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Articles > Motorcycle risks and safety

Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous. It is about four times as dangerous as driving a car - that is, you are four times as likely to have a fatality. So why do people ride motorcycles then? In this article, I will explain the risks, some ways to mitigate them, and upcoming technology on new bikes which help to reduce them.

Australian statistics highlight that around 50% of motorcycle fatalities are the result of single vehicle accidents (SVA). Such accidents do not involve another vehicle, but for example are the result of the rider losing control, running off the road or hitting a fixed object.

SVAs are not the end of the story however. In an Multiple Vehicle Accidents (MVAs), motorcycle riders are at least 20 times more likely to have a fatality compared to car drivers. This is because another factor is involved - another moving vehicle. A motorcyclist hitting a fixed object is one thing, but being exposed to another moving vehicle multiplies the risk substantially. The other vehicle has enormous energy, and a rider with little more than a helmet and protective clothing stands little chance of survival against a large chunk of moving metal.

So why would such SVAs and MVAs occur with bikes? Well, during the course of riding or driving, the vehicle operator may have to take evasive action to avoid having an accident. Evasive action may be necessary to avoid an obstruction on the road, other road users, errant pedestrians or even wildlife. Usually evasive action will involve swerving or braking hard. More often than not, braking hard is the more effective approach because swerving is far more risky. And when braking hard, the rider may panic and apply too much pressure in an emergency, causing the wheels to lock up. Once locked up, a bike will irrevocably lose control, giving the rider no further ability to apply corrective action.

By comparison, on a car without an Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), locking up the wheels by applying to much braking is not a big deal. Simply release the brake pressure briefly until the wheels regain traction. Then you may reapply. By virtue of having four patches of road contact, the car is far more stable and highly resistant to falling on its side. Hence the high probability of regaining control after traction loss.

But on a bike, once traction is lost, that's it. Being a single tracked vehicle, there is no 'redundancy' of extra wheels to maintain that all-important rubber to road contact. As such, the bike tyres will slip, causing it to fall to its side and ultimately slide along the road. There is no way to correct for this in single tracked vehicles. Or is there?

If a motorcycle has ABS fitted, just like a car, it would significantly reduce the chances of losing traction due to wheel lockups. But the benefits on a bike are far greater than on a car, because once traction is lost on a bike, there is no going back unlike a car. There are no second chances after a lock up.

There are growing calls in Australia to make ABS systems mandatory on all new motorcycles sold here. More and more European motorcycles now have them fitted as standard, yet bikes imported to Australia tend not to have them. The big question is why?

It may be several years before ABS and other traction control systems become 'standard' on all new bikes sold. The technology already exists in a form mature enough for use on high performance race bikes, but is yet to make any real appearance in the showroom. Only the more expensive marques seem to have these safety features as standard.

On the other hand, a bike packed with safety features may give a false sense of safety to riders, who may then 'push the limits' more. It can be said that in a car with ABS, if you drive in a way that causes the ABS to kick in, you are pushing the limits too far. The same applies to motorcycling. It is an inherently risky form of transport. Ideally, if riders ride sensibly, the safety features should never see the need to activate. This is the best form of prevention.


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