To begin with, what is your role as President of the MCIA?
SN: The industry runs itself, and they do it very well.
All I do is help with promoting the image of the industry.
I don’t interfere in any way or attempt to set policy,
my job is to ensure that powered two wheelers stay in the
minds of planners as they go about their business. Otherwise
they get forgotten. I believe that in many ways bikes and
trucks are very similar – town planners will go on
at great length about pedestrians, bicycles and cars but
will tend to ignore freight traffic and motorcycles if given
half a chance. That’s not a party political thing,
it goes right across the patch. Politicians and planners
need to be constantly reminded of the role that powered
two wheelers have in town planning today.
Unfortunately we have another problem in
that there is a body of opinion which says that if you want
to achieve a 40% reduction in accidents (which is a laudable
aim) then all you need to do is discourage motorcycle use
and you’ll be a fair way towards your goal. Of course
it’s partly true, after all if there were no cars
or bikes then there would be no accidents either. Then again,
we could address the unemployment problem as well by reintroducing
the man with the red flag to walk in front of everything
and bring the speed limit down to 4mph – that would
probably work as well. But reality says that you can’t
just tackle road safety in that way, despite what all too
many road safety professionals seem to suggest.
SB:What do you think of the TfL “safety”
advertising going on at the moment?
SN: The TfL strategy is
clever, using actors in the cinema audience to work with
the advert, but the message is totally negative and it isn’t
really a legitimate approach. All the ads are saying is
that if you ride a motorbike then you are likely to die.
Statistics show that powered two wheelers are actually safer
today than ever. Although accidents are rising slowly, they
are not rising anywhere near as fast as powered two wheeler
usage. It’s also important to remember that, in town
at least, the primary danger to bikers is cars and trucks,
as opposed to rash riding. There are exceptions, of course,
the most obvious being fast food delivery and courier companies.
Both of these are now making a real effort to become more
professional and to improve their safety record, and that’s
good because they are both an important part of the transport
SB: How do you view the motorcycle
SN: They have a difficult
role. I suspect that there isn’t much money to be
made in a magazine which is serious and boring about safety.
Motorcycling is about attitude. It’s a lifestyle as
well as a means of transport and it represents a certain
lack of constraint. Part of it has to be about individuality
and a certain degree of risk. The bike press is, in the
main, testosterone led with an emphasis on performance,
competition bigger better faster and as a result safety
doesn’t get much of a look in. There is a serious
issue which arises from this, though, and which needs to
be addressed. What people forget is that the one guy who
emulates his press heroes and goes wheelying down Kings
Road on open pipes undoes all the good we have done for
motorcycling over the last year or so in just a second.
It’s a matter of perception – the same way that
the one bad tube journey you have each month sticks in your
mind, so the one stupid anti social biker you see is the
one you remember.
SB: What about things like Automatic
SN: Well to be honest
I don’t see the problem here. Safety has to be foremost
in our minds, and if having my lights on means that just
one motorist sees me and doesn’t make that right turn
or pull out of that junction then surely it’s a good
thing. The objections are, to be honest, typical of motorcyclists.
We argue about compulsion despite the fact that we already
do it. Most bikers probably won’t even notice a change
until they buy a new machine and it doesn’t have a
light switch. I fully understand the wish for individuality
– God knows I’ve always tried to be my own man
and to avoid being pigeon holed – but we need to pick
our fights more carefully. If we start getting all excited
about things like this, which in the overall scheme of things
make no difference at all, then when we are faced with something
really important like leg guards or front number plates
then no-one will listen to our arguments because they will
just be dismissed as knee-jerk reactions. There is a tendency
for bikers and bikers’ organisations to see problems
where they don’t exist. We would all, perhaps, be
better served if we were to make a stand on something more
important like how appallingly easy it still is to steal
motorbikes. We need to get behind a properly enforced marking
scheme which could be integrated into the system to the
extent that DVLA could refuse to issue a registration document
for a bike that isn’t marked and in the scheme. If
everything is identifiable then the profit from theft is
greatly reduced and the risk is greatly increased.
SB: Talking about really important
things, what about speed limiters?
