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How Safe is Motorcycling in the UK?

The Maths Behind The Motorbike.

2y ago

Having spent the last few days gleefully announcing to all and sundry that I've decided to get my motorbike license, I've been introduced to an interesting phenomena.

Now we all accept motorcyclists are vulnerable road users. However, every single person I've told I'm 'getting a bike' has immediately proceeded to reel off a long list of motorcyclists who've had accidents and ended up dead, in a coma or an amputee.

The basic perception that the majority of the people I've spoken to seem to have: is that motorcycling is roughly as safe as playing Russian Roulette with 5 chambers of a 6 shooter loaded. People seem to think 'getting a bike' is actually akin to committing suicide. In fact, given that so many suicide attempts are unsuccessful, some people to seem to consider motorcycling as MORE dangerous than attempting suicide.

Now if this was true, surely more people would be committing suicide by motorcycle? Surely it'd be a more exciting way of exiting this world than a toaster in the bath or bottle of whisky and a bottle of pills?

People DO ride motorcycles safely for years, without incidents. So this can't be true, but it does leave you with the question:

How Dangerous IS Motorcycling?

I've been doing some digging and some maths and trying to come up with some actual figures. The first fact, as published by the department of transport - is that motorcycling is safer than it was.

From 1979 to 2013 the fatalities and serious injuries figure fell from over 21,000 to around 5,000. In 2013 there was an average of 6 deaths and 94 serious injuries per week. Now that sounds like an improvement right?

The thing is since the 1960's the percentage of motorcycles on the road has fallen. There was a time when a bike was seen as a cheaper alternative to a car. These days they are either a fun toy, or a means of commuters in cities filtering through lanes and beating traffic to get to work on time. Most years, motorcycles account for less than 1% of UK road traffic. However, in 2013 for example, they accounted for 19% of fatalities.

So Who Exactly is HAVING these Accidents?

Well, most motorcycle accidents are had by the 16-20 age group. 86% of motorcycle casualties are men. The casualties fall until the 36-40 age group, then there's a second peak as they rise for 41-45 and again for 46-50. I suspect this is down to 'mid-life' crisis blokes jumping on bikes for the first time once the kids have left school or getting back on after a long break. However, the 'mid-life crisis' riders are NOWHERE near as likely to have an accident as the 16-20 group and actually fare better than the 21-25 and 26-30 groups too.

This actually makes sense. I wouldn't trust most 16 year old lads I know with a box of matches, let alone a 2-wheeled, two-stroke, death trap. That's an age group for whom recklessness is pretty fashionable. They don't have much if any road sense. They also tend to feel somewhat invincible. I can vouch for this, as these criticisms were true of ME, when I was 16 and bombing around a Yamaha DT50 - regularly coming off.

The logic behind the restricted power for young motorcyclists suddenly starts to make sense. This isn't a case of boring old guys in suits being utter killjoys. It's a response to the statistics, but those statistics are actually fairly grim.

Young male motorcyclists covering the 16-19 and the 20-29 age groups comprised only 20% of the motorcycle distance traveled, but accounted for 43% of male motorcyclist casualties. Older bikers, men in their forties and fifties accounted for 57% of the distance traveled, but only 35% of male casualties.

The same is true for female motorcyclists. Girls aged 16-29 were more likely to be killed or seriously injured as they accounted for 42% of female casualties, but only 1.4% of distance traveled. Older female riders actually fared better. They accounted for 76% of distance traveled, but only 39% of female casualties.

So WHERE exactly are Motorcyclists getting killed or injured?

The answer to this one is pretty easy. You might think the motorway would be the most dangerous roads, but it isn't. Despite rural roads accounting for 40% of motorcycle traffic, they account for 68% of motorcycle fatalities.

I can put this down to the fact that these roads tend to be ridden for fun, and thus enthusiastically and perhaps that these roads are more likely to have debris on them which will reduce grip. A reduction in grip at 30mph for a driver might cost them a new bumper and a respray or their no claims bonus. The same for a motorcyclist might cost them two broken arms, a head injury, a ride to A&E in an ambulance and two weeks in hospital and getting their arms pinned back together.

This sounds grim, but it's true. Good protective gear will help, but it can't work miracles.

The dynamics change slightly when you look at serious injuries. 68% of fatalities were on rural roads, but only 45% of serious injuries. 53% of serious injuries occurred on urban roads, 72% of slight injuries. That means of the overall casualties, 66% were on urban roads.

