Motorcycle road safety: Have we been missing out?

motorcycles bend

Published on 26 November 2016 by Robert Drane


Filed under categories: Features, Campaigning

Graeme Hay explains the BMF’s next steps in the fight for safer bikes and roads

Bike safety: A history

In general terms motorcycling is, according to the data, safer now than it has ever been since the national recording of collisions began in the 1920s.

In the 1990s the Government set a target of a reduction in road deaths of 40% by 2010. It was recognised at the time as a pretty ambitious target, especially as it came fresh on the back of having just achieved a 50% reduction in road deaths in the 15 preceding years.

In 2015 the new Government had the chance to set another target for this but decided, for the second time running not to do this. There could be any number of reasons for this omission, but many think that it was mostly related to a desire to continue to reduce public expenditure.


Make no mistake, road safety costs. In the UK, road safety has been successfully approached by dividing the entire matter into three headings: Education; Engineering and Enforcement. Road safety costs new riders in the training that they have to pay for to work their way through the multiple repeats of the same inadequate test to archive A1, A2 and eventually an A licence.

It costs local authorities in specialist road surfaces, safer roadside furniture and road safety training; it costs customers (not very much) in the safety equipment controlling their car and protecting them and it costs in policing to support it all with enforcement of the rules.

We can all argue endlessly about how each of these aspects is addressed, how much more or less time and money should be spent and which bits work and which don’t but that is how it is done and the UK’s road safety record is the best in the world.


The one or two most recent shining lights in road safety include the all-new Transport for London urban roads design guide, which the BMF played a significant part in creating. The other is the work that the BMF are now engaged with on rural roads with the recently formed Highways England.

These two work streams offer us the opportunity to take a fresh look at both types of road and open the door to beginning to break the log-jam around motorcycling and road safety. Is there a log-jam? Well, yes there really is. You see, while all of the figures for road deaths have been falling for almost 50 years it has all come to a bit of a stop, in the last four. It isn’t really going up very much, if you consider the recovery from the economic problems of 2008 and the year on year increase in motorcycle sales demonstrate this. In 2013 and 2014 sales rose by 10% and in 2015 by 15%. The >50cc to <125cc sector growing by 45% shows us the people really are “getting on their bikes” for work, college or fun. In the car world things are a little different – deaths continue to decline. So what is going on?


In March, I gave a presentation to a group called the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety. I have been attending the meetings of this group for a few years and these folk matter; they matter because they are the people the Minister asks when they want to know about traffic safety. In this presentation I felt that it was time to move the whole issue of motorcycle safety forward.

In 2014, the Motorcycle Industries Association had produced their excellent document called “Realising the Motorcycle Opportunity”. It is a very detailed document, which is being revised in its content and details all of the time but one of its data-based conclusions was that the greater incidence of motorcycles on the roads leads to a proportionate reduction in motorcycle involvement in collisions. The data for this has come from comparing two-wheeler collision rates from many countries with the ration of two-wheelers to four wheelers in each case. It is convincing, but because the message comes from the industry body that represents those whose income is derived from the sale of motorcycles and motorcycle accessories it is proving hard work to put these facts over.

My own approach to moving the whole business of influencing government on motorcycle safety, on behalf of the BMF and you is similarly fresh. The reduction in deaths and serious injuries for car occupants has, in the greater part, been achieved through safety engineering in the design of cars and the design of the roads they drive on. There is no evidence to suggest that fewer collisions take place; the cars are just safer to be in when they are crashed.

Looking for a comparison with motorcycling, I could find next to nothing that compares with these car developments. The only thing that has changed in motorcycling safety in the last 40 or 50 yeas has been the training and the compulsory wearing of a crash helmet. You don’t agree? Well, let me show you.

Proof of progress

In 1971, Vauxhall Motors launched a new small family saloon model. It was called the Vauxhall Viva HC. In the same year BSA/Triumph motorcycles launched the Triumph T120 and BSA A65 Lightning/Thunderbolt in the then new P39 frame. This was normally recognised as the ‘Oil-in-Frame’ model, if that helps? I chose the Viva because it was the first production car to include a telescopic collapsible steering column, a split-circuit braking system that enabled half of the brakes to keep working if there was a leak in one of the halves, as well as front and rear collapsible crush-areas in the body-shell.

I chose the BSA Lightning because it is the same age and, similar to the Viva, a medium-priced revision of previous models and because both were an update on a previous model, which had changed relatively little.

In comparison, the present Vauxhall Astra includes a number of features, which are compared below this its venerable ancestor. To compare the BSA/Triumph product I have chosen the nearest option, which was either a Triumph Bonneville or the Kawasaki W800; I went for the Kawasaki and below you will see why.

The table below compares the in-built safety features of each vehicle.

Vauxhall Viva HC

Vauxhall Astra 2016

BSA A65 Lightning

Kawasaki W800

Front static seat belts

Front and rear inertia-reel seat belts with

pre-tension device. ISOFix child seat fittings.

Ergonomic seat design with integral head restraints



Telescopic steering column

Adjustable telescopic steering column



Collapsible front and rear body sections

Collision energy body-shell front, rear with side

impact protection. Driver and passenger front

airbags, side-impact airbags and curtain airbags



12-V electrical system, Tungsten headlamps and electric windscreen wipers

12v Electrical system. LED daytime running lights and Halogen headlamps. Night sensing headlamps. Rain sensing wipers. Anti-dazzle rear view mirror. Parking sensor system

12v electrical system. Brake lamp on rear brake. Indicators

12v electrical system. Brake lamp on front & rear brakes. Daytime running headlamp

Drum brakes front and rear with split-circuit system

Disc brakes with full Electronic stability control package, including ABS, traction control, independent automatic four wheel braking

Drum brake (front and rear)

Disc brake front. Drum brake (Rear)

13 inch X 4 1/2 inch cross ply tyres

16, 17 or 18 inch X 215 or 225 mm radial ply tyres

Dunlop K81 TT100 Tyres

Dunlop K81 TT100 Tyres


Education, education, education

Now, this table is not exhaustive: the modern Vauxhall Astra has many more features than those shown but the table does illustrate the point that whilst so much has been added to modern cars to make collisions less likely and the consequences much less, motorcycles of a similar type have not really changed.

You may recall that I mentioned that UK road safety is addressed in three areas: Education, Engineering and Enforcement. Clearly, we are not looking at Enforcement in this piece; we are considering Engineering and, as you will see Education.

As I have stated, there are no more or less collisions on UK roads today than there were in 1971. In the car world things have become safer because it is safer to crash in a modern car and because cars in the last seven years have been equipped with Electronic Stability Control Anti-Lock Braking. There have been some changes in the driving test, but, in broad terms, driver education has altered little – remember, a full car licence is yours after just theory and one practical test: a motorcycle licence takes off-road theory and practice. A theory test and the same practical test taken three times to arrive at a full ‘A’ licence.

I don’t know what you think, but it looks to me like everything that has been achieved since 1971 in motorcycle safety must have been done by education?

I know that we have had ABS on large and expensive motorcycles for 20 years and traction control/launch control/electronic stability devices on the most expensive and high performance machines for the past eight or nine years, but none of this has appeared on the bikes ridden by the least familiar riders – learners! This is the basis of my new message to those in road safety, the DfT and others in positions of influence.

In September, Anna Zee, our Director of Political and Technical services will be putting this case to the annual general meeting of the Institute of Traffic Accident Investigators. This body represents the many police officers and senior civilian collision investigators. The BMF message is clear: we are no longer willing to accept that one of the biggest single causes of fatal motorcycle collisions is listed as “loss of control”. We need to understand why control was lost, if we are to begin to move the numbers of road deaths of motorcycle users downwards again.

What you want…

I imagine that you may now be beginning to think that I am advocating all sorts of fiendish and expensive devices be fitted to bikes to spoil our enjoyment in riding and controlling our machines? I am not doing that at all: I just think that we need to have a share in the inexpensive technological solutions to many minor slips and slides, which result in anything from a momentary missed heartbeat to a fatal collision.

I have quoted a friend of mine before in his experience of leaving a roundabout, to climb a slip road onto a motorway. He was applying “firm acceleration” at the time when he encountered a fuel spill on the slip road. It was, under these circumstances a “Game-Over” moment for Bill but for the bike’s traction control system. In less time than he could describe the engine note altered, the bike recovered and the power came back in. He was still trying to work out what had just happened as he was merging into the motorway flow. So, you don’t want that? You want to have a crash, smash your bike and possibly yourself up? Of course you don’t and neither do I. I want to keep riding and enjoying motorcycling for as long as I can.

What’s next?

So, apart from Anna and me launching our new campaign on getting proper collision avoidance technology and collision investigation for motorcycle riders what is actually going to happen? The answer is plenty.

When I chose the two bikes for this comparison, I chose the BSA because I felt like it and the Kawasaki rather than a modern Triumph Bonneville for what follows. The very fine Hinkley Bonneville has been replaced this year by a couple of new models with different engine sizes. Already the subject of rave reviews these excellent motorcycles both include traction control and ABS systems. In fact all new models coming into the UK and Europe will now have to have either ABS or a linked-braking system. Please take a look at the specification of new models to see this.

The Kawasaki W800 is likely to fade away. That was why it was chosen – it is the end of the line, in the form it is today. On the question that has so often been raised as an objection to such technology: “What will it do to the price of new bikes?” I suspect that as in the car world the cost will come down because everyone is doing it and volume decreases the price of technology and it will all get wrapped-up in the cost of that latest model that you always wanted.

Where does this take us? Well, it is my case to the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety group that motorcycling has achieved all that it has through rider-skills. The evidence shows that there has been precious little else. PPE has become better; of that there is no doubt but it is no comparison to multiple airbags etc. At the end of this year all new model motorcycles sold in the EU will have to be equipped with either linked brakes or an ABS system. It is a sad fact that the learner riders’ bikes, where price is a key concern are most likely to have the linked system as opposed to the ABS. So the riders who need it most, will be denied it. This is really sad but at this stage I’ll be thankful for small mercies.

The next message to the PACTS group must now be to leave us alone; it will take five to 10 years for the results of the introduction of motorcycle on-board safety technology change the collision statistics. After all, we waited for 40 years for our cars safety technology to show the huge changes, didn’t we?