Home » News » Powered Two-Wheeler Safety: "The results of research must be brought back (...)

Powered Two-Wheeler Safety: "The results of research must be brought back into the real world"

This interview was originally published in French in the December 2011-January 2102 edition of Passion Mutuelle, a publication of Mutuelle des Motards.

Mutuelle des Motards: Pierre Van Elslande, with your work, INRETS [1]widely showcased the problems of powered two-wheeler (PTW) conspicuity, as early as 2002, and showed how difficult interactions between different road users can be. In 2004, the MAIDS report also led to an evolution, by showing for the first time that motorcyclists were in majority the victims of accidents, and not the ones responsible. Since then, PTW safety has become a priority area for research in France. But with 3 million moped, scooter and motorcycle riders on the streets, how do you explain such an ignition delay?

Pierre Van Elslande: The delay is obvious, but there has been an uptake in the last few years. It’s true, the PTW issue emerged relatively late: in 2003, studies PTW safety represented just 3% of international studies. Today, research is developing while at the same time the problem is the following: there has never been so many PTWs, but they are still as vulnerable as ever. That said, the "PTW problem" would be a lot less critical in a "two-wheeler friendly" environment. The road and the street are not "two-wheeler friendly".

Mutuelle des Motards: In early September, you took the floor in front of members of parliament during a round table in which Patrick Jacquot, CEO of Mutuelle des Motards, was taking part. Proposals for improved road safety for all road users were made, but most were rejected. How did you react to the members’ final report, and to the complete ignorance of the topic they displayed at times?

Pierre Van Elslande: The parliament’s mission was off to a great start, members were interested, listening. But the issue is vast and complex, and I wonder whether they were not smothered under the volume of information, and finally were not forced to simplify things when the time came to reach a decision. For me, the recommended measures are the telltale sign of too wide a gap between the world of research and the world of politics. But politics and research work on different time scales. It requires some ten years for the results of research to be out, to be heard. It is the usual delay in the response of the public authorities to the results of research. It has to be said that a researcher is mainly evaluated on the basis of the articles he or she publishes in scientific journals, however these articles are only ever read by other researchers... Today, our work should start bearing fruit.

Research must go on, on the aspects of mobility, on the characteristics of each group, on perceptive and cognitive strategies: one of the keys to road safety remains the interaction between users. We must also improve our knowledge on secondary safety, such as airbag systems. But research must not carry on alone. We must pass on our results, transcribe them so that decision-makers can have scientifically accurate material to work with, instead of common misconceptions.

Mutuelle des Motards: 2BESAFE, Riderscan... Today IFSTTAR is member of several scientific and institutional partnerships working on making the result of PTW research public, in order to impact decision-makers. As someone who has been working on PTW accident research for over ten years, are you in favour or against two-wheelers?

Pierre Van Elslande: As a scientist, I am not in favour or against motorcyclists. But not being "against" two-wheeler is being de facto "in favour", in the face of the lack of knowledge in general and the additional level of risk they are facing on the road. We are not done looking, but the results of research must be brought back into the real world. Certainties and sometimes prejudice exist among decision-makers and motorcyclists alike: each party is wrong in reasoning in terms of confrontation. The objective is to reach a transitional stage, in which mutual exchange between researchers and politicians is possible. In order to define adapted countermeasures.

And sometimes we ought to stop looking for the cause, the "guilty party", in order to look for the explanation, in order to define good solutions. The accident is never the result of a single cause, and rarely the deed of a single individual. For instance, we just discovered that in 24% of cases, losses of control blamed on motorcyclists are in reality due to interactions with other road users. The most common scenario involves a rider who avoids an accident but still ends up falling down. And on the opposite, we notice that in many accidents at intersections, even when they have right of way motorcyclists contribute to a worsening of conflict situations.

Mutuelle des Motards: Today, most motorcyclists precisely feel like scapegoats.

Pierre Van Elslande: The search of a culprit at all costs leads to punishment. For me, law enforcement involves the sanction of an inappropriate behaviour. But this behaviour must be taught. Sanction is not a solution if training is incomplete, if infrastructure is not adapted, and if visibility and perception problems are not solved. Infrastructure, vehicles, drivers are the three directions for action.

Mutuelle des Motards: While cohabitation between motorists and PTW riders has been globally on the rise these past few years, the impact of infrastructure is now turning over the trend while increasing the number accident-prone installations: in order to force the use of public transport in cities, local authorities are everywhere closing thoroughfares, and adding narrowed sections and lane separators. For PTWs, the results can be dramatic.

Pierre Van Elslande: It is a fact: today, important investments are directed toward protective systems for PTW riders. But at the same time, we see potentially aggressive elements appearing in urban areas. Infrastructure, the road, is something that speaks to us. If it does not speak to us, or badly, can we really be blamed for not understanding it, or understanding badly? It is true for all drivers, but PTWs are a class of vehicles that is very sensitive to environmental disturbances.

If we zoom out, the tools for action are not the same for teenagers, 15 year-old wheeling fans, and fifty year-olds quietly riding their 125cc, and who never imagine not being seen. What do we see among experienced two-wheeler riders? Not that they developed superhuman reflexes, but, having been exposed to dangerous situations, they learn not to put themselves in emergency situations, to anticipate dangers. It is this learning process that should be taught. Under the condition that the same is taught to car drivers!

Two-wheeler riders can play a role, especially with initiatives such as 2-wheel-lab. And like their representatives within FEMA, with the RiderScan project, in which we are taking part. The problems here are complex, and the solutions are too. Albert Einstein once said, "To every complex problem, there is a simple answer. And it’s wrong."