Why so many motorcyclists are dying on our roads

Written by Ian Munro
January 06, 2017

Late afternoon, a few days before Christmas, the city was already slowing down. The road seemed clear, empty of traffic. One hundred metres to my right a taxi, newly loaded with passengers, pulled away from the corner hotel into the beginnings of a U-turn. There was also the rising note of an approaching motorbike, accelerating from the even more distant roundabout. My view of it was obscured by the turning taxi that now straddled the tram lines.

There was no mistaking the sudden explosion of metal and glass, a cacophony of disaster. Lost in the thump of the bike against the taxi’s nearside passenger door was that of the rider slamming into the taxi. Within moments a crowd had gathered. The taxi’s attempted manoeuvre, a U-turn over an unbroken line, was technically unlawful yet routine. It is a rule disregarded daily on Melbourne roads.

Passers-by performed CPR on the fallen rider until an ambulance arrived, seemingly after an eternity. He could not be saved. His was one of the last road deaths of 2015 and it seemed to portend what was to come in the rest of the summer.

Tragic ‘aberration’

By the end of March 2016, 24 riders had died in Victoria, compared with 30 for all of 2015. At year’s end the motorcycle toll for 2016 was 56, including one pillion passenger. How can such a reverse be understood after years of improvement?

“This significant increase when you look at the data over five years is an aberration,” says Doug Fryer, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner (traffic), “but I find it offensive to use the word aberration when you are talking about people whose lives have been lost.”

Two factors are prominent: unlicensed riders and older riders.

Among those killed were 20 motorcyclists who did not have a licence, as well as three restricted licence riders on bikes deemed too powerful for learners. “We are seeing a higher level of unlawful riding than what we were seeing in previous years,” says Mr Fryer. “We have 23 who should not have been out on the road…close to 50 per cent of those who are dead should never have been there.”

Older riders are also prominent in the toll. Twenty-one of the 56 killed were aged between 40 and 59, and a further seven were over 60. Police suspect many are people who have held a licence since their youth, sometimes for decades, without actively riding.

Unlike driver training, formal rider training has only become widely available relatively recently. Some returning to motorcycling may never have had formal training.

“It’s pointless me trying to educate people who make a deliberate decision to ride whilst unlicensed. They have made a deliberate decision to break the law,” says Mr Fryer.

The risks for returning riders

“The challenge for me is that group of 40 to 59, some of whom have always held a licence but are returned riders who haven’t ridden for decades and end up on very powerful bikes. I would encourage everyone at minimum to go back and do a refresher rider course.

“Thirty-four of the 56 deaths have been on sports bikes. That really concerns us. We have had 15 killed on cruisers, two on trail bikes that have been on road, one tourer, one dual sport and, this one still gets me, one mountain bike fitted with a petrol engine.”

Of the machines involved, four bikes were stolen and two others, their identification features removed, are considered likely to have been stolen. It is understood that somewhere between a third and half of the riders killed had illicit drugs or alcohol in their system. The Assistant Commissioner would only say, however, that “a number” were found to have drugs or alcohol present.

While 14 riders killed wore the full complement of protective clothing including boots, motorbike pants, jacket and gloves, at least 21 riders killed had no protective clothing other than the mandated helmet. Two others were not wearing helmets, and five deaths occurred when helmets were dislodged, suggesting they had not been properly secured.

“This isn’t seasoned riders who ride all the time to and from work. All those who commute on a daily basis, those who ride regularly, those who have been riding for decades, are not over-represented this year. We have had over-representation of inexperience and high-risk behaviour.

The problem I have is some of these are creating a picture of the riding community that is not fair on those responsible riders,” says Mr Fryer.

‘We are a highly vulnerable group’

“My comments are not to vilify riders who have died but hopefully their deaths are a learning for others that we are a highly vulnerable road user group and we need to do everything to make ourselves as safe as possible. One of those requirements is to ride within the conditions of their licence. The second is to ride within their skill set. The third is to ride only when it is safe to do so. Fourth, full protective clothing for riders, while not mandated, is common sense.”

It is not just riders who bear responsibility for the toll. As if to emphasise their vulnerability to others’ mistakes, several were killed in collisions “where the riders have not been at fault at all, where cars have been involved in the fatal without any fault of the rider”, says Mr Fryer.

“Every time we do a dedicated action on motorcycle enforcement we give out the most infringements to drivers on mobile phones. Distraction to drivers is absolutely a risk to vulnerable riders.”

None of the deaths resulted from the November 2015 change of law enabling motorbikes to filter through congested traffic at up to 30km/h. Two deaths, however, were attributed to “lane splitting”, which is passing between lanes of speed higher than 30km/h.

As Christmas 2016 approached, a bouquet of wildflowers appeared taped to the power pole outside the hotel where the taxi had begun its U-turn 12 months earlier, and where the rider fell. His loss, like that of so many others, endures.