Fast Bikes Save Lives

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Horsepower has been an issue and in this month's pages it rules, but I'm more interested in how it affects riders; in particular their safety. In many countries, France for example, motorcycles are limited to 100 horsepower. Now the French government is proposing a 12 percent tax on bikes over that limit. What is it, a safety issue or a revenue stream for the government? I say revenue stream because speed-the logical result from big-hp bikes-is not a major cause of accidents. In our own landmark Hurt Report, the average speed of the 900 accidents studied was below 30 mph.

From that 1981 study until now we still find that nearly half of all motorcycle accidents are caused by an automobile driver violating the rider's right of way, usually at an intersection. The other major category of incidents involves a single vehicle, with "loss of control" in a curve given as the reason. The rider managed to bin it after some series of errors on his part. That wasn't then and isn't now due to horsepower. Indeed, riders most often "lose control" in slower turns if my 10 million miles of track schools is worth anything

The first California race club that imposed a 450cc limit on novice racers is an interesting example. I asked why the limit and was told that the high-horsepower bikes had become too fast. Once the club's crash statistics for the previous two years were reviewed, what size bikes do you think had been involved in the worst accidents? Yes, it was bikes under 550cc. So why impose the lower limit? "It shows responsibility," was the reply I got. That was in the early '80s when a fast 1000 only made about 100 bhp.

The assumption that speed and horsepower kill is as false now as it was from its very beginning. Speed and horsepower do not kill or maim riders; they only make bikes faster. My take on it is that the speed and power actually intimidate most riders into not using it, but that potential delivers an enormous surge of personal satisfaction from knowing they have it on tap. When you see a guy in jeans and a T-shirt in Beverly Hills, you suspect he's got some bucks. Same with bikes: Riders tend to understate rather than overstate the extra squirt. Sure, you goose it now and then to show that smarmy Porsche driver you've got smoke for him to eat. However, statistically speaking, you don't die because of it. I think I could make a legitimate case for the safety factor of really fast bikes. In fact, in a recent and very complete study, it was shown that 600cc bikes were involved in far more major injury accidents than their 1000cc counterparts

What statistics have also shown all along is that rider training works. Trained riders have fewer accidents. As rider training has become more available-and even mandatory-it has positively impacted statistics. Riders who have raced or been trained by professionals are even safer. No data is yet available from track day participants, but I'd be willing to bet they will be underrepresented in accident statistics. My own experience over the years is encapsulated in this often repeated statement: "After riding on the track, fast street riding just feels wrong."

Training works. In the end, tough coaching on the fundamental skills gives a rider real control of his bike. And that breeds not a less responsible rider, but one that knows his bike's limits and, most importantly, his own limits. Untrained riders wallow in a sea of uncertainty about what they and their bike can do. Once pushed to improve, they see weaknesses. They see that there is an actual technology of riding. They see they must work hard for every technical skill they have. And they respect themselves and their bikes that much more because of it.