Why isn’t ABS saving our lives?

Ben Purvis_BikeSocial
By Ben Purvis

Writing about bikes for 20 years. Published in dozens of titles on five continents. Mildly obsessed with discovering how things work.

 

The recent rate of development in antilock brakes and other motorcycling safety tech has been jaw-dropping. Over the last decade we’ve seen ABS go from a niche technology for tourers to a legally-mandated life-saver that palpably improves everything from supermotos to superbikes, while developments like cornering ABS and IMU-assisted traction control systems mean that momentary slip-ups that might once have been devastating can now pass almost unnoticed by riders.

Arguing against the benefits of this technology is futile; it all helps make modern bikes much, much better than their forebears. But there’s a fly in the ointment that’s becoming ever harder to ignore, and it appears in dull, dry but unarguable statistics: the number of motorcyclists dying on our roads – and those of many other countries – don’t appear to be dropping.

Before we go any deeper into those figures, let’s make one thing clear; this isn’t a criticism of any of the safety technologies that have emerged in recent years. If you haven’t experienced a moment when ABS or traction control has apparently saved you from an accident, you’re sure to have heard plenty of anecdotes from those who have. It’s the very fact that these systems work, and work so well, that makes the numbers all the more puzzling.

Looking at Great Britain over the last five full years for which detailed statistics are available – 2013 to 2017 – Government figures show:

Year

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Motorcycles involved in fatal accidents

356

375

398

365

379

 

So the numbers have fluctuated but overall we were no better off in 2017 than 2013. Bare totals alone don’t tell the whole story – for that we’re better off looking at the accident rate, which compares the number of crashes against the number of miles covered by bikes:

Year

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Motorcycle fatalities per billion miles

132

106

107

129

137

 

These figures don’t appear to be any more encouraging, showing that 2017’s death rate compared to mileage was higher than any of the preceding four years.

 

Why isn’t ABS saving our lives?

 

The date range we’re looking at here is important. It was in 2013 that the European Union passed laws that made ABS mandatory on all new motorcycles over 125cc. Those laws came into effect in two stages, applying to newly-homologated models on 1st January 2016 and to existing designs on 1st January 2017. And while there were caveats allowing some non-compliant bikes to remain available until the end of 2018, there’s no question that the number of machines on the road with ABS and traction control has massively increased over that time.

Of course, the EU rules apply only to bikes over 125cc, and before their introduction it was always larger-engined models that got ABS first, so it’s worth digging a little deeper into the capacities of bikes involved in accidents:

Year

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Motorcycles over 500cc involved in fatal accidents

265

278

265

256

271

 

Year

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Motorcycles over 125cc involved in fatal accidents

295

303

303

296

315

 

The numbers for bikes over 500cc involved in fatal accidents have been remarkably stable in the 20123-2017 period, while adding the figures for bikes in the 125cc-499cc range to reflect the accident involvement of all bikes over 125cc the total shows an upward trend that seems to be at odds with the increasing safety technology that’s applied year by year.

Just how many of those bikes were fitted with ABS? It’s hard to be certain, but at the end of 2017, some 15.7% of licenced bikes on British roads were 2016 or 2017 models registered after the EU’s mandatory ABS rules first came into force. Given the popularity of adventure bikes, and the fact that the BMW R1200GS – usually found equipped with ABS – is the single most common model on UK roads, the chances are that the overall penetration of ABS on the overall UK fleet of bikes is already relatively high.

 

Why isn’t ABS saving our lives?

 

It’s not the technology, it’s us…

It’s impossible to argue that ABS isn’t a life-saver when you find yourself in an unexpected situation, so why aren’t the accident rates reflecting the fact that modern bikes are safer than their predecessors?

The answer is likely to come down to human nature, and a phenomenon dubbed risk compensation. And it means that you might subconsciously be more likely to get into a dangerous spot once you’re riding a bike with ABS.

In simple terms risk compensation theory suggests that whenever you make an activity safer, people will naturally take more risks. Give a mountaineer a safety rope and he’ll tackle tougher climbs than he would without one. Give a trapeze artiste a safety net and he’ll try more spectacular displays. Give a motorcyclist a safer bike and… Well, you get the idea.

Back in 2011, when the European Union first mooted the laws that would eventually make ABS a legal requirement on motorcycles, I spoke to John Adams, professor emeritus at University College London and a leading light in the theory of risk compensation. At the time, he said: “The evidence with cars is that the safety improvement [of ABS] was consumed as a performance benefit rather than a safety benefit. I would expect that motorcyclists are even more closely involved with the performance of their machines.

“My guess is that the effect won't be detectable in the accident statistics, except that the crashes may be at higher speed.”

The figures for motorcycle accidents over the last few years since he said that appear to bear out his reasoning. He was drawing on similar experiences from years ago when ABS became common on cars.

Adams said: “When they first came out, because they were superior brakes, there were insurance discounts for cars with anti-lock, but then the accidents simply started to happen at higher speed.”

Even many years before that, when seatbelts were made compulsory for front seat car passengers in the UK in 1983, he saw the same affect in action.

“There was a similar effect with seatbelts,” said Adams, “There's no doubt they help if you have a crash, but they didn't lead to the expected decrease in deaths. People drove faster or more dangerously when they were wearing them, and the safety benefits were consumed.”

That difficulty is never more apparent than now. In 2010, an American report from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) found that there were 22% fewer insurance claims for ABS-equipped bikes compared to their non-ABS equivalents, and a 37% reduction in fatalities. Other research in Germany and Sweden also showed impressive reductions in accidents and deaths. But the problem with all those studies is that they could only compare the accidents rates of riders who chose ABS with those who opted not to have ABS. People making the conscious decision to buy an ABS-equipped bike, often at a significant expense over a non-ABS one, were inevitably more risk-averse, which in turn means they were likely to be slower, more cautious riders.

