Research into the cause of bike accidents has consistently suggested that more of them are caused by car drivers than by us. So why are police forces suddenly claiming the vast majority are the result of rider error?
An MCN survey of every police force in the country last week revealed that both North Yorkshire and Bedfordshire blame us for most of the bike accidents in their area.
North Yorkshire spokesman Tony Lidgate said they were " overwhelmingly " the result of rider error. Bedfordshire spokesman Richard Bratton agreed, saying " almost all " bikes accidents were caused by riders. Pc Chris Pulfrey, of South Yorkshire Police, said that " many collisions are a direct result of rider error, contrary to the popular belief that the rider is usually the innocent party " .
But most astonishingly, Humberside Police issued a press statement claiming that last year " 90 per cent of motorcycle collisions were the result of rider error and 75 per cent involved excess speed " .
The claims conflict with the findings of every research project we could find looking into the causes of motorcycle accidents.
One, called Characteristics of Urban Motorcycle Accidents, found only 35 per cent of bike accidents were caused by motorcyclists.
Author Keith Booth, who carried out the research for the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA), looked at 9617 bike accidents and found that 62 per cent were caused by other road users, with 50 per cent caused specifically by car drivers.
Unfortunately, the research was conducted more than 10 years ago, in 1989. But Nick Brown, research manager for the MCIA, says there’s little evidence things have changed.
He said: " The police record the circumstances of accidents rather than the causes, and the circumstances haven’t altered dramatically. Most motorcycle accidents still involve another vehicle and are at or near junctions. "
Brown also thinks the claim that 75 per cent of collisions involve excess speed is unlikely. He said: " That would surprise me. Most collisions happen within the speed limit. It’s certainly what I’ve seen in other areas. "
Booth’s isn’t the only research to have looked into bike accidents. Another study, published in the same year by the AA Foundation for Road Safety Research, looked at accidents involving all types of vehicles and found that motorcyclists were less often at fault for accidents than drivers.
The study was called Urban Accidents: Why Do They Happen? Author Oliver Carston and others looked at a total of 1254 accidents and found that motorcyclists were at fault in only 36 per cent of the ones they were involved in. Car drivers, on the other hand, were at fault in 42 per cent of the accidents they were involved in.
The report concluded that: " In spite of their public image, motorcycle riders were not found to be more often at fault than car drivers. "
And it’s not the only study to suggest that most motorcycle accidents are caused by other road users. A study by J Whitaker called A Survey of Motorcycle Accidents, conducted for the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), one of the UK’s leading road accident research groups, looked specifically at motorcycle accidents and found that the cause was fairly straightforward.
Brown explained: " It looked at 475 accidents and found that 70 per cent happened while the riders were going straight ahead at a junction. "
Another TRL report, called Observations of Motorcycle Riders at Junctions, by Pat Wells, looked at riders going through five types of junctions. It, too, came to the conclusion that riders were largely blameless. Brown said: " It found that casualties were largely the result of other people’s actions. "
However, Brown accepts that the figures could be skewed by the fact that most of the research focuses exclusively on urban areas. That means it doesn’t look at accidents happening on twisty rural roads, which police forces claim is the biggest problem.
Lidgate told MCN last week that motorcycle accidents in rural areas were caused " classically by a rider over-running a corner " .
Penny Thorpe, road safety officer for Gwent Police, also claimed that in rural areas bikes " tended to be involved in single-vehicle accidents " .
Insp Dick Cockerline, who heads Humberside traffic unit’s motorcycle section, agrees. He said: " The biggest problem is single-vehicle accidents in which riders fall off mid-corner. "
But the figure from Humberside – the only force blaming motorcyclists for accidents that provided specific percentages – also claimed riders were to blame for 90 per cent of motorcycle " collisions " – not just single-vehicle accidents in a corner.
Could there really be that many of us riding around on country roads crashing into other vehicles?
Fortunately, there is some evidence to suggest not. And some of it even comes from the police themselves. The Cleveland force look after a high mileage of rural roads, as well as urban ones. Sgt Nick Walker, one of its officers responsible for road policing, told us: " Of four fatalities last year, only one was the sole responsibility of the rider.
" Two of the other three fatal accidents were caused by car drivers pulling out in front of the riders. "
Figures from Dorset Police, reported recently in MCN, suggest something similar is happening there. Only 36 per cent of collisions involving riders in the county in 2000 were their fault.
Even figures from insurance companies taken from rural and urban areas up and down the country suggest most of our accidents are the fault of other road users.
Dave Bowcock is claims manager for Carole Nash, the firm that insures 20 per cent of us. He said accidents the firm dealt with where the rider was to blame were outnumbered by those where another road user was responsible.
He said: " We get more
non-fault than fault incidents reported, with about 40 per cent being the fault of riders. "
And even some police forces back up that view. Tom Parson, of the City of London Police, said: " In the last 15 months in central London, there have been 583 injuries involving motorcyclists.
" Only 65 have been attributed to motorcyclists as the cause – 202 were attributed to car drivers, 159 to pedestrians and the rest to other causes.
" Motorcyclists are at fault in eight per cent of bike accidents, but constitute 20 per cent of victims. "
So how can the experiences of police forces such as Humberside be so different? A brief chat with Cockerline was all it took to understand.
He said: " The fact that riders were to blame in 90 per cent of collisions doesn’t mean that they were the only ones to blame. "
So, presumably, that means drivers could also be " at fault " in 90 per cent of motorcycle collisions. " It’s possible, " admitted Cockerline. It also suggests that " at fault " could mean something as simple as riding slightly over the speed limit before a car pulls out right in front of you.
Even the definition of " collision " seems peculiar. Cockerline told us it included single-vehicle accidents in which the rider fell off – but only if they were killed.
None of this detail was mentioned in the statement Humberside Police issued to the press. We suggested to Cockerline this meant the force wasn’t giving people the full picture, but he disagreed.
He said: " The figures are from our accident prevention department. I don’t really want to question them. "
It’s not surprising the police don’t want to question them – after all, it’s not them who are being labelled bad riders, are seen as high risk by insurance firms or face the prospect of restrictive legislation.
Fortunately for us, the MCIA is only too keen to query the attitude of forces like Humberside. It is planning its own research into the issue to help finally answer the question of who causes most bike accidents.
Brown said: " Historically, restrictive legislation has been prompted by public concern, and public concern is fuelled by shock-horror stats that actually mask the fact that motorcyclists are not responsible for accidents. "
Hopefully, we’ll then be able to present the police with figures to convince them that all too often we’re the victims of accidents, not the cause of them.