the steve norris interview

Politician, motorcyclist, bon viveur and all round good bloke talks to Simon Bradley.


SB: 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 infrastructure.

SB: How do you view the motorcycle press?

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 Lights On?

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 earlier…

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 there.

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 bike.

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 dark visors?

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.

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