he said what? !!!

It seems that we are making a habit of running articles based on things that have appeared in the daily press. This time, an interview in no less an organ then The Times came to our attention. Specifically, this interview was with a gentleman called Robert Gifford. Mr Gifford is Executive Director of a charity called PACTS – the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, and he was quoted as saying this:

"Improving motorcyclists' skills merely means they kill themselves in a more skilled way”

Now that seems a pretty odd statement to come from someone purporting to represent road safety, and it certainly raised a few eyebrows. Knowing what journalists can be like, I thought the best thing to do would be to get a comment from the man himself. No doubt he had been misquoted or taken out of context. So I gave him a ring…

First of all, Mr Gifford is a polite and actually thoroughly nice man. We had a lengthy conversation and it was clear that he is a man of principle.

No, he wasn’t taken out of context and yes he did say exactly that. He does say, though, that the message he was trying to get across didn’t really work, but that the fault is his and not the journalist. OK, so fair play to the man – he says something wrong and accepts the blame for it fair and square. So what exactly did he mean, then?

Mr Gifford believes that advanced training simply means that a rider learns to go round a corner faster and thus continues merrily on his way to the inevitable accident at a higher speed, though in a more skilful manner. He sees the increasing number of motorcycle fatalities, year on year, as an absolute number rather than as a decreasing percentage of an increasing rider population. And he feels that Something Must Be Done.

He has a point, too. There are too many of us that feel we are invincible and that a few track days and some sticky rubber make us immune to the laws of physics. But the thing is, the vast majority of these riders are the very ones who eschew advanced training as not being for them, as being too establishment or even, God help them, as being unnecessary for someone of their skill.

Of course, advanced training isn’t just about going fast. In fact, advanced training isn’t even about going fast. It’s about hazard perception, positioning and control, both of the bike and of yourself. A product of that training may be that you are able to go faster. But it’s more likely that you will go quicker by being smooth and progressive, possibly with your actual speed being lower than before. Certainly that’s how it worked for me. But though I tried to explain that to him, and though he seemed to accept that sometimes that was the case, he remained convinced that we are lemmings out to kill ourselves.

This is what the Association of British Drivers has to say about Mr Gifford and his comments:

“If training was simply about improving bike control and technical skills it would be valuable enough. But it’s about far more than that – and it’s as much about improving attitudes as anything else – that’s why it’s so incredibly valuable in saving lives. To suggest that trained bikers just kill themselves faster is to misunderstand completely the whole nature of training. From a member of the public a comment like this would be crass. From a government adviser it’s absolutely terrifying. There’s no doubt at all in our minds that training and education is the way forward.”

Well, I suppose you might say “They would say that.” So how about a quote from a serving traffic officer to balance things up? Even better, one whose prime job is accident investigation:

“We keep seeing the same sort of accidents. Bikes run out of road, and it’s almost never down to speed. It’s down to a basic lack of ability when it comes to going round corners. The result is the rider panics and either brakes and falls off or simply doesn’t go round the corner and hits something.”

OK, on to another tack, then. Yes, fatalities have gone up but in the period he had in mind, while fatalities rose by around 5% motorcycle usage went up by 37%. So surely that means, in terms of fatalities per passenger mile (the only really meaningful statistic in terms of road safety) the numbers had gone down? That, it seems, isn’t good enough. Actual numbers need to go down as well, though Mr Gifford accepts that in the real world the number will never be zero.

Then something else came up. Road accidents aren’t measured as fatalities. They are measured as KSI – that’s killed and seriously injured. Now the definition of what fits into that is tricky. Killed is easy – you qualify if you die at the scene or within 30 days as a result of injuries sustained in the accident. But what is seriously injured?

Officially, a serious injury is an injury for which a person is detained in hospital as an “in-patient”, or any of the following injuries whether or not they are detained in hospital: fractures, concussion, internal injuries, crushings, burns (excluding friction burns), severe cuts and lacerations, severe general shock requiring medical treatment and injuries causing death 30 or more days after the accident. That’s a pretty exhaustive list. Now as a car driver, to suffer any of those other than shock you’re going to have to have been in a fairly big accident. As a biker, dropping your bike while stationary and breaking your wrist or collarbone (don’t laugh – I’ve seen it happen) would result in you being lumped in with the KSI stats.

Mr Gifford accepted, I think, that this may be a bit of an anomaly, though I don’t think he went so far as to agree that it was completely stupid. However, we made some progress.

Then we spoke about speed enforcement generally and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he is not a blind advocate of the speed camera above all else. Far from it, in fact. Mr Gifford would like to see more traffic police on the road. Wouldn’t we all – someone who can spot and tackle a bad driver or rider, even when they aren’t speeding. And who can apply some on the spot education instead of a retrospective fine.

So where does this leave us? Well, Mr Gifford is a reasonable man and is someone with whom there is almost certainly some merit in keeping on talking. He has the ear of the government and he influences policy so it pays to talk and explain rather than confront and insult. He’s got the wrong end of the stick on a few things and it’s our job to convince him that he’s wrong. We’ll keep talking and we’ll keep you posted…


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