#329 Force of Logic – Motorcycle Safety in Numbers

Is there safety in numbers? Recent studies suggest that where motorcycles are concerned, yes.

First time I met Laura, I admit I found her intimidating: a sassy New Yorker sizzling with attitude, from her black leather gear to the cluster of obscenely-worded decals on her beanie helmet, and the wide open pipes on her Dyna. She was riding north from Salt Lake to Yellowstone with a tour group and I was along for a magazine story. I rode with Laura again, through the western states and provinces a couple of years later; and occasionally saw through her prickly façade to the vulnerability in her pale blue eyes. We lost touch; but then I heard she’d been in a crash.
She was hit by a truck while riding near Albany, New York; and though she lost her left leg above the knee, she found God during her recovery. Now an ordained interfaith minister, Laura specializes in solemnizing “unconventional” weddings while getting around on a Harley-Davidson Tri-Glide with her partner Denise.
Closer to home, a couple of months ago a Smart car made a left turn into the path of a Kawasaki Concours along 72 Avenue in Surrey, BC. Just marginally luckier than Laura, my pal Bob did at least keep his left knee. Three months into rehab, though, he’s still in hospital and waiting to be fitted for a prosthetic.
I hate these stories, but what’s to do? Motorcycling is dangerous: sure, we all know that. But is there a way to make it safer? Training is important for sure. But it turns out getting more bikes on the road could also make riding safer.
A report by ACEM, the European industry association for powered two-wheelers (PTWs) concluded that there is a critical mass for rider safety related to the percentage of motorcycles, scooters and mopeds on the road. The theory is that more motorcycles on the road increases drivers’ awareness of them.
Japan has 98 motorcycles per 1,000 vehicles, more than most other developed countries, and it has by far the lowest number of motorcycle fatalities. In Europe, Greece has the highest PTW ownership at 33 percent of the population, yet its casualty rate is one-third that of the UK. Said ACEM Secretary General Jacques Compagne in a media statement, “Ten per cent seems to be a critical tipping point.”
So how do we get more motorcycles on the road? Fortunately, a new organization has taken up the cause: Motorcycles OK.
“If I talk quickly, it’s because I’m passionate,” says Paul McGeachie when we meet for coffee.
You might have read Paul’s Op/Ed piece “Motorcycles OK” in our October/November 2016 issue. Paul has co-opted the HOV lane message to aid his mission to have motorcycles afforded recognition for what they are: a serious transportation alternative with real, tangible benefits. Commuting by motorcycle is faster, uses less fuel and creates less pollution. It also reduces congestion and eases parking woes. And motorcycling is a perfectly viable year-round alternative in BC’s lower mainland.
Reducing congestion? A Belgian study by transport specialists TML found that when 10 percent of drivers switched to motorcycles for their commute, the “Lost Vehicle Hours” caused by congestion fell by a staggering 63 per cent for all vehicles, with the time for a 14-minute commute cut to just six minutes.
So why should bicycles get such heavy promotion when motorcycles are the more practical option—especially if you include mopeds and scooters as city bikes? Pro-bicycle politicians trot out their ideological argument that bicycles produce no pollution at all. And that’s true. But plenty of drivers will never commute by bicycle, while they might just get on a scooter—especially in the ‘burbs, where commuting distances are considerably longer.
What about motorcycles and the environment? The argument is similar to BC premier Christy Clark’s support for liquefied natural gas. Stay with me here; there’s science involved…
The case for LNG is founded on the facts (remember those?) that, for the same amount of heat energy, LNG produces just 56 per cent of the CO2 from burning coal and 67 per cent that from oil. So switching from coal or oil to natural gas reduces CO2 output by 44 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. Okay, it’s not as clean as wind or solar energy; but it’s a big improvement, and buys time to develop cleaner energy sources.
So it is with motorcycles. Yes, they produce CO2 and consume fossil fuels, but way less than a car. Even a full size motorcycle like the Honda NC700X produces 43 per cent less CO2 than a Toyota Prius. A small commuter bike could halve that. And as the lack of cars using HOV lanes demonstrates, the overwhelming percentage of cars on the road have no passengers—just the driver.
But a significant speedbump in the way of motorcycle commuting is this: without being able to “filter” through stationary traffic, some of the benefits are lost. The practice is legal in California; and Oregon and Washington may soon follow. Why not in BC? The California decision was based, in part, on a UC Berkeley study showing lane splitting to be safer for motorcyclists than sitting in traffic.
And we all want to improve road safety…don’t we?

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