Making it safe on the roads for motorcyclists

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

A motorcyclist looks at the road ahead


It has been a shocking start to the year for motorcycle fatalities, and it has left road safety experts scratching their heads.

By mid-March this year, 23 motorcyclists had been killed on Victoria’s roads, compared with 30 for all of 2015. This increase was largely responsible for a 20 per cent rise in the state’s overall road toll for the year to then.

High-risk behaviours

It is believed that about 75 per cent of the riders killed may have been engaged in high-risk behaviours, such as riding at excessive speed for the conditions, having illicit drugs in their system and in one instance, not wearing a helmet.

In general, two-thirds of motorcycle accidents involve another vehicle.

John Eacott of the Victorian Motorcycle Council says one of the biggest contributors is what riders call SMIDSY: “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”.

“Road safety is a shared responsibility and other road users could have done better,” Mr Eacott says. “It comes back to a lack of roadcraft.”

Attitude change wanted

He says there needs to be a change of attitude on the roads, and that “while the ‘speed-kills’ mantra has been done to death, there needs to be a more visible police presence”.

Mr Eacott says that young riders are engaging in riskier behaviour and, coupled with unlawful behaviour, such as being unlicensed, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Trevor Allen, from the Monash University Accident Research Centre, agrees.

“Unlicensed riders are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviour on the road,” Dr Allen says.

Reduce the death toll

But there is also one constant factor in the death toll, and one that you can help to reduce – the contribution of other road users to the motorcycle death toll – SMIDSY.

It’s not because car drivers aren’t good drivers, or even inattentive – although that can play a role – it’s just that motorcycles can be more difficult for the eyes to see and brain to register.

Research suggests that because there are so few motorcycles on the roads, we are less likely to expect them and are more likely not to see them even if they are not physically obscured.

Near misses

Many drivers have approached an intersection, looked both ways, noticed it was clear and started to move forward only to have a near miss with a motorcycle. It’s not because they were not paying attention – it’s just our brains aren’t geared to expect the unexpected.

“The best way forward is to take a multi-faceted approach,” Dr Allen says.

“Humans by nature make mistakes and the question is how can we accommodate that in our road system?

“It’s a joint responsibility and we have to apply an evidence-based safe-systems approach.”

That includes designing safer roads, finding vehicle technologies that can reduce injury crashes, and ensuring speeds are well matched to the infrastructure of a given road.

In the meantime, there are things that car drivers and motorcycle riders can do to reduce accidents, injuries and deaths.

Be visible

A New Zealand study released in 2004 showed that riders who wear white helmets have a 24 per cent lower risk of an accident than riders who wear black helmets – but that could mean that those riders are more safety conscious.

Similarly, the more visible the riding gear and motorcycle, the more conspicuous the motorcyclist is on the road.

“There is still more research needed on how best to train riders and drivers to reduce their risk of crash,” Dr Allen says.

“For example, can you improve the hazard perception of young drivers or riders so that their risk of a crash is reduced?”

“If we are to find an effective training intervention in the future, I wouldn’t rule out improving skills yet, but I think a key component will involve improving hazard perception for all road users.”

And while many motorcyclists believe that being clear of other road traffic and creating a space buffer around them will make them safer on the road, Dr Allen is not sure it is that simple.

He says that motorcyclists appear to travel on their own more frequently, which may increase their exposure to situations where another driver fails to give way, including SMIDSY crashes.

Speed and the weather

And this is where increased speed does play a role in accidents – because of a motorcycle’s smaller road presence and greater acceleration, other road users often have an inability to judge a motorcycle’s speed over distance ... or how quickly that dot in the distance is approaching.

“Drivers may have reduced ability to judge the speed of an approaching bike,” Dr Allen says.

“But, while it is obviously horrific to have that many fatalities, we should not forget those seriously injured in understanding the effect of road trauma. For every motorcycle fatality, there are about 40-50 seriously injured riders.”

And he says that there may be another factor at play in this year’s spike in motorcyclist deaths – the weather.

For many riders, the bike is not their main form of transport, so a lot of them can choose whether they ride on a given day to commute or for recreation.

“We had a very mild February, dry and not too hot, which is good weather for riding,” Dr Allen says.

“You would assume that, if the weather is mild, you would get a lot more riders out there.”


Story: Martin Sherrard. Martin is a Melbourne journalist. He has been a motorcyclist for almost 40 years and has been in a number of motorcycle crashes.
Published in RoyalAuto May 2016


RACV advocates for the safety of all road users. Here are some tips:

  • Watch out for motorcycles. They are harder to see than cars.
  • Indicate before making a turn.
  • Motorcyclists often move around in their lane because of road conditions. Allow them space to do so.
  • Check before changing lanes, and check again while changing.
  • Don’t follow too closely.
  • Take extra care at intersections. Give motorcycles extra consideration in bad weather.
  • If overtaking a motorcycle, allow at least the same space you would for a car.