Opinion: Taking stock of motorcycles

We’re halfway through the Canadian riding season, and apparently this is my 100th published opinion column at Canada Moto Guide, so it’s time to take stock of where we’re at with motorcycles in this country.

Bike sales

As I wrote last month, we’re actually not doing too badly with selling motorcycles in Canada. The numbers are steady year over year, with more than 61,000 new motorcycles sold last year. That’s just two-thirds of our record year in 2008, but sales have been increasing slowly since the worst year, in 2011. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since our relatively healthy economy helped automotive sales hit a national high last year.

There’s been plenty of doom and gloom in recent years as younger people care more for their phones than their wheels, and motorcycle makers cannot be complacent, but it’s not time to fold up the tents just yet.

Maybe not the best choice for a new rider, but Ducatis like these in the showroom at GP Bikes in Ajax, Ontario, are something to aspire to.

Riding the bikes

It’s too soon to know if motorcyclists are any safer on the roads, but we’re probably not – the most recent national figures are from 2017, and they showed a slight decrease in motorcycle fatalities from the past couple of years, dropping from 11.1 per cent of all road users to 10.4 per cent. It was a different story in Ontario and British Columbia, however: the OPP reported that Ontario’s fatalities for riders in 2017 were at a 10-year high, and the B.C. Coroner’s service reported earlier this year that fatalities in 2018 had increased by 50 per cent.

Clearly, better training and better technology only go so far. Smart helmets and communicators mean we can be on the phone during the ride, which is a distraction from the road even when hands-free, and distracted car drivers are no more likely to pay attention to riders than in previous years. Our safety is still very much in our own hands.

In Ontario, the surprisingly bike-friendly provincial government has finally removed the silly prohibition of motorcycles in High Occupancy Vehicle lanes – yay! – and even redefined the regulation that limits handlebar height for a more reasonable standard. Quebec now allows new riders to be on the road without an experienced rider as an escort. Sikhs are allowed to ride without helmets in four provinces. So laws might just be catching up with our reality.

Hooray! It’s taken long enough – close to 20 years – but motorcycles are finally allowed in Ontario’s provincial HOV lanes. Maybe Quebec will now follow suit.

Loud pipes still anger people on both sides of the argument. Toronto recently announced a clampdown, and Edmonton continues to experiment with technology, and Quebec doesn’t seem to care, but the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Actually, it might just do so through attrition. Harley-Davidson has now debuted its first electric motorcycle, the Livewire, and it makes very little noise. It will probably sell very few examples, especially at the $37,250 introductory price, but electric transportation is not going away. Whether you like it or not, Harley’s put itself on the leading edge of future motorcycle development.

The Harley-Davidson Livewire may not be for everyone, but it’s on the leading edge of electric motorcycle development.

Challenges ahead

The biggest challenge for an industry that must constantly attract new adherents to replace aging riders is clearly insurance. In a country where some provinces offer affordable government insurance – Quebec, BC, Manitoba and Saskatchewan – and others just keep hiking the rates to keep profits high – Ontario et al. – it’s harder and harder to justify buying a motorcycle for just six or eight months of riding in the year.

New riders are straight-out excluded by the cost of for-profit insurance. They must probably learn to ride on crappy beater-bikes, which often cost less than the annual price of insurance but are all they can afford. So they don’t bother. Or worse, they don’t get insurance at all, and contribute to the self-perpetuating problem of illegality that plagues drivers across the country.

But for those who can afford to ride, and are responsible enough to ride well, the future is bright. There’ve never been so many good bikes to choose from, and the capabilities of those bikes has never been so high. Six-axis traction control and leaning ABS in the electronics, much improved suspensions and reliable engines that run as well as anything ever developed, are all part of the progression of motorcycling.

So let’s not lose sight of what needs fixing, but be happy we have what we have. And after all, it’s still just the middle of summer. Make the most of it!

4 thoughts on “Opinion: Taking stock of motorcycles”

  1. Another impediment to a new rider (at least here in NB) is the requirement for a training course. This extra $500 cost keeps many young people from even trying the sport.

    While I think training is important (I took it myself), I don’t think it should be mandatory. Car drivers aren’t required to take training courses, why should bikers?

    Just have a good, hard test that covers all the basic skills, and that will weed out the unready ones.

    The current system is just discrimination disguised as safety.

    1. Hmm… that’s an interesting perspective that if the test is hard enough it’ll weed out the worst / unready riders. I suppose that’s true, but testing is only designed to make sure you’re safe enough to obey the laws, not that you have the proper foundation to become a safe and capable rider. Simply trying to get into riding for the lowest cost possible suggests a lot of cheapening out for safety. You can get a $40 helmet, or gloves made out of Glad bags, but it doesn’t really help on the safety front. Yes, I want more people to ride, but I want them to do it as safely as they can, and if that means them youngin’s need to save up for another month or two to be able to do it properly, that’s probably not a bad thing.

    2. The motorcycle safety course and graduated licenses did not exist when I started riding. I took the course after a decade of riding and had a blast. Although some parts of the course I took are no longer taught, I would recommend it to all who can afford to do so. So many experienced riders either started riding after I did, have forgotten their first years riding or were much more affuent than I when they started riding. ATTGAT doesn’t help. Gloves $50 to $100 or more, textile riding pants $200-$300, textile jacket $300-$400, helmet approx $100 minimum, motorcycle boots $150(?) or more, motorcycle safety course $500, insurance $1000+ (in Ontario). Add the cost of the motorcycle to all that. No wonder many potential new riders don’t bother. Purchasing a well used small bike and a helmet, then insuring the bike was almost enough to break my feeble financial situation at the time.By the way I was licensed a week after my 16th birthday. That was 47 years ago.

  2. Riding ‘dirty’ (no insurance, stolen plates) seems to be a way of life out in the ‘burbs of the 416/905.
    I wonder if affordable insurance would make any real difference ? Certainly there’s nothing indicate that any provincial government has the nuggets to take on BIG insurance. The MCC, MMIC and yes, even the CMA have to apply political pressure but just don’t seem to have the heart. Please, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
    On a brighter side, it seems the number of women riders is on the increase – and that’s a good thing.

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