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Safe infrastructure is a basic right for all road users, including motorcyclists

FEMA’s General Secretary Dolf Willigers travelled through Europe this summer and noticed that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve our road infrastructure.

During my travels this summer, mainly in the northern part of Europe, I was confronted again with a great variety in road infrastructure. When talking about infrastructure in relation to motorcycling the first thing that comes into mind are barriers, but I mean everything: from bridges and traffic intersections to traffic restrain systems and road surfaces.

I finally got the chance to cross the famous Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, the impressive connection that is part bridge and part tunnel (to my surprise also the only place where I had to show my passport, going from one ‘Schengen country’ to another). Slowly our internal borders seem to be coming back, but not officially of course. Not yet anyway.

The Oresund Bridge (picture by Wim Taal)
The Oresund Bridge (picture by Wim Taal)

I was in a bit of a hurry with a full scheme of visits and meetings, so I have seen more of Swedish motorways and less of the nice roads than I cared for. Luckily I managed to ride on some of the small roads too, and there again I recognised what I had seen before in many other countries: while the motorways are well maintained almost everywhere (with the exception perhaps of Belgium), the smaller roads are often neglected. Worn road surface, loose dirt and grit and badly executed repairs. Not to mention potholes and cracks in the road surface. In general, they are not up to today’s safety standards.

The biggest contrasts I saw in Poland, where you have fantastic (tolled) motorways and at the same time almost all other roads are neglected, with road surfaces that are worn to a stage that it has become dangerous and slippery even in dry weather. We do have a European infrastructure directive (Directive 2008/96/EC), but that focusses on the trans-European road network (mostly referred to as the TEN-T network). Which in practice means only motorways that are part of this TEN-T network are subject to it. Which also means that a lot of European and national money goes to this roads, but not to the underlying network of roads.

One of the things FEMA is lobbying for, is to extend the focus of the directive from the TEN-T network roads to the underlying network, at least all the primary roads. Road authorities should keep motorcycles in mind, not only during the design and the first construction, but also during the maintenance of roads. That means no extremely large amounts of bitumen should be used, and when bitumen does have to be used for road repairs, it should be covered with a well rollered in layer of stone grit (chippings). Every time I ride on the Belgian E19 or A40 in the rain, I feel very uncomfortable because of the lane-wide use of bitumen that must have been treated with stone grit many years ago.

Let’s go back to Sweden. While the road surfaces are pretty good, the barriers are not. Sweden is one of the few countries in Europe that still installs cable barriers, in fact a lot of them. They are especially much used on the three lane roads, where confronting traffic streams are separated by them.  This system with 2+1 roads with lanes separated by cable barriers is much praised for the assumed enhanced safety of car drivers. The fact that as a rider when you collide with them, your limbs are ripped off and spread around, as has happened already several times this year, seems to be seen by the authorities as ‘collateral damage’. The only remedies they can think of is to lower the speed limit for motorcycles and do more on speed enforcement directed to motorcycles. The name of their road safety program is Vision Zero. I couldn’t have thought of a better name. No wonder our Swedish member organisation SMC is angry with the authorities.

Swedish cable barrier (picture by Gerrit Wesselink)
Swedish cable barrier (picture by Gerrit Wesselink)

And talking about barriers, that was also the reason for my ride to Poland: to give a presentation about motorcycle road safety and especially about barriers on the Polish Vision Zero (it’s contagious) event. This was organised on the test track of one of the largest barrier producers in Europe and we had a couple of nice demonstrations of cars crashing into barriers. This also turned out to a good networking opportunity with some of Europe’s leading crash barrier manufacturers. I could extensively discuss the advantages and disadvantages for motorcyclists of the several types of barriers (including cable barriers) and motorcycle protection systems, plus the way to install them.

I noticed a good motorcycle protection system, but it was installed in a way that it wouldn’t do much good, in my opinion. The manufacturer was happy with my remarks and promised to change it. Unfortunately there are still no standards for motorcycle protection systems, so every manufacturer can do as he likes. On the other side just this absence of test standards may have led to some promising projects, of which I hope to be able to tell you more later. Nevertheless, we do need those standards, but what we need even more are European or national (I really don’t care which) regulations about the installation of motorcycle protection systems to new and existing barriers. Some countries already made a start, but this is not enough. I can also understand that motorcycle protection systems can’t be installed on every meter of guardrail, but there is a solution: in 2005 the Dutch motorcyclists’ organisations MAG and KNMV worked with the national road authority to develop a decision tree (see image) to determine where motorcycle protection systems should be installed on the Dutch motorways when the ministry of transport recognised the necessity of this after an intensive lobby campaign by the Dutch MAG. This tool has since then been copied and used in several other countries. It shouldn’t be too hard for the European Commission to do likewise.

Click on the image for a larger view.

There is more to road infrastructure than just road surfaces and barriers. I noticed that the idea of forgiving roadsides is still an unknown concept to many road authorities. Soft and damaged roadsides are dangerous for car drivers, but even more so for motorcyclists. Still they are common everywhere. The same goes for trees, lamp posts, sign posts and all other kind of obstacles. They are often too close to the roads and not protected. In my own environment I noticed recently that new trees were planted about a meter next to the road, to replace other trees that were cut down. This is a road where a maximum speed of 80 km/h is allowed. Another example of the big contrast between motorways and other roads. Since the road authorities don’t have the common sense themselves to shape all roads as save roads for everyone, maybe we need a regulation for that too, or expand the existing Directive 2008/96/EC with some clauses about save road infrastructure and extend the scope of it to all roads.

Safe infrastructure is a basic right for all road users, including motorcyclists, and it is high time the road authorities and the legislators act accordingly.

Written by Dolf Willigers