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Tony, John: Our safety isn’t a game

Published: 11 March 2001

Tony Blair and John Prescott have drawn up a host of unpleasant plans for riders during their time in power – and now they’re looking at another one.

There has been the sudden saturation of our roads with speed cameras, and the move to allow police to keep money from speeding fines, which means more are on the way. Then there are the ridiculous proposals to ban people for doing 85mph on motorways.

But Tony and John still aren’t satisfied. They now have something even more sinister up their sleeves – remote control of speed.

We reported in 1999 that the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) and Leeds University had developed an electronic device that used satellite-based technology to take over when a vehicle was speeding.

It cuts the fuel supply – and applies the brakes if it has to – until the vehicle is travelling within the speed limit.

At the time it was just for cars, but the Government has recently funded a project to develop similar working systems for other vehicles – like HGVs, buses... and bikes.

The latest investment means the Government has sunk a total of £550,000 in the technology so far.

In 1999, the Government refused to say whether it would consider forcing new vehicles to be fitted with the devices. Now the noises it is making are more alarming.

When asked if they could become compulsory, DETR spokesman Richard Addison said: " Certainly. Research has shown quite clearly that the system could significantly reduce accidents. That’s the reason for the investment in more research. "

But that research has been carried out by the very groups which have developed the system.

Phil Neale, director of public affairs for the Motorcycle Action Group, finds this an worrying arrangement, saying: " It raises questions over the objectivity of the findings. "

But Addison claims the research process is still in its infancy, making criticisms over objectivity premature.

He said: " The process has a long way to go and who knows what other stages of rigorous testing might take place before it is complete? "

But if the system is brought in for cars, bikes would have to follow, confirmed Addison.

He said: " We couldn’t have bikes going faster than cars, but we know they would have to be treated differently to cars because of the way they behave and handle.

" It’s something which would have to be addressed in research. "

We spoke to Oliver Carston, the director of research at Leeds University’s Institute for Transport Studies, and co-ordinator of all research into remote speed control across the country.

We wanted to find out how well he understands the difference between bikes and cars, and exactly how he thinks the system could be adapted to suit a motorcycle. Sadly, his response did not reassure us.

He disagreed with MIRA engineer Rick Hampson, who admitted two years ago that in certain circumstances a rider needed to accelerate out of trouble and that the system could make an accident more likely.

Carston disagreed, saying: " I don’t think there’s any evidence for that. I think fast-accelerating bikes are lethal to pedestrians. "

He acknowledges very little research has been done into whether bikes can avoid accidents by accelerating, but thinks research focusing on cars is perfectly sufficient.

He added: " I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that if a car driver can’t avoid an accident by accelerating, then a motorcyclist can’t either. "

In case you’re wondering, Carston doesn’t ride a motorbike. But he’s still confident the technology can be adapted to suit one.

" Part of our current project is to create a working prototype of the system fitted to a motorbike. We hope to have it ready in three years, " he said. " It probably won’t be as rigid as the system for cars.

" It may not apply the brakes, but work only through the throttle. It could have a throttle that offers more resistance once you get closer to the speed limit. "

Whatever alterations are made to make the system " suitable " for bikes, Carston acknowledges the end result of preventing us breaking the speed limit will be the same.

But it could be dangerous, according to Britain’s longest-serving commercial advanced riding instructor.

Colin Fenton, an advanced instructor for 24 years, said: " I think the technology could be very hazardous. You rarely ride through corners with a constant throttle, you use it to keep your balance and follow the line.

" Restricting the throttle would completely screw your ability to take the corner. If you try to use the bars to sort it out instead, you can end up going all over the place. "

Fenton also disagrees with Carston’s belief that we can’t accelerate clear of danger.

He said: " I’ve done it. Just recently I was riding straight on through a junction when I saw a car approaching too fast from behind. The driver was obviously looking left and right, rather than straight ahead. I accelerated away quickly, otherwise he would have hit me. "

Fenton added: " Carston obviously doesn’t understand motorcycles. I’d gladly take him on one of my courses and show him why he’s wrong. "

One consolation is that Carston reckons it will be at least 12 years before the technology is ready.

And there’s always the chance that sense will prevail somewhere along the line.

Addison said: " There’s a long way to go. Any decision is years away. The Government considers lots of measures, many of which are never implemented. "

Let’s hope and pray this is one of them

HOW CONTROL COULD BE TAKEN FROM RIDERS

MIRA and Leeds University have tested three different systems which can be used to remotely control the speed of cars, one of which will form the basis for similar system for bikes. It calls the technology External Vehicle Speed Control (EVSC)

They use an onboard computer and a satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) to communicate with a satellite and pinpoint the vehicle’s position to the nearest metre.

The computer is programmed with digital maps which include which speed limits apply where.

As the vehicle approaches an area with a lower speed limit, a display on the dashboard flashes up the speed the driver should be doing and three bleeps provide an aural alert.

If the driver fails to reduce his speed, the computer takes over, reducing fuel supply and applying the brakes.

One of the systems can be switched off by the driver. But it’s the other two, which can’t be switched off, that we have to worry about.

One of will prevent the vehicle from ever exceeding the speed limit, whether the driver likes it or not, and the other goes even further.

It not only slows the vehicle down to the speed limit, but can also slow it down even further if it decides conditions are hazardous.

Carson said: " It can prevent a vehicle going over a certain speed on corners with a tight radius. It could even slow cars down in the wet. The technology exists to for sensors in tyres to detect whether the road is wet my measuring friction. "

These sensors could communicate with the vehicle’s onboard computer to slow it down even further.

Carston doesn’t know how engineers will overcome the obvious hazards of fitting any kind of similar system to bikes but is nevertheless confident it can be done.

" All the issues will have to be looked at, " he said. " As long as the vehicle tells the rider what it’s doing, I can’t see too many problems. "

" Motorcycles may have to bee given a little more leeway than cars, " he continued. " The emphasis may be on not allowing them to go too fast rather than actively slowing them down. Any deceleration for a bend would occur before it rather than in it. "

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