That looks slippery!

By Dick henneman

One of the most common items of street furniture out there is trying to kill you, and you don’t have to ride outside the law for it to jump out and bite you. You can be the most law-abiding rider on the road, always staying within the speed limits, observing the Highway Code, exercising perfect road positioning and traffic awareness and respect for other road users. Even wearing a reflective Sam Browne belt isn’t going to do you any good. It’s just waiting for some rain – and you.

I’m talking manhole covers.

Sooner or later one of these innocuous pieces of metal is going to try and separate you from your bike and throw the both of you down the road. And it will do it without feeling or remorse or even a scratch, to itself that is – you and your bike are a different matter altogether, and most of the time it won’t even get the blame. “The motorcyclist failed to take full account of the prevailing road conditions, skidded and caused the accident to occur” So it’s your fault that there’s a slippery piece of cast iron in the middle of an otherwise grippy piece of tarmac.

Now I fully appreciate that in a society that’s so dependant on the essentials of a clean water supply, adequate drainage, and gas, telephone and electricity services, we have to have pipes and conduits buried underground to carry all these things that we take so much for granted. And it makes sense for them to run under roads and paths as it makes things easier for the suppliers to have access for maintenance and repair (would you want to have BT digging a hole in your living room floor to fix a cable fault?). And they need to have manholes for access, and they need to be sited at pipework junctions and bends as that is where most of the problems occur.

But do the covers have to have a wet grip factor like a frozen lake?

Surely, in this day and age it’s possibly to produce a manhole cover with a surface that has the same grip as the tarmac it’s set in? I’m a 110% certain that it is, but I expect that no one can be bothered to do anything about it because a) it only affects bikers, or b) they can’t get the funding for the same reason, or c) it will cost too much.

Now just suppose the situation where manhole covers had to be 20 feet square? Can you imagine what would happen when a car comes round a corner on a rainy day and hits 400 sq. ft. of wet, polished steel? It would be off the road in an instant, probably demolishing a house and taking out a couple of pedestrians in the process . . . and there’d be a public outcry! Why?, because there’s 26 million cars out there, which means 26 million voices to be heard and 26 million votes in the next election! A government inquiry would be set up and funds allocated for research into a new manhole cover design, followed by a programme of replacement or modification of existing units. If the problem only affected bikes then that’s just 500,000 of the population at the most, so that’s not so important is it? Or do you think I’m being too cynical? Well how about this then. Not far from where I live, the council recently Shellgripped an entire roundabout and about eighty feet of each of the approach roads. In the middle of the roundabout they left two lovely, shiny manhole covers.

As far as costs are concerned, in spite of what anyone may say, I suspect that it’s really not going to be that much. We’re talking about a solution for tens of thousands of units here, so the additional cost for each manhole cover isn’t going to be a lot, especially compared against the cost of an accident caused by a nice wet shiny cover. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to the UK, so the opportunities for overseas sales are immense, which would bring production costs down still further. Or the technology to produce non-slip manhole covers could be licensed, further recovering the R&D costs. And I wouldn’t expect all the covers to be replaced overnight. Breakages occur on a regular basis, and this would be the opportunity to fit a non-slip cover. Road re-surfacing requires that the manhole covers be raised and re-fitted, so why not replace it with a better type. Maybe there’s someone out there who can tell me why this can’t be done. Come on TRL or the UK Highways Agency, what’s the problem?

Perhaps at the end of the day it’s all down to the fact that we as motorcyclists aren’t making enough of a song and dance about the dangers out there on the roads, and we only have ourselves to blame about that. So go on, if you want something done, write to your MP, write to the papers, write to government departments – and keep on writing until something gets done. We’re in the minority as far as road users are concerned, so if we want action then we’re all going to have to shout just that little bit louder and longer.



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