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Friday, 13 January 2017

Not your normal day on the road!

The general perception of government departments (sometimes with justification! ) is of inflexible and slow to act bureaucracies, which are totally out of touch with the general public.  Well, I've just had that notion stood totally on its head, at least in the instance I'm about to describe.

I guess that motorcyclists worldwide have a much higher accident rate per capita than cars, trucks etc and the cost of medical care from trauma is pretty high.  I'm sure that a lot of public servants would like to see us gone from the roads.  Accepting personal responsibility for our riding standards and raising skills is one clear path to reducing the risk of serious harm but leaving that aside for now, it is fantastic to find a government department who are working in a positive manner to improve the lot of riders - who'd have thought it???

 The Coromandel Peninsula which I live on has a low static population, it's pretty remote and has challenging, twisty roads that run by the sea and over the Coromandel mountain range.  In other words, it's a bikers paradise and the so-called Coromandel Loop has an international reputation. Because it attracts lots of bikers, a percentage of them have a distinct lack of skill and very quickly run out of talent on this unforgiving road.  Consequently, it has a high accident rate.

Enter the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA).  Its broad purpose is to deliver transport solutions within NZ on behalf of the government - a pretty wide mandate. Rather than introduce punitive measures against motorcyclists, they looked at initiatives which would positively benefit the 2-wheeled community in conjunction with some other specialist government agencies.  Over the last couple of years, they chose the southern part of the Loop to implement a range of measures which would be of  particular benefit to bikers.

Some of these measures included:
Sealing property entrances to stop gravel ingress onto the road
Better design of roadside storm drains
Improved safety barriers for motorcycles
Better signage and reflective chevrons for bends etc (advisory speeds are marked on signage in NZ)
Modification of roadside cliffs, banks and foliage for better sightlines
Improved road surface and clean-up after repairs
More roadside emergency helicopter landing pads in remote areas. "The medical Golden Hour"
Perceptual countermeasures (Different road markings and other visible cues on deceptive corners, designed to reduce the rider’s speed, improve their lane position and give greater separation from traffic travelling in the opposite direction.)

The graphic below is part of an explanatory pamphlet showing the Southern Loop.  The letter P shows where perceptual countermeasures have been employed and H is where helicopter pads have been installed.  The other initiatives have been implemented as appropriate throughout the Loop.  The full pamphlet can be accessed by clicking here HERE :

Southern Coromandel Loop initiatives

The million dollar question is have they worked?  From personal experience, the maintenance-oriented improvements and signage certainly have.  It's too early for any statistically valid data from the perceptual countermeasures but it's certainly prompted some discussions among riders on bike forums.  Overseas research (check the internet) suggests that it's particularly useful for riders (and drivers) with less experience of riding in those conditions. Riders with higher levels of training tend to use a range of other cues to enhance their situational awareness.

Just before Christmas, I was invited to a preliminary meeting with NZTA and associated agencies to discuss extending the initiatives to the northern section of the Loop.  The invitation was extended because of both my IAM training and being a local from Coromandel Town. Several other riders from the wider region were invited for their input too.  The first thing which struck us was that the various agency representatives were very professional and it was clear that our input was valued.  A number of the agency reps are also keen riders which was an excellent sign!

Last week, I received an invitation to accompany the various agency reps to drive round the northern part of the Loop.  This is it:

Northern Coromandel Loop

Met them at Kopu at the southern end of the Loop for a clockwise inspection of the route.  They had detailed motorcycle accident statistics over a number of years marked on the maps, together with the severity and details of the accident.  Each location was investigated for sightlines, road conditions and many other variables.  In addition, certain spots were investigated to see if perceptual countermeasures would be of potential value.  Possible locations for rescue helicopter landing pads were also identified.  My role as a regular rider on the Coromandel Loop was to give feedback on road conditions, sightlines, tar bleed and so on which constitute a potential hazard to riders.  One example is a particular tight bend with a cliff on one side and the sea on the other.  The base of the cliff is within half a metre of the road and particularly after wind or rain, pea gravel comes off the cliff and settles in the nearside lane.  Limited forward view makes it an even bigger potential hazard.  All dutifully recorded by NZTA for appropriate remedial action!

Blind downhill  25 km/hr left-hander with a sheer drop on one side - the site of a serious accident

The Coromandel-Whangapoua Hill 5 minutes from home - biker heaven! 

