Special investigation: MCN joins North Wales Police for a day on their patch
My message is simple ‘please come to Wales, we have some fantastic roads to ride. Just don’t die here.’ As the Roads Policing Inspector for North Wales, an invitation from Inspector Dave Cust to come and enjoy the fabulous roads on his patch is unexpected.
North Wales has a reputation for very low tolerance when it comes to traffic violations and since the days of former Chief Constable Richard ‘Mad Mullah’ Brunstrom to the recent announcement that the force is targeting bikes with small plates and loud pipes, they haven’t exactly appeared hospitable.
Some would even go as far as to say they are anti-biker and social media explodes with anger whenever the force is mentioned. However, the figures speak for themselves. In 2017, 80 motorcyclists were seriously injured on the roads in north Wales with eight killed. And by July 2018, eight biker fatalities have already been recorded.
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North Wales has an issue with safety on its roads. But are the force approaching the issue in the correct way? MCN joined the force for a day to find out.
8am: The day’s briefing
It’s the Saturday of England’s World Cup quarter final, but that doesn’t stop riders coming to north Wales. Patrolling today will be one unmarked car and bike, two marked cars and five marked bikes alongside four speed camera vans. The officers work five weekends in a row (they don’t get paid overtime) as it is at the weekends that accident rates spike.
In the briefing room the chat is about bikes, outside is parked a Bonnie, Multistrada and GSX-S1000 and of the nine officers, seven have bike licences. The briefing starts with Sergeant Trystan Bevan explaining the day’s objectives, which fall under Operation Darwen, the operation to reduce motorcycle and car accidents in north Wales. Events that are happening, accident hot spots, any knowledge of car or bike clubs visiting are all discussed.
The officers are given areas to head towards and 'engagement' and 'being visible' is the main focus, there is no mention of 'target small plates or loud pipes.' The briefing ends with the sobering: "Hopefully you will have nothing to deal with today."
9am: On patrol
MCN is in the back of an unmarked Audi A4, something I feel is a little underhand. "In a marked car people react and alter their riding/driving, in an unmarked car we are treated like any other road user," explains Inspector Cust from the passenger seat.
"The aim isn’t to hide and ensnare people, we will tweet a picture of the car at our first stop, it is to see how people actually use the road."
9.20am: The first ticket
An SRAD with a pipe and small plate passes us, followed by a GSXF650. There is a slower car ahead and a straight stretch of road, but on our side is a solid white line. I feel slightly sick as I know what’s about to happen.
As soon as they cross the line our lights and siren are on and the atmosphere in the car changes. It’s tense inside as Sergeant Bevan floors the Audi to pass the car, however as the road is now twisty he can’t overtake the bikes and as the riders are concentrating on the bends ahead, neither reacts to the siren.
For the next mile we sit behind them and on the first straight, Sergeant Bevan pulls alongside to alert the riders as neither had spotted him. They pull over and receive a ticket, however one rider is adamant he never crossed the line and I feel a degree of sympathy as I’ve had a similar incident. I put this to the officers.
"The video shows his wheels were on the line," says Sergeant Bevan as we look at the camera footage. I point out that the road was clear ahead and he overtook in control while hardly crossing the line. “Did you see the junction on the right, hidden by the tree?" counters Sergeant Bevan and I admit I hadn't. "I’ve attended a fatality there, that's why it's a solid line as it's not safe to overtake." Lesson learnt.
The two riders received three points each, a £100 fine and due to the fact they failed to notice the police for so long they will also be required to attend a bike-specific road awareness course. The SRAD rider also received a correction notice for his plate and pipe.
"Pulling over bikes is the hardest thing we do as if they crash when we are behind, I can be liable and the resulting accident can be horrific," explains Sergeant Bevan.
"If a car fails to stop it's easy, but not a bike. We had their plates on the camera, so if they had obviously seen me but not stopped I’d have finished the pursuit as we have to think of their safety. Hopefully the course and points on those rider's licences will make them think and make them safer."
9.45am: The plate debate
With the SRAD rider receiving a correction notice, I ask the police's stance on this hot topic. "Our cameras can’t automatically read small plates, so we can’t tell if the bike is stolen, and at the end of the day it’s illegal," says Sergeant Bevan.
"Also, our statistics show that there is a direct correlation between accidents and bikes with small plates and non-legal pipes."
At this bike hot spot the police make no secret of the fact they are on the roads today. The police bikes are parked in full view, including the unmarked one, and the officers are talking to fellow bikers.
"Some can initially be a bit stand-offish," one officer admits, "but chatting about bikes soon breaks the ice." True to their word, Sergeant Bevan tweets a pic of the unmarked car. Despite several parked bikes having loud pipes fitted, the police aren’t taking any action and joke about one Yamaha R1 rider who they reckon is too worried to start his bike and leave due to his carbon cans.
Speaking to a few riders, none have an issue with the police presence as they are all aware of the safety issues on the local roads and they appreciate the fact the police now engage with riders and don’t just sit in their cars and stare.
"They genuinely want to save lives," says one local rider. "They pick up on petty stuff; loud pipes and small plates, but if they can save a life that’s a different kettle of fish."
