by Jill Boulton
It’s Road Safety Week this week – the week that Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, announced that driverless cars will be on UK roads by 2021. Only last week, the Federation of European Motorcyclists’ Associations said they had achieved their goal of insisting that all emergency braking systems should have the ability to detect motorcyclists. Interesting, isn’t it, that motorcyclists had to campaign for this?
It’s all a bit ironic really. Does technology move road safety on, or does it just allow us all to abdicate responsibility, which I’ll call The Volvo Approach (Volvo famously said that, by 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured by or in a Volvo).
Whatever way you look at driverless technology, we cannot escape the fact that drivers and their cars, in this connected world, are becoming more and more disconnected – and that one day they won’t be connected at all.
Let me put it another way. There is a sliding scale of road users’ relationships with their vehicles, where motorcyclists tend to be the most connected (i.e. have the closest relationship) with their vehicles, and driverless car passengers the least. The sad thing is that most car drivers today are closer to the driverless passenger than to the motorcyclist.
We’ve been travelling in this direction for some years now.
The Visorcat company workhorse is a big and comfortable 2012 Hyundai i40 diesel estate, with rear view camera, automatic lights and wipers, sat nav, Bluetooth, ABS, cruise control, parking sensors and big pillars which reduce my view of the road and of other road users. While it’s great for carting Visorcat gear from bike event to bike event all over the UK, it’s the only car I have ever fallen asleep in (but only as a passenger, of course). I am not very connected to this vehicle and have to concentrate hard to be a good driver.
I also drive another car – a fabulous little 2003 Toyota MR2 roadster, which is really a track car that I happen to drive on the road. No-frills fun, but a car that encourages spirited, skilled, alive, exciting, fun, safe driving – because, as a driver, you feel very close to the action – and very close to the road and to the danger. (As a passenger it’s a bit scary). I take a great deal of interest in its maintenance – I’m often seen checking the tyres for air and tread, regularly check its fluid levels, and make sure it sees a garage twice a year – once for its service (at the beginning of the season) and once for its MoT, at the end. I am very connected to this car – both when I am driving it and when I am not.
Modern cars just aren’t like the MR2. They do so many things for the driver, the driver hardly needs to do anything much at all. Collision avoidance, lane assist, ABS, park assist, alerts to wake you up if you fall asleep at the wheel. And cars are so reliable these days, which driver worries about oil levels dropping, head gaskets blowing, radiators leaking and other nasty goings-on that used to happen to just about every car in the 1970s and 80s? Just get in and drive … the Volvo Approach.
The result of this increase in reliability and ‘safety’ – and the fact that you have to take your modern car to the dealer to fix any fault or you will invalidate the warranty – is that the majority of car drivers and owners do not take an interest in their cars or their driving – and nor do they think they need to. Cars are safer, therefore drivers and passengers are safer, so why do we need to worry? The Volvo Approach.
The other factor that distances the driver from the vehicle is the easy availability of car finance – almost anyone with an income can afford a new car these days, so no need to worry about it breaking down, and no need to have the knowledge to fix it if it does. Just take it to the dealer … or swap it for another car on your personal lease. And no need to keep it till it stops being reliable.
Ownership of a motorcycle, of course, takes intimacy with one’s vehicle to the other end of the scale – the one that’s furthest away from the driverless car passenger. For the motorcyclist, the bike is an extension of you, and it’s all you’ve got between you and the road – i.e. not very much. Therefore, the tyres, chain, cables, brakes, lights, engine, fluids and general condition of the vehicle are very, very important, as is the ability, knowledge and skill of the rider, whose actions, observations, road positioning and speed can make the difference between life and death. Safety is paramount to these brave and vulnerable road users, who are passionate about their vehicles, about their skills and about every journey – because they are closer to what’s happening on the road. What could be further from the Volvo Approach?
In Road Safety Week this year, the need for drivers to connect with their ‘inner motorcyclist’ by taking advanced training has hardly been greater.
(Footnote: with apologies to all other road users I have not mentioned in this article).