Potentially risky overtake with limited forward view


In the photo above, the SUV driver has relied on the logging truck driver signalling that an overtake was ok because of his view from a higher vantage point.  The SUV driver would not have been able to have a clear view from the lower vantage point because of the small trees to the left of the photo. In some locations, clearing some of the vegetation to improve sightlines is carried out to mitigate risk.

In the photo immediately below, this is the approximate view the SUV driver would have had as he crossed back onto his side of the road.  Any approaching vehicle would be masked by the vegetation and during the overtaking manoeuvre, there would have been even less visibility.  Buggered if I would have put my safety (and that of my family) in the hands of the logging truck driver in this particular set of circumstances even if he was trying to do the right thing - would you?

View of oncoming traffic obscured by vegetation

Unforgiving corner with steep drop.  Our house is on the hill in the background!

The last 30 km of the northern part of the Loop is across a stretch of road shared with the southern part where remedial work has already been implemented and we stopped to look at a few spots.  The two photos below show just one example of perceptual countermeasures on one corner.

Downhill traffic is in the lane on the right of the photo

The broad intent is catch the rider's attention and to slightly channel them away from traffic heading in the opposite direction.  Also note that the plastic vertical edge marker posts are closely spaced as a guide to corner severity, particularly as they are reflective at night.

View in the opposite direction

I've deliberately avoided going into technical details on this post but wanted to give NZTA and their associated agencies accolades for being so proactive on behalf of motorcyclists in this instance. Pragmatic people, good listeners, easy to talk to and consummately professional.   As I've been typing this, an email from NZTA has arrived with all the action items for checking - how good is that??  Really impressed and pleased to have contributed in some small way.

Before finishing, it's worth mentioning that one of the other government agencies represented on this project, the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC); has contracted qualified providers to run heavily subsidised one day refresher courses for motorcyclists under the Ride Forever banner.  There are 3 levels designed to cater for different levels of experience plus a specialist course for urban scooters.  More info HERE .  The most expensive course is $50 for a whole day so no-one can claim that the cost is prohibitive!  Plaudits are due for the holistic approach to improving motorcycle safety as opposed to trying to legislate us off the road!  These initiatives aren't the complete answer to improving motorcycle safety but it's a great step in the right direction.  Taking personal responsibility for one's own riding standards is still the big ticket item!


Sunday, 8 January 2017

No rest for the wicked.....

Well, after another Xmas/New Year break of drinking and eating too much and being besieged by family, it was time to jump back on two wheels.

One of my IAM Trainee Observers (instructors), Rob Van Proemeren passed his Advanced Roadcraft test last year and has been undertaking practical Observer training since his theory course last July. Practical training consists of a series of modules covering both technical and interpersonal aspects of advanced riding.  Rob has passed all his modules with flying colours and is waiting for his formal Observer Test which will take a fair chunk of a full day under the watchful eye of an Examiner or a fellow Senior Observer. Until then, it's a question of keeping Rob fresh.  A few days ago, we took out Auckland-based Associate Terry who is close to taking his Advanced Test. Terry has an exquisite BMW HP4 for trackdays and recently sold his road-going BMW 1200 GS and replaced it with a KTM 1290 GT.

Lots of colour - Rob with his Hayabusa and Terry with his 1290 GT

Rob about to start the ride debrief and it's good news for Terry!

Both riders in their respective roles were at the top of their game and it was a privilege as a mentor to see such a professional display of riding on a range of challenging roads for a couple of hours. We never stop learning though and there are always more tweaks to further raise our standards. The KTM is a really impressive beast with around 170 bhp on tap and massive torque.  As well as the electronic aids such as ABS and traction control, it has active suspension which is constantly sampling road conditions and adjusting the suspension accordingly.  On one particularly bumpy and twisty country road where the pace could be described as brisk, it looked like it was on rails whilst both Suzukis needed a lot more rider input.  Multi-purpose bikes can sometimes suffer a bit in some aspects of performance compared with more dedicated bikes but the KTM isn't one of them.  Whether it's used for the occasional trackday or on tour down country lanes, it would be right up there with the best specialised machines.

I did have a moment of reflection though with respect to all the goodies packed into modern bikes. There's absolutely no doubt that they're much safer with all the electronic aids currently available.  However, I wonder whether it's getting away from the purity and core reasons why motorcycling is so attractive to many of us?  I don't think there is a single answer to that.  It's for reasons along these lines why I would never consider a Goldwing or a trike - would prefer a sports car.  Each to their own though in the motorcycling fraternity!

