My first reaction when I heard that the Quebec government may be implementing a ban on high powered, “high risk” motorcycles for riders under 25 years old or with less than five years riding experience was: it’s about fookin’ time.
Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) spokesman, Gino Desrosiers, announced this measure to the press on May 24 as part of an “ambitious reform” of the province’s motorcycle classification and fee scheduling, to be put forth by 2011.
But after more thought, I believe that while this proposal has a few basically sound elements, it needs proper implementation if it is to be effective.
HIGH RISK HOW?
The first item anti-motorcyclist and president of the SAAQ, John Harbour, needs to address is what is considered a high-risk motorcycle.
Harbour should understand that the only high-risk motorcycles on the road are those that are poorly maintained or mechanically unsound, or those ridden by morons. Modern motorcycles, even those without ABS, traction control or air bags, are the safest they’ve ever been. They are lighter, have better lighting, and steer and brake better than they ever have.
So what, then, constitutes a high-risk motorcycle? According to the SAAQ it is a bike with a “high power output” (though the line between high and low power has yet to be established) and “race-bike styling” (for the characteristics of a high-risk motorcycle, as defined laughably by the SAAQ, as well as a list of the offending machines, go to: www.saaq.gouv.qc.ca).
It is these machines that the SAAQ claims eat up the largest piece of the motorcycle-crash-cost pie. Claims that have never been backed by publication of proper, well-defined statistics and probably based on the pages dedicated to sport bike accidents in the Journal de Montréal.
Of course the biggest flaw with this ban is that it does nothing to address the behaviour of other road users, who contribute substantially to motorcycle crash statistics.
Motorcyclists are the safest road users, not by choice, but by necessity. They generally develop a heightened awareness of their surroundings when riding, as well as riding habits that promote safety — it’s a matter of survival, really — and usually these traits transfer when behind the wheel too.
POWER = PAIN?
I don’t know about you, but I feel much safer — or at least less prone to an accident — riding a 180-horsepower GSX-R1000 than I do my 2-horsepower moped.
I’d rather have a reserve of power when needed to avoid an incident, than not have it and rely on others to avoid me. But that feeling of security comes from having confidence in reflexes and judgement that have been honed by three decades of riding experience.
Harbour’s plan is supposed to address this lack of experience in new riders, at least in part.
But then, do a young rider and a powerful bike translate to trouble? Teenage Superbike racer Brett McCormick, who will turn 18 later this year, is a good example.
A law like this is counterintuitive, as it would mean someone with McCormick’s riding skill would be limited on the street to anything from small-displacement sport bikes to oversized cruisers, and the latter are clearly harder to handle due to their heavy weight.
Now, this isn’t as off base as it sounds: skilled, young riders like McCormick can easily prove they can handle high-power, high-risk bikes on a racetrack — what they must also show is that they can exercise good judgement on public roads.
But isn’t this what the current demerit point system addresses?
And in my opinion, this is where reform of new-rider restrictions should be focused. New-rider restrictions should include a very low tolerance and heavy penalties for unruly behaviour behind the bars (pun intended), regardless of the power output or style of bike they ride. Besides, if the laws are properly applied and enforced, what we ride should make no difference.
Now, this doesn’t mean I’m against limiting new riders to reduced-power bikes — I say bring it on! I’ve always regarded open-class supersports as expert-only machines. That said, I don’t think it’s any safer riding a 40-horsepower entry-level bike than it is a 180-horsepower superbike, regardless of experience — it’s all about your riding habits and your riding environment.
It’s safer to circulate at high speeds on a racetrack than it is to mingle with congested, frustrated and distracted traffic. However, new riders must hone their riding skills to be able to negotiate safely through this urban chaos, and some of the burden of learning to ride will be lifted if they begin on modestly powerful machines.
These bikes should still have enough power to pass slower traffic safely, or to carry a passenger and luggage, but not be too powerful that they become intimidating or overwhelming (or get you in over your head if you experience an unwarranted twitch in your right wrist).
When novices have proven they can handle such machines responsibly, they can then graduate to the big leagues better equipped to handle the consequences of occasional lapses in throttle-hand restraint or the stray Volvo with the broken driver’s side mirror.
HARBOUR KNOWS BEST?
One thing is certain: if we leave it to the government to regulate what we ride, we’re guaranteed it will be poorly executed. Bureaucrats know next to nothing about the real needs of road users — any road users — or the vehicles they drive, all they do is crunch numbers, numbers that are unfortunately well guarded and poorly defined.
I think it’s up to the motorcycle industry to regulate itself; the people running it are, after all, the true experts. Fund research to reveal the true statistics (which may or may not back government and insurance industry claims), build and market entry-level machines, and educate pencil-pushing government suits about the proper way to categorize them, instead of crying foul every time the men in black knee-jerk the industry in the groin.
Then, maybe authorities will react in a logical, productive manner and introduce laws that will promote motorcycle use rather than restrict it. That’s a pretty long stretch, I know, but ah, to dream …