Are bikers victims of bad driving, or just plain dangerous?
Accidents and fatalities involving Plymouth motorcyclists have seen a rapid increase over recent years. Police figures show the city as a biker fatality hotspot compared to other cities its size. The Herald's Deputy Head of News Helen Pearse found out what it is like first hand to be a biker on Plymouth roads.
ROAD users are often divided into two camps: those who see bikers as innocent victims of others’ poor driving skills, and those who think bikers put themselves in danger by the way they ride.
I decided to find out what it is like to be a biker in our city and get some tips by spending a couple of hours on two wheels with Lee Grant from one of the city’s leading motorcycle coaching organisations.
As a car driver I try to be as aware as possible of bikes on the road. But I wonder how many others do the same, or indeed, how aware they are of their own driving skills?
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Motorcycling is a passion for many and is hugely enjoyable but it doesn’t come without risks.
When you’re on two wheels instead of four, without a metal cage around you, you’re suddenly more vulnerable. You have to have your wits about you 10 times more than when you’re just sat behind the wheel of a car.
Riding around the streets of Plymouth this became ever more apparent as Bike Coach Lee gave a running commentary through our linked radios.
According to Lee you have to second-guess what car drivers are about to do and make sure you’re ready for it. This proved to be true on Gdynia Way and the Embankment, with cars changing lanes without indicating, and potentially not seeing a biker. By holding back and keeping an eye on any hesitant drivers, we could guess which ones were about to make their move in front of us – and we were right.
It was the same at onslips on to the A38, drivers tend to pull out assuming the oncoming traffic will move over. Ok, this isn’t always possible for cars or bikes, but it would be the biker that is less likely to be seen and in more danger. Interestingly, doing 70mph from Marsh Mills to Deep Lane, 99 per cent of cars were overtaking us. Now I’m not going to pretend us car drivers never speed, but it’s ironic how it’s the bikers who have the bad reputation, and we were being left behind.
Road positioning is one of the most vital factors to consider in bike riding, says Lee. Keeping your distance from the car in front of you, especially in slow moving traffic in case you are bumped from behind, positioning yourself on the road so you have the furthest view ahead and around corners, is also important. At junctions, be prepared for other road users to pull out in front of you, so move as far as possible away to give yourself more time to manoeuvre.
Bikers by definition are harder to see on the roads. So they have to be extra vigilant. When riding in busy streets, they need to keep their eyes out for pedestrians stepping into the road, people talking on their phones or texting and not concentrating, and other road users. Of course car drivers do all this too, but they have the advantage of a big hulk of metal surrounding them making them more obvious. Bikers are less visible, so it’s down to them to be more careful.
You have to expect the unexpected I suppose. This became clear when we were on the A379 at Ermington. A car in front of us was trying to turn from Ermington towards Modbury, on a tricky junction. He clearly couldn’t manage it, and ended up doing a three point turn over both lanes of the road. We had held back to give him the room, but a car or bike coming from either of the other directions doing the 60mph speed limit, wouldn’t have stood a chance.
One of the other things I noticed whilst out on the bike, is how much road surface can affect bikers. The tyre contact with the road for a bike is no bigger than the width of an iPhone, so road surface and wet roads can have a huge impact. We all know Plymouth roads are ladened with potholes and broken tarmac, but we also came across diesel spillages in the city centre, and mud and hay on the country lanes, all of which a car driver wouldn’t bat an eyelid at, but could make a biker lose control.
An issue I know often upsets car drivers is when bikers ride between rows of waiting vehicles – usually on the approach to traffic lights or roundabouts. Lee explained that this “filtering” in most situations is perfectly legal.
However, bikers need to keep an eye on their speed when filtering as cars can change lanes, people can cross between the rows of cars thinking it’s safe and there’s always the danger of a vehicle being let out of a junction across the rows of traffic that the bike can’t see.
Everyone seems to have their own opinion on bikers, and many automatically assume that when a biker is in an accident, it’s always their fault.
Obviously there are many bikers on the roads who ride recklessly, take risks, and may well end up in accidents. But the vast majority are not like that. Bikers aren’t all riding powerful sports bikes and breaking speed limits like they’re on racetracks. Many use their motorcycle purely as a functional tool, to commute to work, to get from A to B. But these riders end up in accidents too.
Lee said: “Certainly there are times when some bikers put themselves at huge risk by the way they ride and the chances they take. Car drivers do too. But the consequences of a biker getting it wrong are tragic. However, the bikers being killed and seriously injured are not always tearaway sportsbike riders – the Monday to Friday worker commuting, riding his bike well and within the law is also a victim in road accidents. This would suggest that it’s not always the biker taking risks and the actions of other road users has to be taken into account”.
If Lee had a message for car drivers and bikers what would it be?
“There has to be more tolerance and awareness on both sides. Car drivers and other road users must recognise a bike’s vulnerability and actively look out for bikes and especially at junctions. The consequences of a loss of concentration could be a fatality on the road”.
But Lee has a sobering message for bikers too. “It’s no good saying that it was someone else’s fault and they were in the wrong. Hospital food tastes the same no matter whose fault the accident was. If you’re not sure about the quality of your riding then get some training to refresh your skills.
“Bikes will always come off worse in an accident so the approach must be to avoid the accident in the first place. Enjoy your bike but ride with your wits about you and expect the worst from other road users – being prepared for something bad to happen will give you vital seconds to take some action which could save your life”.