Staying in the Saddle

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Several lifetimes ago I used to ride behind a friend who had the biggest BMW bike on the market. If he were to drop that monster he'd need chocks and a block and tackle to right it again. His Beamer had every imaginable bell and whistle-except for safety equipment. The sensor technology that would have made it possible was still a laboratory curiosity—or nonexistent. That's changing.

Are Safety Measures Needed?
Decide for yourself after considering a few numbers.

Biker deaths accounted for a small fraction of the 43,443 motorists killed last year on U.S. roads, but there are far fewer cycles than standard vehicles on those roads. The fatalities are climbing nonetheless, with a rise of 115% since 1997 and a 13% increase from 2004 to 4553 in 2005. Oddly, several of the 20 states and the District of Columbia that currently require all bikers to wear helmets (disturbingly known as "brain buckets") are moving toward joining New Hampshire in making them optional (we do, however, insist on eye protection for all riders and those under 18 better not ride bareheaded).

In northern New England, where the riding season is short, the figures are equally dismal. Maine lost 15 bikers last year; Vermont, 14; and New Hampshire, 42. That seemingly inflated number has a lot to do with the annual Bike Week, which draws thousands and thousands to the motorcycle races at Loudon. But, except for a rare gang rumble, the bikers are not dying on or near the track. They're losing their lives on the roads leading to it.

Why the Carnage?
Peter Thomson, head of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency has some answers. Baby boomers are buying machines they can't handle, too few take the training courses offered by the state, and, of course, there are simply more bikes out there. More vehicular traffic in general. National and local stats bear him out: the mean age of bikers who died in accidents rose from 32 in 1994 to 38 in 2003; the number of fatalities among riders 40 and older tripled between 1993 and 2003; and of the New Hampshire deaths, only one of the 27 killed in 2004 and two of the 42 who died last year had taken the safety course. Could be too that bikers who are naturally more cautious are more likely to sign up. (Those of you who studied syllogistic logic will remember that pesky Factor X.)

So Where's This Sensor Technology?
Glad you asked! Right now it's on the road, in the Honda Gold Wing 860 lb. touring bike. Described as the first production motorcycle airbag system, this module—in principle greatly resembling the automotive version—consists of the airbag and inflator; accelerometers; and an engine control unit (ECU) that determines when a crash rather than simple hard braking is occurring. The airbag is tethered to the cycle; the accelerometers are attached to the front fork legs, two on each leg. The idea is to keep the rider from being thrown headlong over the handlebars and hitting whatever the bike hit. Frankly I think it's really slick. Yamaha has a similar system in the works. Good for them too. (And no, I don't own stock in either company, nor have I been on a cycle in years. Still, given the opportunity . . . )

But Will It Fly?
I think so. For one thing, despite their carefully cultivated image of wild-eyed maniacs, most bikers are pretty careful drivers. The majority ride when they can get time away from their jobs as financial analysts, dentists, school principals, and other orderly professions. They are quite aware that motorcycle mishaps are one heck of a lot less forgiving than similar automotive accidents. And a great many choose touring bikes, sort of the catamarans of the highways—stable and quiet.

Biking is celebrated for imparting a sense of freedom that's hard to describe. And yes, there's the danger aspect too. Sort of like being on a nearly runaway horse. Yet, with gasoline prices being what they are, and those baby boomers seeking to recapture a bit of their younger days, cycle sales are enjoying a strong upturn.

Maybe Even More?
Several of the bikers who died during Bike Week perished when one rider crossed the center line coming around a corner and collided head-on with an SUV that rolled onto two other riders. All three were killed. Another caught his foot peg on the road during a turn and slid into five other bikes. Result: One death and four injuries. So the airbag is a good beginning.

I wonder if cycles could be outfitted with a sensor that would monitor either the center line or the distance from the right edge of a road where there aren't center lines, and correct the rider's course when he (or she) begins to change lanes without signaling. Perhaps such a sensor could be slaved to the steering mechanism somehow. And maybe even a gyro arrangement that would make dropping a cycle less likely? I'm not a bike mechanic.

Earlier I said that the airbags were a good beginning. Actually, they're a good third step. First is learning how to handle your ride. Second is to wear a helmet and eye protection. Most of the Bike Week fatalities were suffered by helmetless bikers. Even so, as New Hampshire's Peter Thomson observed, when you hit a tree at 70 mph, a helmet is not going to make much difference. So bring on those airbags!