If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday 17 October 2010

Motorbikes and Motorways

A comment on my previous post has made me think. Don commented that he avoided motorways wherever possible after a bad experience on one. Certainly you won't hear many bikers having a good word to say about them, and lots of car drivers hate (or fear) them too. Why is that?

For one thing, it is undeniable that motorways are the safest way to travel. Motorways account for only 3% of the KSI (killed and seriously injured) figures for the UK, and yet have around 20% of the total traffic. And they are getting safer: between 1998 and 2008, motorway traffic increased by 28%, whereas fatalities decreased by 9% over the same period. The reasons motorways are safer:
  • Despite the higher speeds, all traffic is going in the same direction
  • Central barriers to reduce risk of head-on collisions with opposing traffic flow
  • 'Hard' safety features like crash barriers and guard rails
  • Limited number of junctions, and joining traffic highly controlled
  • All bends are gentle, all gradients are shallow
  • Clear roadside zones with few obstacles to hit if you lose control
  • Hard shoulder for stationary or broken-down vehicles
  • Better quality and better maintenance of road surface
  • Vertical separation of crossing traffic
  • No access from private property
  • