Bill Jamieson: Motorbike fatalities are a shameful carnage

Educating bikers is the first step towards reducing their death toll on Scotlands roads, says Bill JamiesonEducating bikers is the first step towards reducing their death toll on Scotlands roads, says Bill Jamieson
Educating bikers is the first step towards reducing their death toll on Scotlands roads, says Bill Jamieson
Four weeks ago I wrote here of a motor cycle death just along the road from my house on the A85 in Lochearnhead. The biker, Scott Forbes, was the third motor cycle fatality that weekend.

Last Sunday, on exactly the same stretch of road running to St Fillans, death struck again. Two bikes collided. One rider was taken by helicopter to Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. The other was pronounced dead at the scene.

Just a coincidence on a bad stretch of road? Speed limit signs are now in place but were hooded and still to be unveiled when the crash occurred. But this was no local or isolated tragedy last weekend.

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In Aberdeenshire, biker Michael Reid died after suffering fatal injuries. Michael, who has 29 and came from the Peterhead area, had collided with a vehicle on the A98 Banff and Portsoy Road.

Earlier this month in Midlothian two motorcyclists died after their bike and sidecar was involved in a crash. Charles Howden, 64 and Fiona Stanley, 59 both from Newtongrange were killed when their Triumph Bonneville motorcycle collided with a BMW on the A6094 at Rosewell.

Through the summer and autumn the death toll has grown. As it has grown every year. For this is Scotland’s appalling yet barely remarked upon carnage.

We have grown inured to motorcycle deaths on Scotland’s roads. To the grief it brings to loved ones and families we barely give thought. More often our first reaction is irritation at journey delays as the scene is cordoned off and ambulances and police cars block the road.

The details are barely accorded more than a down-page brief in the newspaper. And after a week, who notices the wilting bouquet of flowers by the roadside? It is a grim cycle of fatality – and one to which we have long resigned.

This is beyond damnable. Our complacency is a crime. One death is bad enough. But a constantly recurring cycle of carnage should compel our attention.

This needs to end. Firm action is now required. And that must start with the bikers.

There may be no end of contributory causes: blind corners, poorly maintained roads, inadequate signage, careless car drivers, over-sized lorries, lumbering caravans… and the pootering bunnet-and-bifocals Sunday motorist whose 30 miles an hour crawl is oblivious to the long trail of infuriated drivers building up behind. The temptation to take risks, to ignore the ‘slow’ warnings and overtake at a bend is fuelled by this frustration.

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But there’s only so much blame that can be palmed off on contributory causes. Bikers themselves must face up to the compelling case for change.

Targeting that change, however, is not so straightforward. There are tens of thousands of bikers who drive safely and without incident. Richard Harris is an advanced motor cycle instructor, qualified under both with the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and the more rigorous Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

“The thrill-seeking explanation for bike crashes,” he argues, “doesn’t really stand up to analysis. But that’s not to say there aren’t problems with the extremes.

”Bikers don’t go out on the road to get killed. I don’t think that thrill-seeking is the problem. And many bikers are people who ride for other reasons than speed.”

Compared with the simple tests he undertook in the 1970s, “most bikers”, he tells me, “are safer, smarter and stay out of trouble.

“The IAM has put some 200,000 through its advanced training courses. But they are voluntary, so the applications for them are self-selecting - people who just want to be better bikers or who have had a scare.”

He likens the composition of the biker population to a Bell Curve with a large bulge of complacent bikers in the middle - those who believe they have no need of refresher courses on road care.

And then you have the “unreachables” at the extremes – those beyond any appeal of improvement or who may even feel that such later training is “transgressive” - an offence not just to the lifestyle but to the very raison d’etre of biking.

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How do you get to the ones who are a danger to others? “There is no call back after the initial test,” says Harris. “I would like to see that – and for cars as well as bikers.”

Breaking through the complacency, particularly amongst older bikers who think they know it all, is a struggle. “They may not be the biggest dangers,” says Harris, “but they are the biggest sufferers.”

It is this group where bad habits can become ingrained and where real benefit can be gained. “I once had a reluctant applicant for advanced training,” he recalls, “who had been biking for years and been given an ultimatum by his wife. The biker protested that he had 37 years’ experience but told me after the course: ‘You made me realise I didn’t have 37 years’ experience at all - I had one year’s experience – repeated 37 times.’”

Two thirds of all bike accidents, Harris tells me, occur within five miles of the biker’s home. “They go down with familiarity blindness - they think they know the risks but have grown blind to them.

“And people can get complacent immediately after passing their advance test.

“They think, ‘I don’t have to bother any more’. It’s complacency on stilts.”

The advance course which takes bikers up to police standards (though not police speeds) are, he says, high enough, covering road craft, machine craft and mind craft – “a soft skill that’s often overlooked. The Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency test has 50 questions – some 40 of these relate to road signs, six relate to your machine and only two to what you think you are doing.

“I’d like to see an expanded emphasis on machine control. In advanced training we are emphasising planning and thinking ahead: where is the road going, and positioning your machine accordingly. You don’t ride to the book. You should ride to the situation.

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“One of the biggest problems is target fixation – you get fixed on something immediately ahead. But you should be looking at where you want to go, rather than where the problem is.”

Transport Scotland figures show that bikers make up only one per cent of road traffic, but account for 15 per cent of fatalities and they were found to be particularly at risk when overtaking, which was the cause of 27 per cent of deaths.

Clearer warnings and signposts of danger areas would help. But basic biker tests need to be stiffened. And there is now a compelling case for advanced courses for bikers to be made obligatory.

Biker deaths on Scotland’s roads are now running at more than 30 a year. It is a shameful carnage. And it now compels stiff action to be taken.

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