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Are the police/councils/speed cameras/drivers out to get us?

We like to think we’re good when we ride bikes.

In fact, if you look at accident statistics, we’re not. We really do have elementary accidents that could easily be avoided. It’s not just the few loonies that set a bad example, it’s fairly ordinary riders doing fairly ordinary things that kill and injury themselves and stack up the accident stats.

Bikers are 30 times more likely to be killed than a car driver, yet make up around 3% of the traffic.

Very few fatalities are down to the traditional biker’s fear, the urban SMIDSY – even in London, the SMIDSY is only responsible for around 1 in 12 deaths.

Most riders are killed on bends and overtakes where the rider is the one who gets it wrong, with other fatalities down to junction accidents where the rider is usually travelling too fast for the driver to get out of the junction safely. Quite simply most fatals are the rider’s fault.

The things that kill you in London traffic are filtering that goes wrong (you get run over by the car coming the other way or behind you after falling off at slow speed), and collisions with cars turning across your path from the opposite direction. But even those are predictable and largely avoidable.

Whilst I had plenty of experience of spotting the warning signs, I also did around 500,000 miles filtering and riding in London as a courier, I never had a SMIDSY, ‘vehicle turning across my path’ or filtering crash that knocked me off. Yes, there were a few low speed bumps but that was it.

Yes, there are the odd accidents that the rider couldn’t avoid but the vast majority are predictable – AND avoidable. I’ve had most of ’em and I know I was lucky to get away with it on several occasions.

And that’s the truth – it’s pretty ordinary bikers having pretty ordinary accidents that fill up the accident stats. That’s why riding in noisy groups, riding at speeds well over the speed limit, overtaking on doubles all attracts police attention.

Somehow it’s attractive to adopt a paranoid mindset and think “they’re all out to get us”. We look to blame other people for our accidents… “the road surface was crap… the car driver didn’t look… the bend wasn’t signposted… “

I’ve heard ’em all.

Coincidentally, there was a bit of an online discussion about the Cat and Fiddle, and one rider confessed to making a mess of one of the bends after getting caught up with the “mystique” of the road.

In the twenty five-odd years since I first crossed it I’ve done the Cat and Fiddle quite a few times, in fact before it became a famous “hooning” road. When all the fuss started to erupt about what a great but ‘dangerous’ biking road it was, I went back over it.

I got to the end and thought “what’s the fuss?”

Well surfaced, well signed, generally not too bad views (partic on the Cat & Fiddle), they really aren’t particularly testing.

If there’s a problem, it’s that some of the bends invite a fair amount of speed and lean angle… and the more speed… and the more lean angle… the more difficult it is to extricate yourself from a mistake.

That’s the key point about bends. A 30mph bend is barely less difficult than a 60mph bend that demands the same angle of lean – but the getting out of trouble when you got it wrong is MUCH harder on the faster bend. Think “double the speed, QUADRUPLE the stopping distance”.

That’ll give you an idea of where the real problem lies; you’ve far less margin for error. It’s not the road that’s the problem, it’s the rider. And it’s not so much “risk taking” so much as lack of appreciation of the risk!

So, what about the confidence riders have in protective clothing? That’s something else that’s changed dramatically since I started riding. But now as then, if you do have a collision or fall off whatever care you take in what you wear, you’re vulnerable.

Did you know body armour can only absorb a very limited amount of energy? It’s mostly designed to protect you from hitting the ground from a highside. In other words, however much body armour you wear and how good the CE marking on it, it won’t do a thing if you hit a car or a tree at much over running pace.

Likewise helmets are now so good (ie, they don’t shatter or fall off like they did in the 60s and 70s) that by the time your head discovers the difference in protection offered by a budget lid and a top of the range helmet, the rest of your body is unlikely to be interested because internal injuries will have already ensured you won’t survive – the head injuries will just kill you faster.

Basically, decent motorcycle kit saves you from relatively minor knocks from low speed crashes and abrasion from slides – that’s it.

So how do you get an edge?

I had a discussion with a rider the other day who locked up the front and fell off at 15mph in the wet then slid down the road into a car, but it wasn’t her fault for poor machine control, it was the driver who’d started to pull out.

But was she interested in learning not to do it again? Nope, she wanted the name of a good solicitor.

Surely it’s better to improve your riding so you don’t lock up and fall off at barely more than a gentle jogging pace?

Even if you don’t want to pay for a training course, there’s LOADS of help out there for bikers, and schemes all over the UK trying to reduce casualties – do a quick search on bike safety and see how many leaflets and things you can find.

Bikesafe is heavily subsidised, there are loads of council run schemes trying to improve rider safety and awareness (like the Somerset one that I’m involved with) yet the course in May and a free course run in the Oxfordshire area earlier this month have been undersubscribed.

There are other resources; individual police forces have produced at least three videos that they have distibuted for free like “Bikesafe 2000” by Thames Valley and “Ride the right line” by West Midlands (which is so good I use it as the basis for my Bends courses, and the motorcycle industry has been involved in the Edge scheme, cinema shorts like “Perfect Day” as well as a bunch of DVDs like “A road, a street, a track” and “Great roads, great ride” 1 and 2.

Actually, perhaps we should be paranoid – if car drivers knew how much money is spent on trying to keep us out of the hedge, they’d vote to ban bikes outright.

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