Posted by: titaniumparts | July 8, 2010

Motorcyclists – selfish & irresponsible?

Ducati 749 - Black Mountains, Wales

My bike: perhaps a bit disappointed to learn that it's assumed to be a threat by some people.

Last week an article was published on the UK’s Guardian newspaper web site that has since provoked quite a lot of forum debate and a good deal of controversy. 

The article – entitled Selfishness of speeding motorcyclists. Motorcyclists who speed on public roads are immoral and criminally selfish – but cameras won’t stop them’ was authored by Ed Douglas, a regular contributor to the newspaper’s opinion column. 

  

You can read the original article here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/30/selfishness-speeding-motorcyclists 

I think it’d be quite hard to be a motorcyclist and not feel somewhat provoked by this piece, but I found myself even more aggrieved to discover that I could no longer provide a comment in response, as this facility had been closed. 

So, instead, I wrote directly to Ed Douglas – via the newspaper’s Reader’s Editor – expressing my feelings about the article. To my surprise I received a very prompt response, which then became a more lengthy email exchange in which Ed Douglas and I discussed some of the wider issues that I felt had a bearing on the views he’d expressed. 

I feel there’s some merit in publishing this exchange, which I’ve reproduced below in its full and unedited form: 

David H (Titaniumparts) 

Dear Mr Douglas 

I wish I’d seen the above article soon enough to add a comment – but now the site has closed further comments and denied the rest of us an opportunity to respond. 

Mr Douglas, I’m sorry to read about your traumatic experience, but I’m incredibly irritated by the fact that you’ve been given the opportunity to use it as a platform to promote yet further disinformation and discrimination against motorcycling.  

I’m a motorcyclist of many years’ experience. Never hurt anyone, never crashed into anything, never even fallen off (well okay, once, but I was stationary at the time, having stalled the engine whilst pulling away). 

There are so many remarks I could make about your piece, but I’ll just offer this. 

The closest I’ve ever come to a serious collision whilst riding my motorcycle on the road was the inverse of the situation you described in your article. I was riding my bike along a fast, single-carriageway A-road in Somerset. As I approached a long line of  oncoming cars the one at the rear pulled out to make a ridiculously ambitious overtake. The driver hadn’t even noticed me approaching. Committed to their manoeuvre the car drove straight at me on my side of the road, forcing me to take heavy-braking evasive action. Fortunately, due to my experience, and my bike’s exceptionally powerful brakes, I avoided the unobservant idiot in the car, managing to stop my bike in the gutter, narrowly avoiding becoming another motorcycling accident statistic myself (whereupon I would no doubt have been blamed for bringing it upon myself). 

It was only as the car barged past just inches from me – speeding way over the posted limit – that I realised it was a marked Police traffic patrol vehicle with a uniformed driver. 

By this point he may have noticed the consequences of his rash, negligent and irresponsible driving – performed without any sirens or flashing lights I might add – but as I was left to gather up my shredded nerves he was long gone on his way. 

My point is that anybody –  anybody at all – in charge of any kind of motor vehicle can be a liability on the roads, even so-called ‘trained police drivers’. Yes, people can be stupid and irresponsible on motorcycles, but actually it’s not about the vehicle, it’s about the mentality of the person in control of it. Of course the key difference with motorcyclists is that we’re more visible to all the frustrated car drivers who sit stewing on our clogged roads. We’re an easy target for criticism and provide an outlet for all that frustration – one only need look at the smug, nasty, ill-informed responses that your article provoked in the subsequent comments to see that. (Still, nice work there Ed;  filled your column inches, job done I guess). 

I’d bet that the majority of motorcyclists could demonstrate far superior road safety awareness, machine control skills, observation and consideration than most of the dozy, inattentive car drivers fiddling with their iPhones and dashboard-mounted sat nav. Most of us who choose to ride motorcycles take all of those road-craft skills very seriously – we have to, we’re only too aware that our lives depend upon it (and we have no wish to become ‘organ donors’ as many commenters so charitably described us). But, unlike you, I won’t ever be offered the opportunity to present that case … and anyway, that wouldn’t  make for good news copy would it?  

I could offer many counter examples of accidents and deaths caused by poor training and stupid, careless, inattentive or irresponsible driving in cars. But I don’t think you’re really interested in considering the more complex issues around road safety in this country are you? 

You get to describe the actions of one irresponsible motorcyclist in a Guardian article. It’ll have been read by thousands of people by now, the majority all nodding along sagely about just how right you are. Prejudices will have been reinforced.  And sooner or later we’ll see motorcycling, one of the great joys of my life, legislated out of existence. My story, or any informed insight I might have, won’t get seen or read by anyone (maybe even you won’t have bothered reading this far!).  

