Wednesday, 16 September 2009

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result" - road safety edition.

Excuse me while I rant about blatant idiocy in positions of power.
I am a motorcyclist. Anyone who has ever read this blog may have picked up on this.

This means that I have fairly strong opinions about other road users - if you put yourself in a position this vulnerable, with no safety cage around you and a much lower visual area from any angle, you either die or develop a deep and abiding distrust of everyone else. Why, only yesterday I had three people try to kill me on the ride into Uni - one truck pulled out into my lane too close in front of me, one car dived across into my lane and barely gave me time to brake before they collected my front wheel with their bumper, and one driver pulled away from its STOP sign in front of me while peering the other way looking for traffic in that direction.

Please note that I was not on something tiny like a postie bike - I was on a BMW K100RS which is, in anyone's language, on the hefty side.

So whenever I hear a report of a motorcycle accident in the media, I, being an informed reader, not to mention a Masters of Journalism student, read between the lines for the questions that the journalist didn't ask, and if the aricle says that the bike "struck a car which was pulling out of the shopping centre car park", you can bet that I will assume that the car was at fault and the rider, who admittedly may perhaps not have been paying maximum attention, was left without time to brake or dodge and his family can be consoled, at his funeral, by the knowledge that he was not at fault.

I am not, however, an apologist: I know full well that a great many motorcyclists take truly frightening risks regularly, and that the margins for crashing if you do are slim, and for dying if you crash, not much better.

But then we get this report of ignorant, knee-jerking, panicked policy making from the people presently in power:

Motorcyclists face zero alcohol limit (Courier Mail)

Now, I am all in favour of a zero alcohol limit for pilots, people who drive public transport, and surgeons. But just motorcyclists? Wherefor is your justification?

What we know is that the fatality rate for motorcyclists is ludicrously out of sync with their presence on the roads - the article quotes a fatality rate of 22% of the total, as against powered two-wheeled vehicles making up just 4.5% of all road users.

Ah, but why? Alcohol and speed are very easy things to both police and to blame, but what about being an idiot? What about people not paying attention and driving into another vehicle because they were distracted or not looking, disobeyed road rules, nodded off, had a vehicle failure, had an asthma attack, or misjudged the road and skidded, or hit a patch of oil?

And what about accident investigators who see a squid from a motorcycle tire (it's very easy to lock up the rear in an emergency braking manoeuvre) and tick the box that says "Excessive speed - at fault"?

The most recent comprehensive data for Queensland is from 2004 - this is how long it takes to collect, process, analyse and report on all the data. It can be downloaded as a highly inconvenient PDF from the Queensland Transport statistics page.

Let's just look at fatalities, because the official language and reporting never seems to mention the much greater number of accidents which merely cause property damage, pain and suffering, life-long cognitive or physical disabilities, unemployment and a massive drain on the health and disability care systems.

Out of 289 fatal crashes, 97(34% - one third, for argument's sake) involved alcohol or other drugs, and 52(18%) - less than a fifth - involved speed - please note that speed is not "exceeding the posted speed limit", it is "inappropriate speed for the conditions". Doing 80 in a 100 zone at night during a tropical thunderstorm may still be too fast, and registered as such if the reason you crashed was that your vehicle could not physically brake soon enough to avoid hitting the stalled car in front.

Alcohol/drugs was the most prominent contributing factor, but Inattention at 80(28%) and Disobeyed Traffic Rules with 79(27%) both outranked speed.

What was I saying about easy targets?

Lets look at the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) figures, shall we? And, for simplicity sake, I will only talk about percentages now.

Drivers - 54% of total. Motorcyclists - 13% of total. Hmmmm.

Now, 13% is still a higher proportion of fatalities than of registrations, and at greater than 50% it's much higher than the average, but it's sitll far less than 22% of all fatalities.

I can't seem to find a similar comparison for speed, however. Odd.

So let's look at the 46 fatal motorcycle crashes (with 48 fatalities): 59%(n=27) were single-vehicle crashes, and the motorcyclist was judged to be at fault in 35 out of 46 fatal crashes, which is 76% and, I suggest, far too low a number to be statistically solid.

