European Motorcycle Culture

And how it differs from the UK.

I've recently returned from a holiday in Mallorca. I happened to be there at the same time as Jeremy Clarkson, though I didn't see him. I even made a couple of humorous tweets to this effect.

Now, I suspect he DID hire something like a Range Rover and was probably hiding away in some swanky villa up in the hills. What I don't think he was doing was zipping around the island on a rented moped.

Now, mopeds and motorcycles are VERY popular in Mallorca and Spain in general I think. We used to be told all the time. 'Tourists shouldn't hire mopeds!' in the name of safety, however, the Spanish seem to love these things - they are everywhere.

So is the safety thing a myth? I did some digging and found some EC statistics on Motorcycle and Moped accidents.

Now what you read into these figures is though Spain has more accidents, they have less per vehicle. Significantly less. When you're driving around Spain or the Spanish islands, you might find this a little hard to believe, because the kids bombing around on these crotch rockets are actually quite kamikaze, diving through tiny gaps and weaving through traffic.

None of the Spanish Fob Jockeys seem to wear much in the way of protection either. An open face helmet, a T-shirt or vest, shorts and a sturdy paid of flip flops seems to be the norm. A few go to the extreme of long trousers and a pair of trainers. But not many.

So how are all these Spanish kids racing all around the city of Palma in their bikini's and trunks, on modern versions of Vespas and not getting killed?

The question bugged me, so I tried to study their actions and driving style, and work out what was going on.

I actually think I worked it out. The reason is multi-layered and complex. I believe it all stems from a fundamental difference in how mopeds and motorcycles are perceived. The fact is, the Spanish seem to see these rolling death-traps as very much what the British did in the 1960's and earlier. They weren't a weekend toy, they were a cheap alternative for people who couldn't afford a car. The net result of this was that in the 1960's in Britain, many middle-aged car drivers had once been young motorcyclists.

I think this created empathy for them. The drivers on four wheels in Spain seem to give two-wheeled riders space, they don't get aggressive when the riders weave around them or slip in between them. In short they respect them. They have no animosity for them.

Now in the UK, what a moped or motorcycle was for, changed. Motorcycles became an expensive toy for thrill-seekers and mopeds became a 1 year stand-in for teenagers who were too young to get a car. Our 16 year olds never get time to get 'good' on a moped and as soon as they are on four wheels they forget their humble original vehicle. Most of the UK population however, NEVER gets on a crotch rocket. They never experience the challenge of navigating busy traffic on a slim, nimble, but vulnerable vehicle. The skill set is different. Someone who has never jumped on a motorbike can't really understand why motorcyclists ride in the manner they do. The best drivers for motorcyclists to share the road with are ex-motorcyclists.

This is my perception. I believe this is why Spaniards have less accidents per vehicle on two wheels. I suppose the dry roads perhaps help a little, but I think the culture is a bigger factor.

Am I advocating change? A five-year probationary period for new drivers where they have to drive 10 miles a day on a moped in order to graduate to a motorcycle, then the same again before they can get a car? Yes, that might ease traffic, but I don't think it's a solution.

Ultimately, the UK has less accidents per inhabitant, and that's a good thing. We maybe even get more accidents per vehicle because they are mainly bought by thrill-seekers who want to ride at the edge of sanity, as much as because UK motorists broadly speaking don't respect bike culture and drive accordingly.

The fact is the advice about hiring mopeds abroad, probably IS true. Unless you're a seasoned motorcyclist, you're probably better off sticking to 4 wheels. I always think you make any situation more dangerous when you mix different kinds of traffic, Forklifts and pedestrians, lorries and cars, cars and bicycles, mixed traffic is always more dangerous. Especially so when it's daft British tourists who've never been on two wheels before and irate, impatient, Spanish taxi drivers!

Martyn Stanley

[ICT] Irreverent Car Talk

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Comments (4)

  • The ultimate irony here, is I later learned that while I thought was in some swanky villa up in the hills... He was probably in some hospital bed, desperately trying to NOT die of pneumonia! I was heroically ill while in Mallorca too as it happens. Though I wasn't hospitalized... Pity really, I might have been able to snag an autograph!

      3 years ago
  • Interesting article, Martyn! Here in Brazil we have plenty of motorbikes in the city (mainly for deliveries, but also because traffic/price), so we get A LOT of accidents because of imprudent riding. To me, it seems like speed is always the culprit. I'm sure people in Mallorca must take their time to go to places. To be honest, I wouldn't want to go anywhere at all if I were there.

      3 years ago
    • It's true, though there was a lot of weaving most of the kids weren't racing around at breakneck speed.

        3 years ago
  • : I take it you didn't decide to brave two wheels while you in Mallorca? I did see a bloke on a yacht in the marina in the posh part of Palma, that looked a bit like you, when I looked again I decided he looked like a banker though.

      3 years ago