The economics of motorcycle safety
“Oh, you ride a donor-cycle?” he chuckled. Fuck you Jared.
This is something people who ride motorcycles often hear. For context, a “donor-cycle” is a way of referring to motorcycles as dangerous; essentially turning you, the rider, into an organ donor. This stereotype (masked as a valid criticism) is pervasive: “Motorcycles are dangerous.”
I live in Cape Town, South Africa, where I happily ride around on a Royal Enfield, as well as a 125cc Chinese scooter for quick nips to the shops. In South Africa it is dangerous on a bike. Cars are less likely to see you, the road speed is higher than the global average, and there’s the apathy (and sometimes downright antagonism of minibus taxis). It is without a doubt safer to drive than to ride here, but I ride none-the-less, recently traversing the country solo on my Enfield.
This experience is in stark contrast to where I am now.
For the past month my girlfriend and I have been in Bali, Indonesia, where motorcycles are arguably the only reasonable way to get around. On the second day I rented an electric scooter with a hot-swappable battery and it’s been a blast!
At first glance the roads seemed absolutely chaotic. There were no rules. People didn’t stick to their lanes, no-one stopped at intersections, and sidewalks were regularly ridden on. I was a bit hesitant (and intimidated) to ride on these roads when I first arrived, but it became apparent almost immediately that it was the quickest way to get around. The streets were too small for cars to move effectively and scooters could undertake, overtake, and use the sidewalks if necessary.
After a day of riding these wild roads I realised that there was a method to this madness. A pattern behind the chaos. Despite a population overwhelmingly commuting by motorcycle, people felt safe. A large percentage didn’t wear helmets, and a lot of merging was done with barely a glance at the oncoming traffic. By the end of the month I was firmly convinced that riding around in Bali was not only safer than riding a motorcycle back home; but safer than driving a car as well.
After a quick internet search of road accidents, injuries, and deaths all over the world, my suspicions were confirmed. Bali has around half of the road injuries and deaths per capita than back home (even with our modern roads and infrastructure). Not only that, when compared to other developing countries I noticed a trend: car-centric countries have a higher road death toll than bike-centric countries across the board. Why is that?
What follows are my opinions:
The cars have an awareness of riders in Bali. Since there are so many motorcycles on the road, each car driver knows they are surrounded by squishy humans. Despite how it feels in South Africa, no-one actually wants to kill motorcyclists. It just happens due to a lack of awareness. Car drivers inadvertently de-prioritise seeing pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycles. They own the road. This is one of the reasons I ride a fairly loud bike back home, yet felt comfortable riding a completely silent scooter with minimal protective equipment here in Bali.
There is a mutual respect among people on motorcycles here. I think this is unavoidable. On a motorcycle you are aware of your own mortality. You can see the asphalt speeding past your foot; feel the wind on your face (depending on the style of helmet of course). When you’re on a motorcycle, you are acutely aware that a collision will hurt. When everyone is on motorcycles, this is a common understanding, and so we treat everyone with deference. There’s this unwritten agreement that when pulling onto a road others will slow down to accommodate you (hence why people rarely do proper checks here). It’s also why, when pulling through an intersection there’s a “don’t be a dick” mentality. A car wouldn’t care. They’d “win” in a bumping match.
You see people, not objects. This is an interesting trick of our psychology. We don’t see cars as people, we see them as “that fucking Lexus who cut us off”. This allows us to compartmentalise and de-humanise other road users. It’s why we can be angry and swear at the aforementioned Lexus, but wouldn’t do the same to someone who bumped us on the sidewalk. When on a bike we aren’t hidden inside our steel boxes. We see the faces and expressions of the other people. We make eye-contact. Our body-language shows whether it’s safe to go. We can easily gesture and nod and reciprocate. We’re people getting along, not emotionless speedy boxes of death.
Slower speeds play a large factor here. Denpasar is a city of nooks and crannies. Small streets and tight corners. While back home it’s possible to get up to 140 km/h in a residential area, in Bali my usual cruising speed was 40 km/h, topping 70 km/h on the main roads. This is huge for traffic safety as speed not only makes collisions less avoidable, but also increases the severity of those collisions. This has been recognised by countries like The Netherlands who actively make roads more windy and narrow in an effort to make them safer. It works. It also doesn’t diminish the pleasure of riding. A good curvy road is preferable to a long boring stroad.
Why do some countries go for motorcycles and some for cars? I don’t know for sure, but I can speculate. Firstly the climate needs to be accommodating. Having severe cold will push people towards cars, but a hot and humid climate like Bali is perfect for scooting about. It was much more pleasant than walking as the breeze cools cooled me down (and got me sunburnt when I wasn’t careful). This, combined with a lower-income population (scooters being as cheap as $400 here) and a lack of public transport made motorcycles the natural option.
This, however, is in stark contrast to the car (and traffic) centrism I experienced in Ghana (where I lived for 3 months). It has a similar climate, income level, and lack of public transport, which is why these speculations aren’t definitive.
I enjoyed this motorcycle centrism, however, there were some downsides:
The air quality was terrible. With so many scooters and motorcycles on the road (including a fair number of 2-strokes) there was a light brown smog that hung over the city coupled with the smell of exhaust. This was amplified by the fact that very few bikes have catalytic converters which are standard in modern cars.
Alongside the air quality was the amount of sound pollution. It was loud, especially near busy roadways. A ratty Honda Cub makes almost as much noise as a Harley, not to mention the number of 125cc scooters here with racing exhaust pipes. Ratta-ting-ting-ting-pop! There were also the pervasive small honks of the scooters in traffic to get used to.
Walking was a no-go in Bali as the roads (and sidewalks during rush hour) were packed with moving scooters. Considering the lack of policing on these roads it would be almost impossible to keep scooters from driving on the sidewalks. Combined with the air and sound pollution we were better off (and arguably safer) getting around on a bike.
These aren’t insurmountable problems. 2 of them are solved by electric motorcycles. The bike I was riding for the past month was perfect for Bali. Silent and with zero exhaust fumes it cruised the streets gracefully. Swapping the battery took 20 seconds and the cost per kilometre was roughly one sixth of a petrol scooter. There was always a swap point within 2 kilometres of my location (at Circle K convenience stores) and despite the 50-60km range, I could get around with little-to-no worry of the battery running flat.
I’m tempted to say something like “in the future this will be a solved problem” but it’s actually solved right now, it just needs to be adopted more widely. These scooters are available for purchase or rent and are fairly affordable (I got mine at Zin Cafe in Canggu). The charging infrastructure is already set up, robust and pervasive. And, oh boy is it fun!
This has been revelatory to me and has made me realise that motorcycles aren’t dangerous. Cars are dangerous. We’ve just decided to blame the victims. Us.
Needless to say, I’ll need to re-learn how to ride defensively when I get home.
Edit 1: After all the feedback (mostly from the /r/fuckcars subreddit) it should be noted that this article makes a good case for e-bikes (instead of electric scooters) which would improve road safety for pedestrians and decrease traffic congestion.
Edit 2: I've changed the title of the article from "Motorcycles aren't dangerous. Cars are dangerous." to "The economics of motorcycle safety" since the former caused people to voice their opinions without actually reading the article (mostly from the /r/motorcycles subreddit). Yes, motorcycles have a higher fatality rate than cars. The title was supposed to illustrate that cars are dangerous for motorcycles.