SN: Well, speed limiters
do have a role, especially in Europe. Sweden, for example,
wants to have 10% of the vehicle fleet fitted with them
by 2006 and then to roll them out across the plot. If it’s
a success there then you can bet it will happen here as
well. Now the good news is that the Department of Transport
recognise that bikes are very different to trucks and that
the laws of physics make the application of limiters a very
dubious proposition for them. I think in the UK at least
these devices are really only going to be aimed at trucks,
and when it comes to bikes there is a very strong argument
that says just don’t do it. Regardless, it’s
worth pointing out that this is by no means just over the
horizon – the DtP are in the earliest stages of discussion
so it won’t happen for some time.
SB: You mentioned front number plates
SN: Ah yes. Well as far
as I’m concerned, if we’re going back to the
blade on the mudguard then we should go the whole hog and
fit spikes to our chariot wheels as well. It’s just
a daft idea, and of course it’s a bit of a shame for
those planners who would like to congestion charge motorcycles.
SB: You’re not suggestion the
two are linked?
SN: Well, I would love
to believe that The Mayor exempted PTWs because he wanted
to encourage people to use them rather than cars. But if
he did want to then there might be some evidence of additional
motorcycle parking in the zone, and the answer is there
isn’t a single extra motorcycle space. Even before
the congestion charge came in – and for the record
I don’t think it’s significant and its effect
has almost entirely disappeared already – there wasn’t
enough motorcycle space. Outside my old office, which was
in the zone, if I didn’t get there at 7am there wasn’t
enough space and if I went out during the day the space
would be gone when I got back an hour later.
The Unified Transportation Plan for the
City of London was very hostile toward bikes, and the fact
that bikers got together, mobilised and managed to get it
changed was excellent. But it was a classic example of the
sort of thinking that drives town planners. We don’t
want accidents, bikes cause accidents so discourage bikes.
It just shows how much ignorance we still fight against,
and personally I believe that if it wasn’t for the
fact that congestion charging here needs front and rear
number plates then bikes would be charged as well.
SB: You have a better solution?
SN: Well yes, I would
scrap the charge because I don’t think it’s
the right way to deal with the problem. The real way to
deal with it is proper road engineering, traffic light rephasing
and putting back the road capacity which has been needlessly
removed. It’s making sure that there is provision
for people to walk or cycle short distances, use powered
two wheelers, park safely, securely and cost effectively.
SB: I wanted to ask you about parking.
SN: The fundamental rationale for policy planners is
that powered two wheelers occupy a lot less road space than
private cars. I believe we will actually see NCP and others
offering a lot more opportunity for people to park motorcycles
safely. If I knew that I could be guaranteed a safe parking
space for my bike which maybe cost a couple of quid a day
then I’d be happy to use it. If there is capacity
in NCP car parks then we should expect to see them tapping
into the market. On street as well, I also think that there
really is a strong argument for more motorcycle parking.
Where we used to be, just off St James’, most of the
car parking bays were empty most of the time while the motorcycle
bay was always overflowing, as was every other one in the
area. There’s an obvious lesson there, and given that
motorcyclists are exempted and that they tend not to hold
up traffic and are actually decongestors rather than congestors
it would make sense to promote them if you genuinely want
to decongest the city.
A proper analysis of real, sustainable
integrated transport is that where people are doing journeys
of under a mile you want to offer them the chance to walk
or cycle. Where they are relatively short give them the
opportunity to use powered two wheelers, where they are
regular and along major routes you give them the chance
to use public transport and for everything else they use
their cars or powered two wheelers. The important thing
is to facilitate all of these things and the powered two
wheeler is an important part.
SB: Bikes still aren’t allowed
in bus lanes in London
SN: Oh I have no problem
with bikes using bus lanes and I have long argued that they
should be allowed there. I instigated the first trial in
Bristol which was very successful. It’s hard to see
why more local authorities don’t take it on except
that there are far too many authorities who still see the
motorcycle as part of the problem rather than as part of
the solution. There is a lot of wooly thinking about shared
usage of bus lanes. Actually I’m much less happy about
cyclists sharing bus lanes because the cyclist is really
vulnerable whereas the motorcyclist is less likely to be.
I think that all local authorities should just get on and
make it lawful so that we can actually give motorcyclists
a sensible advantage.
SB: What about advanced stop lines?
(for bicycles at traffic lights – ed)
SN: I’m less sold
on letting motorbikes in those. They are intended to make
the cyclist more visible and to give them some sort of priority
from the lights. If you start to mix motorcycles in as well
then I’m not entirely sure that that would be helpful
in road safety terms. Now as it happens, the motorcyclist
will get to the front of the traffic flow anyway. I’m
actually not entirely sure of their value anyway and have
yet to see evidence of what they actually deliver.
