Nov 16, 2011

Speed and Power Kills (or not)?

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

A couple of years ago in his "Motorcyclist" column, Keith Code wrote an article titled, "Fast Bikes Save Lives." He argued, that the Hurt Report found that "the average speed of the 900 accidents studied was below 30 mph." He also listed statistics that found that the worst accidents on a California race track were on bikes under 550cc and pointed to another study that found 600cc bikes "were involved in far more major injury accidents" than 1000cc bikes. NHTSA statistics disagree, "Larger motorcycles are figuring more prominently in fatal crashes." The 2006-09 data found that 5% of fatal crashes were on 250cc and under bikes, 43% were on 500cc-1000cc bikes, and 39% were on 1,001-1,500cc motored bikes. (NOTE: The remaining 13% were listed as "unknown.") Since most liter bikes are actually sub-1000cc, I think Code is fudging the facts to fit his premise.

After praising 160mph bikes for their safety characteristics, Code takes a weird turn into a discussion on motorcycle training, claiming that "what statistics have also shown all along is that rider training works." NHTSA, the MSF, and a variety of training organizations actually caution us that statistics don't seem to show any particular advantage, after the initial six months post-training, for trained motorcyclists. Of course, Code wants to claim that track day participants are underrepresented in traffic fatalities, since he runs a track training program. Typically, there are no statistics to prove this statement, that doesn't stop him from stating "riders who have raced or been trained by professionals are even safer." It would be cool if it were true, but I have found no evidence that it is a fact.

I'm not a Code-basher. I actually like Keith's books and his column, but I'm not a Code Kool-Aid drinker, either. In this case, I think his reasoning contains more bias than facts.

First, the argument than "the average speed" of 30mph is proof that speed doesn't kill is a meaningless argument in defense of big motors. A police report of a 30mph crash doesn't tell us if the bike was slowing down, drastically, or winding up with the front wheel waving in the air when the crash occurred. More power means it's a lot easier to get into acceleration trouble and the power won't save you on the way back down the speed ladder. You could also argue that when a bike actually crashes into a more massive obstacle, it is at a dead stop at the moment of impact. How's that for useless data?

Anyone who's attended a regional road race could guess why the 550cc and under crowd get into more serious crashes. Most of the novice racers are on Ninja 500Rs, for starters. There are some absolute rocket racers on 250cc bikes, but most of that crowd are beginners on Ninja 250Rs. Talk about cherry picking your statistical evidence, claiming that novice bikes "cause" novice crashes is a fair stretch even for the math-disabled.

Code doesn't cite references, other than to call his source a "very complete study." I'll take the NHTSA stats over some unidentified study, complete or not.

None of Code's argument really addressed the issue of speed or fast bikes and motorcycle safety. I know that lots of RUBs and Squids think that an ability to rip by cagers at 60mph over the speed limit makes them safer, but I've never owned a bike that was particularly fast and I can get past a truck or cage as quickly as I need to. Most of the characters who make the power-equals-security claim have a nasty history of near-misses, crashes, and or mangled body parts. Squids tend to get into motorcycling with a flash of adrenaline and exit in a fog of morphine. Their long-term participation in motorcycling is mostly dependent on luck, rather than love of "the sport." Too many of the huge twin crowd are a lot more involved in posing and polishing than in actually riding. The number of for-sale 10 year old hippo bikes with less than 20,000 miles on the odometer is depressing. (Their current unsellable status is an encouraging sign, though.) Safety should be described in mile-per-crash terms, not in one-off near crash stories. Until you have at least a 100k miles under your belt, your experiences barely qualify you as a novice.

A dozen years ago, a friend who'd just become a road racer argued that his 650 SV was more bike than he could handle on the track, but that he needed at least a liter rocket for "safe" freeway traffic management. He was and is a faster, smarter, and a far better rider than I'll ever hope to be so I didn't argue the point. I just disagreed. A couple of years later, he told me he'd changed his opinion. He'd sold his big sport bike and replaced it with a much smaller bike because, after a few years on the track, he realized that he might never become skilled enough to over-ride the smaller bike. He learned that he had been substituting riding skill with vehicle power and, in an emergency situation, skill would be a more useful resource.

That has been my opinion all along. Some of my favorite motorcycles have had a lot more frame and suspension than motor and, because of that resource distribution, it is practically impossible to over-ride those bikes with the throttle. With reasonable skill, the motor will not overpower what you can do with the brakes, the handlebars, and a bit of weight redistribution. Add 40hp to the same bike and you have a bloody catastrophe waiting to happen to many excellent riders.

With that in mind, Keith Code and I will have to settle for a respectful disagreement (at least on my end of the argument). Keith is a wonderful rider. I am what I am. From where I sit, fast bikes are dangerous bikes and way beyond the skill level of practically any really good rider. If you are Kenny or Valentino, you can probably deal with insane amounts of power. If you are Joe Typical, anything more than 40hp and 70mph is probably beyond your capabilities on public roads.


Anonymous said...

I think that safety is about 95% the rider and 5% the machine no matter what it is. The guy who will kill himself on the 100 HP bike is just about as likely to kill himself on the 40 HP bike, though he will be a tiny bit safer. After all, the statistics indicate that most crashes occur at under 30 mph. And, it's not mad motorcycle skilz that make a difference--it is judgement and road awareness.

Paul said...

"Figures lie, and liars figure" unknown
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Mark Twain
The rise in numbers on crashes for large displacement bikes does not reflect how many are new or returning riders starting out on a large machine (your beloved hippo bike). Prior to the 2006 data, every thing I'd read showed large displacement bikes as being under represented, which was generally attributed to them being operated by older, more skilled riders. Even the liter plus sport bikes, which are harder to afford and insure for a young guy, were not crashed near as often as the 600 and smaller bikes.
Whenever I hear an inane comment along the lines of "you sure could kill yourself on that" I like to respond with "and you can be just as dead on a scooter if you don't know what you're doing".

T.W. Day said...

I've damned near killed myself doing landscaping in my backyard. My brother did the worst damage to himself helping a neighbor roof his house. Life is dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the scariest accident I've had in many years was carrying out the recyclables, slipping on the ice, falling down a flight of cement stairs and having my head miss the bottom step by one inch. I can see the headline now, "City resident taken out with recyclables."