PTW crashes – round and round we go…

Yesterday on my Elevenses webcast ( I talked about the newest tag-team on the block. MAG and Transport for London (TfL) will be working together to identify – and hopefully improve – accident black spots for powered two wheelers, and I commented how the press release announcing this partnership is almost exactly four years to the day that I wrote a Facebook article on a then-new study into bike crashes commissioned by TfL.

This study concluded – not very shockingly – that bike crashes were most likely to happen at junctions. The good news was that based on their research, the TfL were producing an action plan to improve junctions for bikers, which were set duly forth in an ‘Urban Motorcycle Design Handbook’, which was published early in 2017, if I remember right.

Rather bizarrely, the alternative riders’ rights organisation, the BMF, reviewed the then-new TfL action plan into bike crashes in their online blog and said:

“We don’t understand motorcycle accidents.”

It was a puzzling statement four years ago, because – as I pointed out in Elevenses yesterday – I think it’s clear we have a pretty good handle on motorcycle crashes thanks to 50+ years of research!

Certainly, that research has steadily IMPROVED.

The research has improved in quality- some early studies were particularly simplistic, and there was also an element of ‘cart-before-horse’ detectable in some studies, where facts were bent to fit the theory – that’s evident in some of the studies supporting the use of hi-vis clothing and day-riding lights.

The research has improved in technique – with new developments like immersive simulators and sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, it’s possible to really pinpoint exactly where and at what drivers are looking. There are also sophisticated new tools for analysis of real-life data too.

And the research has certainly improved in quantity – whilst every now and again new papers appear with fresh ideas, there are plenty of other works which confirm and improve on earlier studies.

The most recent paper I’ve read – “Why are powered two wheeler riders still fatally injured in road junction crashes? – A causation analysis” – starts by stating the issue of concern:

“Powered Two Wheeler (PTW) crashes continue to be a road safety concern with a plateauing of the number of associated fatalities.”

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They then looked at two groups of crashes:

“Group A, where the other vehicle was travelling in the opposite direction to the PTW and commenced a right turn across the PTW’s path; and Group B where the other vehicle turned right out of a side road (or entrance) across the PTW’s path.”

This is important.

Group B – the collision with the vehicle that emerges into the bike’s path is the collision that most riders are familiar with – either because they’ve picked themselves off the deck after the event, or because they survived via some rapid evasive action.

But Group A is less familiar to riders. There’s good reason for that. Not only is it far less common, but it accounts for a significant number of the fatalities. Crudely put, many of the riders who DO have this crash don’t come back to warn the rest of us about it.

Now, here’s the first interesting comment:

“…the other vehicle drivers in Group A [were] more likely to have ‘attention allocation’ as a causation factor.”

What’s attention?

We tend to use it incorrectly when we’re talking about road safety. We tend to assume it’s a state in which we’re capable of responding to ANY stimulus. We talk about attentive riders and drivers being aware of their environment.

The fact is we’re misusing the term. ‘Attention’ is not some kind of Zen-like state where we are capable of absorbing everything happening around us. Instead, it’s the behavioural and cognitive process of SELECTIVELY focusing on a specific pieces of information, whilst IGNORING other information which would – if we changed the focus of our attention – be perceivable.


Why do people say that? Because there’s something specific they want our focus on. Do you see the difference?

This is vitally important, because it explains one of the mechanisms by which a ‘perfectly attentive’ driver can ‘look but fail to see’ a motorcycle. Something ELSE in the driving task became the focus of attention. And so the motorcycle went unseen.

This piece of understanding has been a key piece of my ‘Science Of Being Seen’ presentation since 2012. In the presentation I refer to it under the term ‘workload’, because it better explains that there is simply too much happening around us as we drive (or ride) to be able to absorb ‘everything’ – our attention is therefore selective, focusing on a subset of the environment that experience has taught us is crucial to the task. And I explain that ‘prevalence’ and the relative rareness of PTWs within the traffic stream leads drivers to overlook them.

And here’s the second interesting comment:

“the PTW riders in Group B more likely to have ‘insufficient skills’”

Specifically, they found that riders who had suffered the more common SMIDSY collision with the emerging driver demonstrated “too high speed” and “too late action”.

‘Too high speed’ is somewhat subjective, because to some extent whether a speed is too high in the moments before a potential collision depends on whether or not the rider is capable of shedding that speed in an emergency.

But we know from other research that the danger zone for riders is around three seconds out from a junction.

If the vehicle turns into the rider’s path when the bike is more than three seconds from impact, the rider is usually able to stop.

If the manoeuvre happens when the bike is less than three seconds away, then frequently the rider is unable to stop.

Here’s my point – the fact that the RIDER turned out to be unable to stop doesn’t mean that the MACHINE wasn’t capable of stopping. Some riders lose control of the machine – that’s why we now have mandatory ABS. Many others never get close to full power on the brakes – studies routinely show that riders generate 60-70% of braking force when they believe they are braking hard. And many simply freeze and either react too late or never react at all.

We’ve known for a long time that had the rider been able to bring the bike to a controlled halt by braking to the fullest extent, many junction collisions would be avoided.

The authors concluded… “that drivers failing to give way to PTW riders at junctions is still a problem.”


Back in 2002, in the VERY FIRST COLUMN that I wrote for the MAG magazine – called Slipstream back then – I said:

“It’s easy to point the finger of blame at car drivers but it’s worth remembering “it takes two to tangle” – one vehicle operator to make the initial mistake, but the second (all too often a rider) to sail blindly into the trap.”

18 years on, a new generation of riders are clearly making the same mistakes.

It’s great to see MAG involved with TfL in a constructive way – by all means address the roads and re-engineer junctions. And it’s equally important we continue to campaign to raise driver awareness of the vulnerability of riders…

…but riders MUST develop decent avoidance and evasion skills as part of the package. As I said yesterday at the end of Elevenses:

“For heavens sake, never forget that it’s ME, it’s YOU that holds the final trump card. We just have to remember a) we’re holding it and b) know how to play it.”


Why are powered two wheeler riders still fatally injured in road junction crashes? – A causation analysis
Rachel Talbot, Laurie Brown & Andrew Morris
Journal of Safety Research
Volume 75, December 2020, Pages 196-204

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