With power comes great responsibility

Could the 'idiot minority' spell the end of race-developed superbikes in the UK? asks Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Over a police video clip of screaming sports bikes overtaking at terrifying pace, often between oncoming vehicles, a grave-voiced news reporter repeats a litany of statistics: in an accident a motorcyclist is 30 times more likely to be killed than a car driver. Despite only covering 1 per cent of all miles travelled, riders make up one in six of road deaths in Britain. Approximately 10 riders die every week. Another 20 are seriously injured; 400 more are fortunate to emerge from the carnage as walking wounded.

Over a police video clip of screaming sports bikes overtaking at terrifying pace, often between oncoming vehicles, a grave-voiced news reporter repeats a litany of statistics: in an accident a motorcyclist is 30 times more likely to be killed than a car driver. Despite only covering 1 per cent of all miles travelled, riders make up one in six of road deaths in Britain. Approximately 10 riders die every week. Another 20 are seriously injured; 400 more are fortunate to emerge from the carnage as walking wounded.

To uncritical minds, statistics like these tell an obvious story: motorcycles are very dangerous. Sensationalist television reporting of motorcycle accidents, which reach a peak in summer, reinforces this message: idiots on ultra fast motorbikes cause bike accidents.

A more sophisticated analysis reveals a different story. The most common type of motorcycle accident involves a car driver crossing the rider's path when the bike has right of way. Experienced riders know this happens with depressing frequency on roundabouts, at junctions and when overtaking.

The best thing that could happen to British motorcyclists would be for the car test to include a section on keeping the eyes open for two-wheeled vehicles. A mandatory element explaining that "I just didn't see you " is a confession of incompetence, not a catch-all excuse, would be particularly welcome. Retired owners of Nissan Micras should have it emblazoned on their dashboards.

Motorcyclists are one of the few minorities in modern Britain against whom the state promotes prejudice. It does it with draconian restrictions on who may ride what and how powerful it can be. Licence laws are designed to reinforce the fiction that accidents are predominantly the rider's fault. They oblige motorcyclists to undergo expensive compulsory training from which novice car drivers are exempt.

But there is fault on the motorcyclists' side, too. About 25 per cent of motorcycle accidents occur because the rider has taken a corner too fast. The "idiot minority" of motorcyclists routinely referred to by the police does exist. The controversial question is whether manufacturers are guilty of building machines designed specifically to appeal to this minority.

Motorbikes have always been thrilling. Part of the joy is that for less than the price of a Vauxhall Corsa the holder of a full motorcycle licence can own a machine that will humiliate a Ferrari between 0 and 60 mph and keep pulling to twice the legal speed limit or beyond. But in recent times a few standard production bikes have moved beyond fast.

Race technology has long been used to enhance the performance of road-going machines. But the scale of adaptation between racetrack and road has diminished. In the early 1980s when Yamaha used the "race developed" tag to suggest that their road bikes were direct descendants of racing technology they were exaggerating a lot. Now with machines like the YZF-R1 the connection is direct.

Machines including the Ducati 999S, Suzuki Hayabusa 1,300 and top of the range Kawasaki, Aprilia and Honda models owe similarly intense debts to the world of motorcycle sport.

The result is that riders who crave the sensation of approaching three miles per minute can purchase the wherewithal from their high street dealer. They need nothing more than a motorcycle licence. It is why the excellent BikeSafe initiative, run by police motorcyclists, teaches: "The best performance modification you can make to a sports motorcycle is to improve the skills of its rider."

Some riders take that message seriously. They take advanced training before beginning to explore the potential of modern sports bikes. They put their newly acquired skills to use at track days, never on public roads. But those police video clips are not fakes. The idiot minority remain willing to emulate their Grand Prix heroes on what they refer to as "secret motorcycling playgrounds".

While further regulation of motorcycles is no solution, a motorcycle with a power to weight ratio of 1bhp per kilogram (the YZF-R1 weighs 172kg and generates 180bhp) demands a level of riding skill most motorcyclists will never acquire.

Manufacturers and dealers should take a voluntary decision not to sell motorcycles that have been developed and tested by race-trained riders to people who lack comparable skills. The motorcycling community should unite to make training for the use of ultra high-performance bikes unavoidable. If it does not, our own Government or the European Union will make them illegal.

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