It was an odd sort of day weather-wise.  Quite hot and humid with a few showers passing through. My 12 year old Arlen Ness waterproof jacket has progressively moved to the "barely showerproof" category over time and when the rain is a bit more serious, a plastic over-jacket goes over the top.  On the 160 km journey home after the mentored ride, I set off in dry conditions and hadn't been going for more than a few minutes when the heavens opened.  By the time I decided it wasn't just a shower, the top half of me was soaked through.  Even with temperatures in the mid-20's C, I got chilled pretty quickly and even after stopping to put on my over-jacket, it was an unpleasant ride home.

It was serendipitous that I hadn't had a present from Jennie at Christmas because I couldn't think of anything I wanted at the time.  Coupled with this, Rob had mentioned a post-Christmas accessories sale at our favourite dealer in Hamilton.  A quick browse of  their website revealed $100 off the price of an Oxford Montreal 2 jacket and internet reviews were pretty favourable.  Order placed, couriered to home the next day - thanks for the pressie honey!

Although it's not an expensive jacket, the level of detailing is really impressive with a heap of features which I won't list here.  Far too early to assess performance in wet and cold conditions but wearing it on a ride yesterday, it was both comfortable and warm, even with the liner removed and the vents open.  To get a jacket and pants which are totally waterproof for a long while, you're mostly talking about stratospheric prices like Rukka gear.  For the type of riding I do, I can't justify the cost and an oversuit for more taxing conditions is just fine.  Looking forward to trying it out in some sustained rain though.

Oxford Montreal 2 jacket


The inner workings of the jacket.  Nice detailing

Yesterday was taken up with another IAM observed ride, partially to keep Rob up to scratch before his Observer Test but also to take out an Associate from the Central North Island region of NZ, which I'm currently responsible for developing.  Tony joined IAM last year after taking a number of one day courses by commercial providers and wanted a further challenge.  Up to now, he's had 5 outings on his fully-faired Suzuki SV650.  This time, it was on his brand new Yamaha Tracer and both Rob and I were very keen to see how it went.

Tony arriving at our meeting place en route to Auckland

Meeting up with Rob in Auckland

We were seriously impressed with the Tracer.  It's a really nice looking bike in the flesh.  Tony remarked that it actually looked better with the OEM hard cases attached to the bike as the tailpiece and number plate mount is very slim and looks a little odd on its own.  We could certainly see what he was driving at as the purpose-designed cases are extremely elegant and look like an integral part of the bike.  Its wet weight at 210 kg is pretty light and with a relatively low centre of gravity and an adjustable seat makes it pretty good for the vertically challenged (like me!).  The standard stubby exhaust can gave a nice rasp without being too noisy and attracting unwanted attention.  There's something visceral about the sound of a 3 cylinder bike -  similar to the pleasure of listening to a hot V8!  Overall, a great bike and motorcyclists really are currently spoiled for choice.

Mid-ride animated debrief and smiles all round!

The ride was in warm, dry conditions with a bit of overcast - perfect for riding.  With the summer vacations in full swing, Auckland was noticeably less busy than it normally is although traffic on the Southern Motorway was pretty busy as people headed to their favourite destinations - a good test of making safe progress through the traffic.

A really enjoyable day made even better by observing Rob and Tony setting high standards.  Rob has a relaxed but totally professional nature delivered with a strong sense of humour. No sign of the "sergeant major drill instructor" approach which is frowned on by IAM NZ.  This makes him a perfect mentor as it relaxes the rider being observed who can then ride their normal ride without feeling intimidated.  Proof of this was the banter going on over the comms which I had a quiet snigger about.  Tony also had a cracker of a ride and isn't too far away from taking his Advanced Roadcraft Test.  Tony also made an interesting observation that the better ergonomics (more upright riding position in this instance) of the Tracer compared with his SV650 has significantly improved his situational awareness by having an improved all-round view.  Now that's got to be a good thing!

It's such a pleasure to see riders undertaking a demanding upskilling programme which can take many months or even years, both from a rider safety viewpoint and enjoying their riding more.  With the number of motorcycle fatalities highlighted in recently released motorcycle accident statistics, both in NZ and Australia; anything we can do to make a dent in them has got to be worthwhile as government-led initiatives seem to be generally punitive rather than genuinely addressing root causes.