SB: Speed cushions are a popular bugbear
with our readers
SN: I’m generally
unhappy with speed cushions. I think they’re an incredibly
crude mechanism for speed control, and what’s significant
is that if you go to virtually any other country in Europe
you will not see them. They are a curiously British phenomenon.
It may well be a cultural thing in that other countries
seem to rely more heavily on posted speed limits which are
then observed, but it’s also partly their transport
hierarchy which puts the pedestrian at the top, then the
cyclist, then the motorcyclist, then the bus and then right
at the bottom comes the private motorist. Part of it, I’m
sure, is that they don’t have the idiotic funding
mechanisms we have here where things like parking enforcement
revenue can only be spent on road improvements so they end
up putting humps and bumps because they can’t think
of anything else to spend the money on. I can think of plenty
of places, and Ebury Street in Westminster comes to mind,
where it is now worse for every class of road user than
it was before the council spent a great deal of money improving
it. So no, I’m not happy with road humps. If you really
want to control road speeds then there are plenty of more
elegant ways of doing it.
SB: Where do you see the industry going?
SN: Well broadly speaking
I think the industry is likely to continue to make good
progress because a lot of people are going to start looking
seriously at motorbikes as utility devices. The trend toward
returners is going to remain strong and we’re all
fitter and more able to enjoy ourselves when we retire.
So in the UK, although the explosive growth we have seen
over the last few years will have to slow down, the prospects
are pretty good. It’s good to see Triumph back up
after the fire, but it would be nice to see more British
manufacturers. Obviously we look after importers as well,
and I have to say that there are some fantastic bikes out
SB: Is there anything in particular
that you would like to see happen?
SN: I think the industry
as a whole has to recognise that the safety issue is a major
one, and that if they don’t do something about it
then it will seriously affect the way that we are allowed
to enjoy motorcycling the way we want to. It’s something
that everyone needs to get behind, the press, influential
figures in the industry, sportsmen, everyone. We need to
start taking safety seriously because otherwise we’re
just going to be seen as part of the problem. Noise is another
thing we need to look at because it is something which affects
the public perception of bikes and biking. I don’t
think that the vast majority of bikers see themselves as
a problem but it is something the industry as a whole needs
to look at. I have no problem with the image or attitude
of biking as a whole, but I am acutely aware that if we
don’t also show ourselves as being responsible with
regard to safety then government will react the only way
they know how and will make it less attractive to ride a
SB: What do you feel about the apparent
imbalance between the requirements for car and bike licences?
SN: I have no problem
with the need to take extra tests to ride more powerful
machines. They are extremely fast and need considerable
skill and ability to be ridden properly. It’s perhaps
of more concern that someone like me who took his test over
40 years ago has no requirement to take any further training.
Things have moved on a long way since then, cars are faster
and more powerful and there are a lot more of them. I mean,
you wouldn’t take someone who learned to use a lathe
40 years ago and let them loose on a new CAD?CAM machine
without training, would you? So there’s a great deal
to be said for advanced training of some form. But in essence
I don’t believe the current test regime to be bad.
Insurance companies are gradually coming to realise that
you have to have proper risk based assessment and that will
probably start to restrict the ability of drivers to get
into high powered cars before they have the experience in
the same way that licence restrictions prevent bikers from
doing it. I’ve worked with insurance companies sufficiently
to know that at present they don’t do what you would
expect they would do. They don’t actually analyse
your risk – they have an incredibly crude matrix which
takes your age and sex and the location you park your bike.
That’s all they’re interested in. In fact, the
difference between a good rider and a bad rider is in their
propensity to claim, and there’s no attempt to deal
wit it. At the moment they look at their claims record for
the last year, add their margin and divide it by the number
of policy holders. Eventually someone must realise that
if they actually do a proper risk assessment and apply proper
actuarial assessment then they will cost less and be able
to offer a cheaper premium.
SB: Finally, what do you feel about
SN: I wouldn’t wear
one personally as I find them quite disconcerting, but then
again I don’t wear sunglasses either. I find lenses
rather unsatisfactory. Setting that aside, I personally
would never use a dark visor. I do think that whenever you
are talking about a fashion statement against safety then
forget fashion. If you’re talking about using them
on sunny days then that makes perfect sense, though. I can’t
explain the logic of the law, though. It’s just a
fine example of the Nanny State.
SB: Steve Norris, thank you very much.