The actual MOST dangerous situation for a motorcyclist appears to be riding past junctions. Riding past junctions and people pulling out in front is the situation MOST likely to result in death or injury for the motorcyclist.

So WHO exactly is knocking these poor bikers off their rides?

Mixing different types of traffic always presents more danger. That's why factories try to separate pedestrians and forklift trucks. As you'd expect, HGVs are disproportionately likely to be involved in a motorcyclist's death. They accounted for 5% of UK traffic between 2009 and 2013, but they caused 9% of motorcyclist deaths. HGVs aren't likely to hit motorcyclists - they account for only 2% of collisions, but if they DO hit a motorcyclist... Well, it's probably 'Game Over'.

The real danger for motorcyclists is cars. Cars make up the bulk of UK traffic at 79% and as you'd expect they were involved in 71% of fatalities and 84% of casualties. The most commonly reported reason for an accident is 'Failed to look properly'. 46% of cars and 47% of light vans involved in a collision with a motorcycle 'Failed to look properly'.

The second biggest cause is 'Poor turn or manouvre' by a car or long vehicle. Accounting for 18% of motorcycle collisions with cars and 20% with long vehicles.

Surprisingly 'being in the blind spot of a HGV' only accounted for 7% of motorcycle and HGV accidents.

So WHY are most motorcycle accidents occurring?

The runaway figures for 2013 and I suspect MOST years are what you'd expect. The runaway winner? 47% the other vehicle failing to look properly. Then it's 19% for both poor turn or manouvre by the other vehicle or failed to judge the motorcyclists path or speed by the other vehicle.

I suspect this is partly down to the volume of cars on the road, meaning they're perhaps statistically more likely to cause an accident with a motorcycle. It could also be that motorcyclists on the whole are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are and thus train seriously and tend to concentrate more when riding.

So HOW risky IS motorcycling?

Life without risk would be boring. Currently you are around 40 times more likely to be killed on a motorcycle than you are in a car. This statistic is probably down to the vulnerability of motorcyclists, the prevalence of cars and partly due to the developments in car safety. Cars from the early 1970's would more or less disintegrate in a crash. The only good thing was it was easier to cut people out of them at the time. A fireman could use a pair of tin snips or even a pen knife back then. Nowadays they need massive, powerful hydraulic cutters - because cars are SO much stronger now!

In 2017 motorcycle deaths were down 13% on the previous year, despite overall traffic AND motorcycle ownership being up. There were 319 deaths that year, for 2.8 billion miles traveled in the UK on a motorcycle.

That means, for every mile you travel as a motorcyclist, you had a 0.00000113% chance of getting killed. So if you did 10,000 miles over the year that would be a 0.0113% chance of getting killed. So, for 100 riders, each doing 10,000 miles a year, there's a 1% chance, one rider will be killed. So you WOULD expect out of those 100 riders doing 10k a year, one will get killed.

I'll be honest that sounds pretty grim.

However, I don't think it tells the whole story. Motorcycle deaths are heavily skewed by young riders on rural roads and drivers 'failing to look properly'.

During the same year, 448 pedestrian deaths were recorded - over 100 more than motorcycles, but obviously there are significantly less motorcyclists than pedestrians on the road.

Overall UK road deaths have fallen 44% from 3,172 in 2016 to 1,792 in 2017.

Currently UK road deaths are VERY low. Any rise from year to year can be put down to natural variation or one-off events such as heavy snow or high winds.

So how can you REDUCE the risk of being injured or killed on a motorcycle?

Well, having looked into the whole statistical forest surrounding motorcycling and road safety - I've come to several conclusions. These are my measured suggestions on how to reduce your risk of getting killed on your ride:-

1. Be old. Ideally at least 30. If you're over 40, maybe reconsider and get a sportscar instead? Or ride carefully and infrequently.

2. Be seen. Riding at night on a matt-black bike dressed like the guy out of 'Streethawk' is NOT going to reduce your life insurance premium.

Image Source:- http://thenewcaferacersociety.blogspot.com/2007/12/painful-flashback-street-hawk.html

Image Source:- http://thenewcaferacersociety.blogspot.com/2007/12/painful-flashback-street-hawk.html

Yes, yes, you'd look really cool in that getup, but seriously. Wear something that will help people to NOTICE you!

Consider a brightly coloured bike, outfit, helmet or all three!

