Death and motorcycles

Shubhabrata Marmar Updated: April 21, 2016, 04:08 PM IST

I got a call from a newspaper reporter yesterday. "We're writing an article on people dying on superbikes..." Why? "Well, there's this girl, Veenu Paliwal, who's died and we thought we'd examine why superbikes are killing riders."

I didn't know Veenu Paliwal. The glowing obituaries in my social feeds suggest she was amazing. It's sad that she isn't here any more. A motorcyclist who can no longer ride, by choice, family, injury or death is the saddest thing I can imagine. The absolute finality of death makes it the most horrific of all.

Death, injury and motorcycles are bosom pals. Any motorcyclist, serious, casual or born again who ignores this does so at their own peril. I've lost a few acquaintances to death by two wheels and it doesn't get easier. I've also felt deeply the loss of racers, Marco Simoncelli most of all. His passing affected me in ways I never imagined it would.

But I accept the risk of injury and the possibility of death every morning when I put on my helmet. I know it sounds dramatic. As if I'm kissing my wife a final goodbye on a daily basis to soft lighting and rousing music.

But acknowledging the risk is the first step to taking motorcycling as seriously as any potentially life-threatening activity should be. Skip this and you get, as Rishaad describes it, "slippers and shorts superstuds" or some milder, but equally reckless variation.

Triumph Street Triple

Back to the journalist. Perhaps one of his editors saw the buzz around Paliwal's death, "Hey, a topical story might get eyeballs!" Google is a cruel, relentless mistress.

"Why are superbikes killing riders?"

Human error is invariably implicated in all the ways humans get injured or killed. The superbikes aren't killing people, we are. Honestly, it's us the media who is sowing this poisonous, patently false, idea.

"Really? How?"

Big bikes in India cumulatively number, say 50,000 units (very optimistic estimate, that one). That's all of them. Ever. We buy that many commuters every seven hours. Even if the accident/fatality rate for superbikes was higher than small bikes, can you imagine how many people died riding commuters? Two-wheelers have consistently been the top fatality and incident category in all Indian accident statistics. But that's not a story?

That's why it's our fault. The media cherry picks facts to suit what they think google/readers will be tickled by. There's more. It's sad that 99 per cent of Indian big bikes owners ride pitifully often. It's all show and barely any go. I find it hard to believe that they alone are demonstrating their lack of riding skills and judgement every six minutes by smearing themselves into walls, lamp posts and other cars.

God forbid they crash into a big car. Then it's web traffic gold. "BMW/Audi/Mercedes and 6,000cc Japanese superbike conspire to wipe out hapless family of four and bike rider". Can you see it?

"Oh god. I've never seen it like that... What can be done to prevent motorcycle deaths?"

You cannot prevent them. You can reduce fatalities hugely. But if you're going to climb on a bike, you're going to have a crash.

If we were kids and the Government was our parent, they could just be churlish and ban the vile little things. The harder thing to do is to improve both public transport and income levels. Then people have a choice to not travel by two-wheeler, a choice not available to the majority of Indian riders.


What I'm hoping for, though, is to be treated like an adult. To be given good data - risks, mitigation strategies - rather than a ban. Being asked to make a good call, accept my decision's consequences and operate under a fair set of rules, duties and etiquette.

"But we don't follow rules..."

Yeah, welcome to the real world. Step one is to enforce rules. Who's going to do it? Governments who want to be re-elected by the very people they're going to have to fine into submission for not wearing helmets? Policemen who are paid a pittance and work long hours without any respite or respect?

Safety is normally rammed down the throats of unsuspecting masses. People can evolve to see their intent and benefit, and fall in line. Or, like in India, they can set about figuring out how to subvert enforcement in imaginative ways. And continue to kill, maim and injure themselves.

The cliched solution is effective and works in the short term. Ramp up fines and the severity of the punishment. Automate at least the offence detection and documentation process - a photograph of you jumping a red light is pretty hard to explain away. Clamp down on driving licenses and issue them only when skills, rules, duties and etiquette are understood and assimilated.

The more subtle solution is even longer term. But it is vastly more effective and not just for motorcyclists. That's to teach our kids to respect the law. To have the patience to follow rules. To be good citizens. Teach them to be good people who do the right thing automatically. Teach them to do every thing with full effort, attention and intention. It'll transform the country in two decades time.

"But what can we do now?"

Take the loss of human life seriously. If the media runs headlines every day telling us how many people shouldn't have, but did, die daily, the papers would be morbid. But how long would those in the position to do something be able to sit motionless?

ApriliaTuono (8)

To each rider I would say this. No one's coming, we are on our own. We're Crusoes. Marooned. We have to make the most of what we've got. You've got eyes, ears and a brain. Use them well. Motorcycles are both vital to and a threat to our lives. Be aware of both.

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