Perhaps I should respond by writing an article about how selfish and irresponsible rock climbing is. I know absolutely nothing about climbing and the skills and experience required of those who engage in it, but it appears that needn’t be any impediment to offering an opinion about you all.  

__________________________________________________ 

Ed Douglas (Guardian opinion columnist) 

Dear David, 

Thanks for taking the time to write to The Guardian about the piece I wrote following the publication last week of the Road Safety Foundation report. 

First, to reiterate the points in Leslie’s reply to you, this was an opinion piece and although the comments section for it is closed, I’m sure the Comment is free section would consider publishing a response. 

Given the content and perspective of your email, I think it unlikely that we’re going to see eye-to-eye on this issue, but I’m happy to answer some of your points. 

The target of my article was not you. Taking your email at face value, you seem to be one of the vast majority of motorcycle riders who are responsible and safe. I pointed out in my copy that my complaint was not against this group, but against the tiny minority who seem to think it acceptable to use public roads as race tracks. I’m sure you deplore what is criminal behaviour. 

My qualification – and reason – for writing this article was not that I’m a rock climber – I  mentioned that only because I understand the attraction of risk – but that a road I drive on frequently is made more hazardous at certain times by irresponsible bike riders breaking the speed limit, and that I’ve had direct experience of the consequences of that. (I wasn’t traumatised by the accident, but it was a shocking experience.) 

I also write regularly on issues relating to the Peak District and on traffic management in National Parks. You’re entitled to your opinion as to whether I’m irresponsible and ill-informed, but I work hard to be neither. You will know that the rate of  fatal road traffic accidents has halved in the last forty years, but that in recent years progress has slowed. There are a number of causes for this, from the state of our roads to intelligent signage, and speeding motorcyclists is one of them. If that weren’t the case, the police and road authorities wouldn’t spend so much time and effort in the Peak trying to dissuade them from doing it. 

And while you’re quite correct that I don’t ride a bike now, I did ride a bike when I was younger, and have plenty of friends who  still do, so I’m not uninformed about that side of things. I ride a push bike on an almost daily basis, and I’m well aware that car drivers are more careless than those on two wheels. (We are even more vulnerable than those on motorbikes.) So I entirely agree with you that motorcyclists are usually more careful, better trained and more safety aware than most car drivers. 

I certainly don’t hope that motorcycling is made impossible through legislation. It’s great fun. But to reiterate my earlier point, I was taking aim at the kind of rider who caused the accident I witnessed, no one else. 

Best wishes,
Ed Douglas
 

____________________________________________ 

David H (Titaniumparts) 

Ed 

As you say, we’re unlikely to agree, and this is probably as hopeless as any religious or political debate might be, because to some degree it’s about having differing beliefs and value systems. 

But, having said that, I do find that there’s more that I want to say to you on this matter. 

Firstly, we know that statistics can be spun to fit any cause we might want them to serve. The fact that the Cat & Fiddle road is a magnet for motorcyclists is likely to produce weirdly skewed data anyway, by virtue of the concentration of numbers in such a small area. I’ve never been there myself, but I did see the documentary aired by the BBC a few years ago (which you’re doubtless familiar with) and from that I got the impression the road was popular with fast car enthusiasts too, so it’d be interesting to know how they’re featured in the statistics. 

I admit that I haven’t seen the stats, but I’m sure if we examined every single incident in granular detail we’d probably find quite a complex picture of cause and effect emerging. Your piece was structured to convey a simplistic implication that speeding motorcycles are the sole cause of problems in the area, and as much as anything it’s the way that assertion became a lightning rod for a raft of shockingly ignorant comments that made me so aggrieved. 

On a wider stage, the fact is that there’s currently an emerging trend in the press that’s seeking to demonise motorcyclists, with the Daily Mail and News of the World both recently running high-profile pieces that effectively cast us as habitual criminals with a death-wish. And your article – which you might agree was pretty short on in-depth analysis – just served to perpetuate this kind of anti-motorcycle hysteria. 

Can you honestly tell me that you were entirely comfortable with the comments your article provoked? Personally, I was appalled by the tirade of nasty, mean-spirited and spiteful remarks that appeared below your piece. And if that’s what was deemed suitable to leave in place then I don’t even want to think about what was removed by the moderators. 

 
And yes, I do believe that this kind of progressive demonisation by the media will lead to increasing legislation against motorcycling, because this is exactly the kind of thing that motivates politicians and policymakers as they try to surf the waves of public opinion to secure and maintain their position in government.
 

