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Module One Incidents – an objective analysis

The ‘Module One’ off-road part of the UK motorcycle test was introduced in late April 2009, after a series of delays.

Immediately, there were a number of high profile accidents where candidates crashed during Module One, specifically during the high speed manoeuvres, the ‘avoidance’ and ’emergency stop’ manoeuvres.

As part of its remit, the House of Commons Transport Committee looked at the recorded incidents and published them in a House of Commons document earlier this year. (Safety of the Module One test)

The table below from that document highlights the number of ‘incidents’ that occured during Module one testing from its incorporation into the UK motorcycle test in late April 2009 upto January 2010.

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According to the document:

“The Department for Transport accepted that the number of incidents taking place during Module 1 tests was relatively high immediately after the introduction of the new test, but highlighted that the number of incidents had subsequently returned to more acceptable levels (see the table above).

Looking at the data which extends from spring through into the middle of winter, some points stand out.

The most obvious is that the “test not completed” figure rises with bad weather. As I recall, the last few days of April in 2009 were wet and windy, and of course the weather in December 2009 and January 2010 were freezing cold, with ice and snow affecting many areas.

So it’s something of a surprise to see that the winter months of December 09 and January 10 both have the lowest proportion of ‘incidents’ recorded in the chart (barring June 09), which isn’t what you’d expect in poor weather conditions.

Unfortunately, the way the figures are recorded make it impossible to say exactly when a test recorded as ‘not completed’ was actually abandoned. The list of reasons for a test being recorded as ‘not completed’ actually include a whole list of reasons when the test was never started:

  1. Candidate failed to attend at test centre

  2. Late cancellation by candidate / school

  3. Candidate late arriving for test

  4. Test cancelled due to examiner being ill

  5. Test cancelled due to examiner being absent

  6. Test cancelled as unable to start test on time

  7. Bad weather at Driving Test Centre

  8. Bad weather at candidate’s home

as well as the test being abandoned mid-test, due to breakdowns, accidents or the candidate deciding to halt the test themselves.

However, I’ll take a guess that the low incident figures in Dec/Jan are down to three things happening:

  1. A significant number of tests simply didn’t go ahead.

  2. Candidates taking tests on a 125 after doing CBT and no further training didn’t bother to book tests in the appalling weather so don’t feature in the figures at all.

  3. Training schools would have gone ahead with training whenever conditions allowed, as they need to keep operating all year round. As well as candidates from training schools being better prepared in general, the likelihood is that a proportion of the less able candidates were actually pulled off the test by their instructors or decided themselves not to risk it .

Given all that, the low ‘incident’ rate in Dec/Jan probably skewed the overall incident rate for the study 0.49% downwards; it should have been higher.

Interestingly, November 09 where the late autumn weather was kinder than in the following two months actually recorded an incident rate of over 1%, the highest on the chart.

The exercise that caused the ‘incident’ is recorded in the next table.

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It’s a bit difficult to see what’s happening there.

It does appear that initially the ‘avoidance’ swerve caused the incidents early one, but then the emergency stop created more problems towards the end of the period. What is clear is that incidents caused by the parking, slalom, figure of eight, slow ride and U turn exercises are trivial.

What we could be seeing here is two things:

  1. the failure of the DSA to provide any real guidance to instructors on how to train for the swerve and the lack of adequate practice facilities for candidates (either on the DSA sites as was promised during the consultation period, or on schools’ own ATB sites) caused many of the early incidents, but as instructors got used to the manoeuvres, they determined strategies to pass onto the candidates to allow for the manoeuvre to be completed safely.

  2. the colder, wetter weather in November increasing the number of incidents on the emergency stop suggesting again that the winter months will see more incidents simply due to the lower friction levels available, and no dispensation to perform the manoeuvre at lower speed or with more space to take account of the conditions.

So the implication is that the ‘incident’ rate does increase with bad weather.

One can surmise that the exercises get riskier as the weather gets wetter and colder, and reinforces the idea that insufficient attention has been paid to the difference in performance of tarmac and tyres when conditions are less than optimum. It would be interesting to see the figures for February 2010 (which was also icy and extremely cold) and March and April this year which were more spring-like, and to see if the low incident rate was repeated in the summer months of 2010.