“There's a range of behaviour from cautious and safe to wild and lunatic,” said Adams in 2011, “The cautious and safe are likely to choose to wear seatbelts without legislation, or to invest in a vehicle with anti-lock, while the wild and lunatic may not. A before and after comparison [when new laws are introduced] is rendered difficult.”

 

Why isn’t ABS saving our lives?

 

One famous study did try to eliminate that self-selection by adding ABS to half a taxi fleet in Munich over a three-year period in the early 1990s. Because the drivers were switched from vehicle to vehicle as these cabs were used, 24/7, during the experiment, there was no way for safer drivers to end up in the ABS-equipped cars. During the study there were 747 accidents involving the taxi fleet, with the ABS-equipped cars fractionally more likely to be involved than those without. When behind the wheel of an ABS-equipped cab, the drivers were found to be faster and more aggressive, and over-confidence in the abilities of ABS meant they were more likely to crash, particularly in slippery conditions when those driving non-ABS cars would be driving especially carefully.

Adams’ suggestion that crashes might occur at higher speeds when ABS is fitted could also be borne out by the motorcycle accident figures over the last few years. Because while deaths and death rates have remained relatively stable, the actual number of less severe accidents has dropped significantly. To return to the figures for Great Britain between 2013 and 2017, looking at bikes over 125cc we can see that the numbers of accidents classified as ‘serious’ has remained constant:

Year

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Motorcycles over 125cc involved in serious accidents

3048

3175

2999

3138

3087

 

But accidents classed as “slight” have taken a nosedive, dropping by more than 16% over the same period:

Year

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Motorcycles over 125cc involved in slight accidents

6005

6281

5939

5502

5036

 

Thinking about the times when ABS comes to the fore, those numbers again make sense. By braking more efficiently than you can without it, anti-lock can bring you to a halt in a shorter distance and eliminate the difference in braking performance between skilled and ham-fisted riders. The result is often the prevention of a minor accident – stopping just in time rather than going off the road at low speed, for instance – rather than a major one.

 

Why isn’t ABS saving our lives?

 

Playing the longer game

Before 2013, when the mandatory ABS law was passed, both Britain and the rest of Europe were seeing a consistent decline in motorcycle-related deaths. Back in 2007 there were nearly 6000 motorcyclists killed across Europe. By 2016, the most recent year’s figures available for all of Europe, the total was down to 3657. But the majority of the decline came between 2007 and 2012, perhaps a reflection of the tightening of economic conditions across Europe. Since 2013 the rate of accident reduction appears to have slowed, just as it has in the UK.

Year

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

Motorcycle fatalities in the EU

5957

5330

5210

4575

4598

4068

3887

3849

3964

3657

 

Overall, the trend for motorcycle-related deaths, both in the UK and across Europe, has been a downward one, and that’s likely to continue. But while technology like ABS and traction control will play a part in making riding safer, knowing about the phenomenon of risk compensation – and ensuring that you don’t fall prey to the sense of security that these technologies imbue – will help ensure you don’t become part of the statistics.

 

 

The history of risk compensation and road safety

Risk compensation has repeatedly raised its head to foil advances in road safety over the years. Here are a few examples when the results of seemingly clear safety advances haven’t matched expectations: 

1: Helmet laws

These days the idea of riding without a helmet is almost unimaginable, but before 1973 it was legal to ride bare-headed in the UK.

When that helmet law was introduced, the evidence in favour of helmets was incontrovertible – people who crashed wearing lids were less likely to die. But incredibly, the overall number of motorcycle-related deaths and the death rate actually increased in 1974, with an upward trend continuing for several years after that.

While we were adopting helmets, around half of the states in America actually dropped their helmet laws in the mid-70s. While motorcycle deaths rose, they did so across the nation (probably a result of bike use increasing due to the fuel crisis), and some of the states that maintained their helmet laws actually saw bigger increases than those opting to repeal them. 

2: Seatbelts

Like a helmet, a seatbelt helps once you’re involved in a crash, but the evidence suggests that the sense of invulnerability they lend might initially have led to an increase in deaths when they were first made mandatory.

Britain introduced seatbelt laws for drivers and front seat passengers in 1983 and there was an immediate 25% reduction in deaths for those front seat users. But at the same time there was a 40% increase in deaths among cyclists, a 14% increase for pedestrians and a 27% increase for rear seat car passengers, strongly suggesting that drivers were being more careless when wearing belts.

What’s more, the breathalyser was introduced in the same year, and the vast majority of the decline in road deaths applied to the hours between 10pm and 4am, suggesting the reduction in drink-driving might have been more influential than the mandatory seat belts. 

3: ABS (on cars)

Several studies on car accidents have shown that while some types of accident were reduced, others increased when ABS was fitted.

In particular, studies in America and Australia showed that while multi-car crashes were reduced, single-vehicle accidents rose in vehicles equipped with ABS. Basically you were more likely to be able to stop if someone pulled out in front of you, but you were also more likely to crash on your own if your car had ABS.

What’s the lesson?

There’s no question that technologies like ABS and traction control can help prevent crashes, but it’s clearly vital that riders (and drivers who have similar tech, not to mention airbags, seatbelts and crumple zones) need to take care not to put too much faith in them.

If you were to turn off the traction control or your bike, or the ABS warning light was on to tell you it wasn’t working, would you ride more carefully than normal as a result? If the answer is ‘yes’, then perhaps it’s an indication that you’re experiencing risk compensation in your normal riding. Take it into account – its knowledge that might save your life one day.

 

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