The next figure is where life gets interesting: Most crashes occurred during daylight hours (67%), from Monday to Friday (52%). Now, what this says to me is: commuting - busy traffic, slow-moving, millions of near-misses every day and unlikely to be alcohol at all, unless there was an office party or sunset is really, really late. And the 48% on the weekend are likely to be a result of overcooking it in the mountains, but that is, of course, pure conjecture.

This suggests that BAC is only really a factor in extreme cases, and that it's simply that much easier to die when you have a drunken crash on a bike than if you're in a big metal cage, and the problem then is not "alcohol" it's "excessive alcohol", which is already illegal.

What's interesting here is that if the motorcyclist is automatically judged at fault in single-vehicle crashes, that means that out of the 19 multi-vehicle crashes, the other vehicle was most at fault in 8 of them. I put it to you that, with such low numbers, that is, as near as damn it, half. And yet I can't remember the last time I heard a police officer say "Drivers are being grossly negligent, and need to learn to look out." No, the closest I can remember is "Motorcyclists need to realise that they're difficult to see", which is tantamount to letting inattentive fools off the hook.

But to return to the article - the Police Commissioner didn't know about the no alcohol plan (uh, guys? Communication?) but had this to say about speeding:

"Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said identification was an issue for police trying to enforce the road rules.
"Some really irresponsible motorcyclists as they go through a speed camera will even reach back and put their hand over the number plate so the motorcycle can't be photographed," Mr Atkinson said.
"So they're the ones in my view who are at a higher risk of death and injury and they're the ones we really need to stop.""

You what? "they're the ones in my view who are at a higher risk of death and injury"? On what do you base this base canard, Mr Atkinson? I have news for you: Physicists realised over a hundred years ago that heads wouldn't suddenly explode if you went much faster than a horse could run, and exceeding the largely arbitrary speed limit does not automatically equal death.

Now, I believe that a fair cop is a fair cop, and if you get caught speeding you should kick yourself for not paying attention and taking due care and attention - I have, myself, needed to do exactly that on four occasions, in total, to date (and yet never once on a motorycle). But equating an attempt to avoid detection while speeding with an increased risk of death appears, to me, to be a leap of logic that sales way over laughable into the rarified atmosphere of stupefied disbelief.

And then there's the response to detecting speeding - RFIDs. Radio Frequency Identification Tags. Oh, come on. We already know from experiments interstate that RFID toll passes don't work for motorcycles - so much so that in Queensland, the new no-cash GoVia (vomit) toll system waives tags for bikes in entirety, dong all identification via, wait for it, photographs of the number plate. Cars get charged a "video identification fee" if they don't have an electronic tag, but bikes don't, because that's the only reliable option.

And they want to get RFIDs working for a speeding bike, using portable equipment? Dream on, I say, dream on. The point about RFIDs is that they're not necessarily powered - otherwise, you have to rely upon people replacing the batteries, or wiring them into the bike. They are usually devices which reflect a radio signal and modify it with identifying information, which automatically halves the effective range.

So - we have a limited response to two safety issues, based upon low and therefore unreliable sample rates using data that is, CSI be damned, not possible to collect in a perfectly accurate and correct manner, and although a zero alcohol limit has the benefit of greater credibility, it's being highly discriminatory.

The United Motorcycle Council of Queensland was quoted as saying yes, that's fair enough, but how about zero tolerance for everyone else, as well?

The UMCQ is, however, not the united body of all motorcycling associations - take a look at the membership list and see what I mean - it starts with the Bandidos, and continues in much the same vein. The UMCQ has a vested interest in being nice to the police in public, and that journalist should be shot for calling upon them as a representative voice of all motorcyclists.

How about the MRAQ as a more legitimate, representative and politically active body?

And how about some reasoned discussion, and sitting down with the groups involved?

And how about considering the current training standards of all road users, while you're at it.

Article "Motorcyclists face zero alcohol limit" from the Courier Mail online.
Queensland Transport road safety statistics
Original launch report for the K 100RS, if you're interested.
Motorcycle Riders Association of Queensland

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