The committee agrees with the second point:

The off-road motorcycle test effectively bars candidates from adapting their riding to reflect the prevailing weather, road and other circumstances affecting their stopping distances. This cannot be appropriate, and we urge the Government to amend the regulations on this point as soon as possible. We note that it is the Government’s implementation rather than the EU Directive which has caused this problem. It should therefore be straightforward to rectify.

However, they also say:

These two exercises account for almost 92% of all incidents, and given that both manoeuvres test essential skills, it is difficult not to conclude that training of these particular skills needs to improve…

…There is no doubt that training and instruction for the motorcycle test needs to develop and change to reflect the new test requirements. This is not a bad thing. It provides an opportunity to raise standards and develop a culture where good training is encouraged and valued.

I can’t help but think that training schools are being somewhat unfairly targetted here.

One problem that’s not been mentioned is that candidates on a 125 with just a CBT can walk into the Module One test with no further instruction. CBT does not prepare candidates for the Module One exercises, yet there’s no evidence presented in the incident statistics to differentiate between riders who’ve taken training and those that haven’t. It’s clearly unfair to bash trainers if there is a disproportionate number of candidates crashing who didn’t take training in the first place!

The committee says:

The rate of incidents and accidents occurring in Module 1 tests need to be monitored carefully, and the DSA needs to react without delay if incident levels do not decline. The DSA must be prepared to make adjustments to the test design if required, and it must work closely with the industry to ensure that candidates only attempt the test when they are genuinely ready for it. This requires a culture shift, and the DSA must help and encourage the industry in every way possible to achieve this.

It’s worth pointing out that the DSA’s figures show that riders with no training beyond CBT had a worse failure rate (as I recall it was around 50% passed first time) on the previous incarnation of the test than that for candidates who tested via training schools (around 80% passed first time). The pass rate for motorcycle candidate who’ve trained through a school is much higher than for car candidates, so it’s a little disengenous to suggest that the motorcycle training industry doesn’t prepare candidates well.

I think we need to look elsewhere.

I’ve already mentioned that the DSA simply do not prepare trainers for huge shifts in the testing regime like this. The various open days and road shows are simply inadequate, particularly as they usually require instructors to take days off work (not simple when you work for a bike school) and often to travel long distances too.

The second issue is that the exercises are designed for bikes travelling at or around 50kph. Because of the set-up of the equipment and the minimum speed cut-off, it’s difficult (if not impossible) for candidates to correctly judge their speed, and anecdoctally many of the crashes relate to “overspeed” incidents where the candidate has carried far more speed into the exercise that it was designed for. Far better speed monitoring equipment that the trainee can see easily is essential; I’ve suggested a traffic light system in the past and I see from the report that others have taken this up.

Finally, how bad is the incident rate? Are any accidents “acceptable”? Is a 1% accident rate where one in one hundred candidates crash on the high speed manoeuvres a “poor” rate, whilst 0.5% (one in two hundred) a “good” rate?

One way to get an idea would be to compare with the old test where there was no swerve and the emergency stop manoeuvre and U turn were carried out on the road. Well, somewhat to my surprise, the DSA say they don’t have the figures:

“When questioned, the Chief Executive of the DSA, Ms Thew, indicated that it was not possible to compare these incident levels to the rate under the old test regime. The old test had taken place exclusively on the road, and any incidents would have been registered simply as road traffic accidents, and the fact that it took place during a test would not have been recorded.”

I find it a little hard to believe the reason the test was abandoned wasn’t recorded, but nevertheless, falling back on my time as a basic trainer where I put around 1000 people through the test, I can only recall one incident on the emergency stop where the candidate fell off on test – I only had a couple crash in practice!

That’s 0.1% and considerably better than the current figures from Module One. The reason is almost certainly because the candidate could moderate their stop to the conditions, allowing more distance when the roads were cold and wet. Clearly the high speed exercises result in heavy, potentially dangerous, falls.

On the other hand, dropping the bike on the U turn was fairly common on the on-road test. A wild guess might put the figure at maybe 2 or 3% of candidates would hit the kerb or grab the front brake mid-turn and topple over sideways. Removing the stresses of having to turn on a road with camber, between kerbs and with the threat of being run down has resulted in a greatly reduced incident rate, and presumably an increase in the pass rate, for this exercise.

There are clearly improvements that have to be made on both sides, by the training industry and by the DSA to ensure that Module One is as safe as possible for candidates.

But it’s important that the can isn’t handed back to the trainers to carry and that the DSA accept there need to be changes to the wet weather set up if winter testing is not to carry an additional risk.

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