I will only ‘Think Bike’ if the bikers can be persuaded to ‘Think Motorist’
‘29 BIKERS KILLED OR INJURED IN THE LAST 5 YEARS’, says the big yellow roadside sign as I drive along the A515 between Ashbourne and Buxton, on my way to this week’s Tory conference in Manchester. The sign is repeated many times along the old Roman road. It is rather shocking.
‘THINK BIKE’, says another sign, presumably directed at motorists. ‘50’ says the speed limit sign, endlessly repeated, both painted onto the road and displayed on steel poles by the side of it. ‘IT’S 50 FOR A REASON’, say yet another series of signs. And then ‘ACCIDENT ZONE’. And after that a series of weird corrugations in the surface of the tarmac before a junction, presumably to wake us up to the danger.
Further back there’s a lay-by with a caravan in it, selling hot beverages and sausage rolls, mostly to leather-clad bikers, gathered there in some number, taking the air and inspecting each other’s bikes. Ahead there’s the turn-off to Macclesfield, which takes you over the Cat & Fiddle pass — the Cat & Fiddle pub carpark itself, at the top of the pass, being at weekends always crowded with bikers. Not unreasonably the pub caters to this trade.
Or go back to Ashbourne and turn left on the B5035 to Wirksworth via Carsington. Here too the hedgerows are festooned with notices about biker danger, statistics for deaths and injuries, and warnings. Here too is a lay-by with a mobile café catering to the bikers. Here too are the bikers.
And now begins what is not, repeat not, a rant against motorcyclists. I like motor-cyclists. I like two-wheeled travel — powered or pedalled — and at 17 rode nearly 1,000 miles from Rhodesia to Swaziland on a Honda 50 scooter, for fun, sleeping in South African police station cells, where a white youth would always be accommodated.
I first saw Derbyshire, the county that was to become my home, on the back of my brother’s bike, roaring over the moor from Sheffield. For some years when I was an MP I rode a small bike, a green Honda 250 (once, to his chortled delight, acting as Ted Heath’s outrider when he passed through the constituency in a limo). I gave up motorcycling at 35 when a Jaguar car hit me at 70 mph in the fast lane of the M1 — and, saved by the gyroscopy of my wheels, I didn’t quite come off. On the hard shoulder afterwards, the Jag driver was so relieved he hadn’t killed me, he almost wept. The accident had been entirely my fault. Shaking, I concluded that motorcycling was inherently highly dangerous and that, lacking any unusual skills of vigilance, judgment or balance, I would run a very significant chance of death sooner or later if I carried on.
So that’s my judgment for me. What about those who reach a different judgment for themselves? As the former Member for Matlock Bath, where literally thousands of bikers congregate at weekends to park up, eat fish and chips, and meet and compare bikes, I think I’m aware of all sides to the perennial ‘Bikers: love ’em or hate ’em?’ debate. The truth is that bikers en masse look fearsome but once off their wheels are in fact and for the most part a fairly gentle breed — towards the general public, anyway. But, whether or not it should, their presence in leathery swarms does put off quite a few family holidaymakers, or visitors of the more genteel sort, and does alter the ambience of a resort like Matlock Bath. I could never, however, join local campaigns to keep them out. It just didn’t seem fair.
This ‘Think Bike’ road safety campaign, however, is troubling me. My ideas began to crystallise when, on the radio recently, I heard a news report describing the highway over the Cat & Fiddle pass as ‘the most dangerous road in Britain’. The claim was based on national statistics for deaths and injuries and I do not challenge them. But (I thought) on that reasoning the Isle of Man, during the fortnight of the TT races, must have some of the most dangerous roads in the world: 225 lives have been lost over the years. I know that because some of the websites come quite close to boasting about the statistic. The reason the A515, or the Cat & Fiddle pass, are among England’s most dangerous roads is nothing to do with characteristics of the road, but because some (not all) bikers go there, in large numbers, to be dangerous on them.
These roads become the weekend course of choice in the biking community. Motorcyclists go because other motorcyclists go. They roar up and down, some of them in a way that risks death, in each other’s company. When an injury or fatality occurs, the emergency services come screaming (or helicoptering) in to cart away the dead or injured, for treatment on the National Health Service. And the poor old motorists too often have to duck and dive to avoid dangerous manoeuvres, or witness the carnage, or (in the worst case) live the rest of their lives with the awful fact of having been involved in an accident in which a biker was killed or maimed.
I just think it’s a bit hard on the motorist, that’s all. We drive along roads despoiled by ‘Think Bike’ signage that rather implies that it’s up to us to make extraordinary efforts to lessen the chances of a biker’s meeting the fate that he has in fact consciously chosen to risk. We flinch when we hear that throaty roar behind us. We pray it won’t be us that fate selects to be the seat-belted motorist who survives the accident that kills the biker. And then we’re lectured by the highways authorities as though we were the problem.
I admire people who choose risk. The human instinct to test yourself and your capacities to the uttermost limit — and if workaday life does not present the right circumstances for this, to contrive them at weekends — is enormously healthy, from the Darwinian point of view. I salute the instinct. But why lay it all — the warnings, the wagged finger, the implied guilt — on the poor old motorist, out for a Sunday drive with the family and the family dog? In the Isle of Man they do at least clear the roads.
So no, I won’t ‘Think Bike’. I’ll drive with (I hope) due care and attention, making the assumptions that any driver must perforce make about the basic sanity of other road users. And tattooed onto the Perspex shields of the crash helmets of the biking community, I would like the Transport Department to require a simple inscription: ‘Think Motorist’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 10, 2009