11am: The loud pipe debate
As we pass through a village I spot a rather creepy mannequin at the side of the road dressed in a day-glo jacket. "The villagers put that up themselves as they were so pissed-off with bikes and cars speeding through with loud exhausts," says Sergeant Bevan.
"A loud pipe may sound good to you, but imagine hearing them constantly in your quiet village all weekend." Again, it’s a hard debate to argue against.
11.30am: The three Es
"We focus on what we call the three Es when it comes to reducing road fatalities; Enforcement, Education and Engineering," explains Inspector Cust. "Engineering involves altering physical roadside objects to prevent injury. We have raised signs to prevent decapitations, added solid areas to the outside of bends to stop riders sliding under the barrier and changed solid road signs for flexible ones on some corners.
We have a full-time member of staff who reviews fatal accidents and liaises with the council regarding improving roadside furniture." As we look at one such sign I notice some white paint markings on the road, put there by the accident investigation team and meaning there has recently been a fatality on this bend.
"Every fatality costs £1.5-£2 million to investigate, so if changing a sign prevents this, it’s great value for money," says Sergeant Bevan. As we leave the area we spot a Mustang without a front licence plate coming the other way. Sergeant Bevan alerts the officers in Betws-y-Coed and the driver is pulled over.
We reach a well-known stretch of road with amazing corners. But it’s very open with good visibility. I’d be tempted to cut the corners where possible, so I ask what the police’s reaction would be if they saw that. "If there is a broken white line and good visibility, I would have no issue at all with riders using the full width of the road," says Sergeant Bevan.
"Just keep the speed within legal limits as there are slow farm vehicles and unexpected hazards." As if to emphasise his point we round a corner to see a stray sheep on the road, leading to a comical chase with the blues and twos going as the officers herd it safely back into a field. While this was amusing, it happened on a section that as a sportsbike rider I would have been tempted to be going quite quickly and sheep are very solid when hit.
Over lunch I ask if there is a quota to be met for tickets issued. "There is absolutely no quota or targets for tickets issued,” says Inspector Cust. “We could stand on a corner and issue tickets all day or reduce our road policing force, and with constraints on budgets there is pressure to save costs, but one force saw accident rates double within a year when they cut the number of officers on the roads.
People get fixated with the tickets we hand out, which I get. We are seen as the enemy and nobody wants a fine or points, but if it saves a life I’ll take that dislike on the chin."
1.30pm: Another ticket
A car ahead in a line of traffic crosses a single white line, he is pulled over and issued with three points and a fine. "Because he instantly reacted when I put my lights on he won’t receive an awareness course like the bikers," explains Sergeant Bevan.
2.40pm: The crash call
The radio crackles into life; 'motorcycle accident, groin injuries.' All police vehicles have GPS trackers and while control knows the unmarked VFR is closest to the incident, we are called to assist. Getting there as fast as possible is imperative and I see over 130mph at times on the Audi’s speedo. There is tension in the air and our speed will only drop if the other officer radios in to say it’s not life-threatening.
A group of riders were on their way to a camping holiday and one has missed a corner, hitting a road sign on his Hornet and smashing his nuts into the tank. It's painful but he will be ok and soon his mates are laughing and joking with the officers who are now directing traffic around the incident.
Again, there are several illegal exhausts but no fines or comments are made. However when a biker rides past with his pillion wearing flip-flops the officers make a point of giving him a very stern talking to.
Within half-an-hour the injured rider is taken by ambulance to hospital, the bike recovered and the rest of the group on their way. Sadly, it’s a well tested routine.
"That was a small incident, but it still involved three officers, an ambulance and a recovery vehicle," says Sergeant Bevan.
"A serious one would easily involve eight officers for over six hours, the road closed through four council workers, ambulance, fire service, collisions unit, doctors, possibly a helicopter. If it was a fatality, six officers would work the case for the next three to four weeks. It’s always the first or last few riders in a group that crash, seldom the ones in the middle."
5pm: Return to base
Back at the base I’m relieved that we only attended one accident today and not a fatality, making it a good day for the force. "The issue with road safety is that you can only measure failure, not success," says Sergeant Bevan. "If one rider saw us today and slowed down when he may have otherwise been going too fast, crashed and died we will never know. But every day without a fatality is brilliant."
ARE NORTH WALES POLICE ANTI-BIKER?
The sheer amount of death on such a small area of public roads in Wales is simply not acceptable and I can’t argue against North Wales Police trying to stop it. But are their tactics right?
The forces’ comments on small plates and loud pipes has hit a raw nerve with many riders, sparking the debate that the force hoped it would. It's hard to excuse a small plate as they are illegal and only there to avoid being read by authorities.
Yes, I accept they look neater, but there is no other argument to justify them. Loud pipes do alert other road users of a bike’s presence, but by the same token they annoy villagers. Speaking to the officers on the ground, the reality is that if you have a legal plate and ride within the law, you are unlikely to be pulled for a slightly loud can and in my view the North Welsh Police aren’t anti-biker, they are anti-death.
The force isn’t devious about how they go about their work, the unmarked vehicles’ presence is publicised and the marked ones more than obvious. The message is fairly simply: north Wales isn’t a race track, it's a public road, ride it as such and you will have a fabulous day out and return home alive, without points.
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