generally acknowledge inherently dangerous situations on the road, and therefore do not react appropriately.
As these are human factors, teenage motorcyclists are likely to be similarly affected—with the recognition that motorcycling is inherently more dangerous, and that any crash on a motorcycle is likely to be more serious than in a car. But does a faster, more powerful bike make a crash more likely? If the evidence is out there, I can’t find it.
The idea of restricting horsepower for new motorcyclists, especially those starting out in their teens, seems intuitively reasonable, especially to non-motorcyclists. But there’s no statistical evidence that I can find that suggests faster bikes are more likely to be involved in crashes, regardless of age and/or experience of the rider.
For example, Hurt noted that the median pre-crash speed of motorcycles involved in “multi-vehicle crashes” (two or more) was just 29.8 mph.
So does society have a responsibility to save teenage motorcyclists from themselves by mandating restricted power learner bikes? On what evidence? And if there’s no evidence that lower powered bikes are less likely to be involved in crashes, should we simply make teens wait until their 20s—when they’re far less likely to be involved in a fatal crash—before we allow them to ride a motorcycle on the street? If we had, Kevin Dhillon might still be alive.

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