The most obvious example is the motorcycle test itself, which has become more and more difficult (and not really any better for it either; we could digress into how hopelessly ill-judged and inappropriate all of those reforms have been, contributing very little to producing safer and better-trained motorcyclists – but let’s just leave that vast subject to one side for now). But still, it is becoming much tougher to gain a motorcycle licence, and as this has already begun to dissuade many potential new riders from seeking to qualify, the progressive effect will be to eliminate the motorcycle industry by attrition. 

Meanwhile the driving test remains largely unchanged, while experience and anecdotal evidence suggest to me that driving standards are in desperate decline. 

And of course all those Astons, Ferraris, Porsches and BMWs, Vauxhall VXRs and Honda Civic Type Rs (and so on, and on) aren’t being sold with the intention that they’d ever be used to exceed the national speed limit on a public road are they? … well, okay, I won’t resort to sarcasm, but you can see my point surely? Really, when it comes down to it, what difference is there between a powerful bike and a powerful car if either are in the hands of someone inclined to use them foolishly? 

Motorcyclists are highly visible, what we do is not well understood by those who’ve never ridden, but we’re a small minority and that makes us easy targets for rabble-rousing attempts to whip up public emotion. But woe betide the politician that tried to take away the keys to the hot hatch, sports saloon or 500bhp German executive barge – then they’d face some serious numerical opposition. You, and others who are writing these kind of pieces, are applying a double standard. If you’re going to criticise, then criticise all performance vehicles. But you know as well as I do that wouldn’t play to the crowd half as effectively. 

 
I’m perfectly well aware that some motorcyclists behave like total cocks. But I can only emphasise the point I made before, that there’s nothing intrinsic to the fact of them being on a motorcycle that contributes to that, with the possible exception of spending less of their time stuck in traffic jams.
 

Actually there are efforts being made within the motorcycling press and the biking community to rein-in the more blatantly transgressive and antisocial elements, because we recognise that their actions influence perceptions of all motorcyclists…  and basically, those tossers are in danger of wrecking the whole bloody thing for the rest of us. But it takes time to get that message through to them. And all the speed cameras and road signs, and hysterical nonsense in the mainstream media, won’t make much difference because it’s all so hopelessly off-target; it simply doesn’t speak to the people who we need to try and educate. But, believe it or not, we are actually trying to put our house in order ourselves. 

 
And just one last thing. As for the way you keep going on about the attraction of risk – I must say that’s completely lost on me. I don’t find risk in the least bit attractive. What I enjoy about riding a motorcycle is the satisfaction that comes from exercising a set of skills that I’ve honed over many years. It’s about a particular sense of graceful motion, control, total involvement and engagement with my surroundings. I’m happy to leave the risk-taking to the climbers.
 

__________________________________________________ 

Ed Douglas (Guardian opinion columnist) 

Dear David, 

Thanks for your reply. I can understand your frustration, particularly about thoughtless and aggressive comments following the piece I wrote, but I can only reiterate that I was commenting on a very specific group of riders in a very specific place. I can see that you think I was getting at all motorcyclists, but I wasn’t. 

I know that the general population can be prejudiced against motorcyclists, as they are against cyclists, something I’ve experienced personally. And yet I can also see that those cyclists who break red lights and swear at drivers and scare pedestrians are behaving badly – and I disassociate myself from them. 

I take your point about the driving test, and I shall bear your points in mind for the future. But I hope you can also see it from the perspective of someone who regularly feels threatened by speeding motorcyclists and has witnessed the consequences. 

Finally, on the issue of risk. I have to say I didn’t think I was going on about it. You mentioned it, so I responded. But on that subject: You may not find it attractive, but clearly, someone driving a motorbike at high speed on a twisting road does. All I meant was that I don’t want to stop people doing what they want, even if it’s risky, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. 

Your description of what it feels like to be a competent motorcyclist would serve for what it feels like to be a competent climber. The statistics show you face more risk than a car driver, and that’s why you focus on being safe. I like that philosophy. 

Best wishes,
Ed
 

 _________________________________________ 

  

So, there we are. I’m not going to add any more as I think I’ve probably stated my own case clearly enough already, but at least by putting this exchange in the public domain there is now something more closely resembling an informed and reasoned debate on the subject.  

 

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Responses

  1. What an excellent debate you had!

    I tend to find comparison of motorcycles with horse riding is good from a statistical point of view!

    Let’s hope that eventually the Guardian are able to at least put a different point of view across – that’s assuming they are still a viable business by the time hell freezes over!

  2. Your emails should be published by the Guardian in an article about road safety for all. Thank you for standing up for motorcycles against the ill informed media.

  3. Interesting discussion!

  4. Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you’re a great author.

    I will always bookmark your blog and will eventually come back at some
    point. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great job, have a nice afternoon!


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