Image Source:- https://www.revzilla.com/motorcycle/shoei-neotec-2-excursion-helmet

Image Source:- https://www.revzilla.com/motorcycle/shoei-neotec-2-excursion-helmet

Image Source:- https://advrider.com/f/threads/adding-hi-vis.1172913/

Image Source:- https://advrider.com/f/threads/adding-hi-vis.1172913/

Image Source:- https://advrider.com/f/threads/adding-hi-vis.1172913/

Image Source:- https://advrider.com/f/threads/adding-hi-vis.1172913/

Yes, I appreciate you might not have been going for 'that look'. You probably had your eye on a nice matt-black cafe-racer with a dark brown jacket and dark, olive green helmet. I get that - it's a 'cool look'.

Image Source:- https://i.pinimg.com/originals/e6/65/30/e66530d310e8f41096703b3ce983e2fa.jpg

Image Source:- https://i.pinimg.com/originals/e6/65/30/e66530d310e8f41096703b3ce983e2fa.jpg

Image Source:- https://www.msgbikegear.co.uk/products/shoei-j-o-open-face-helmet-matt-brown

Image Source:- https://www.msgbikegear.co.uk/products/shoei-j-o-open-face-helmet-matt-brown

Ultimately though, what do think it's more important to increase the statistical chances of? Looking cool or staying alive? Personally I more or less threw in the towel on 'being cool' in the early noughties, so these days I'd probably shoot for 'staying alive'.

3. Be a fair-weather motorcyclists. Get a cheap, car for bad weather. Even better get a cheap old Panda 4x4 so you can go anywhere, even in thick snow. Less miles = less chance of death and no miles in bad weather will greatly reduce your chances of getting killed too.

4. ALWAYS assume a driver HASN'T seen you and is going to pull out in front of you. Ride as if you are invisible and ride taking into account the WORST possible actions by other road users. If you're used to driving a car, then you probably don't realise how less likely you are to be seen on a bike. Speak to some bikers, anyone whose been riding a lot for a long time, will have a tale or two to tell about 'near misses' when cars pulled in front of them.

The Conclusion

As a motorcyclists you ARE vulnerable. There's no changing that. You are one of the most vulnerable types of motorist on UK roads. Essentially when you pass your test you have a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. Your goal is to fill up your bag of experience before your luck runs out. There is no way of removing the risk from motorcycling, but there are ways you can greatly reduce it.

The statistics look pretty grim, even now deaths have come down. But I don't intend to let it put me off. What these findings MIGHT influence is: How I ride, when I ride and what I wear while I ride. It also means, it might take me a little longer than expected to convince the present Mrs. Stanley that it's a good idea.

Stay safe.

Martyn Stanley

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Comments (35)

  • Worryingly ‘ I do not fear death, I AM death!’ Is now winning the poll! 😕

      2 years ago
    • Being a biker already, i do what i can to ride safely, i want my H2R!

        2 years ago
    • I kind of want one, but don’t know if I’d dare get one. Its probably not the ideal ‘beginner’ bike 😜

        2 years ago
  • Everyone I know who rides a motorbike has come off at some point. They're all still alive, except one, but they were uncomfortable for awhile.

    I was talking to a motorbikilist the other day and he was saying how cheap and convenient everything is with a motorbike. And his way of dealing with the safety risk is to wear a fluorescent vest and have a lime-green Kawasaki. And sorry, he looks great while doing it.

      2 years ago
    • Yup, I think being seen is s big factor. Not everyone wants the Steve McQueen look either. Nothing wrong with a osychadelic Kawasaki ninja - it might just save your life!

        2 years ago
  • Training, training, training! And more riding experience. I wouldn't be surprised if you get more endangered as you get older, especially if you *start* biking older. Or are a born-again.

      2 years ago
    • All my findings are statistics based. Addituonal rider training can only help of course!

        2 years ago
  • Really interesting read and exactly what I was looking for. I'm 43 now - had a Kawasaki AR50 back when I was 17 and loved it. Had the odd spin on a friends 125 - fell off a 400 doing about 8 mph and cost myself about £650 in the process.

    I've been meaning to get my test and get back on a bike every year for the last 25 years. But I now have my first introductory lesson booked for this Saturday and I even bought a helmet yesterday...which is matte black, I wish I'd read this first, I might have went with the neon yellow one instead!

      5 months ago
    • Glad all my maths was useful to someone! You'll have to get yourself a Day-Glo Yellow Jacket and a Neon Green Kawasaki instead! :)

        5 months ago
  • So motorcycling isn’t dangerous. It’s the silly jerks in the cars that are dangerous.

      2 years ago
    • There are unsafe drivers in all vehicles. Youremore vulnerable on s bike so need to work harder than most to mitigate the risks. The stakes are highest on a bike

        2 years ago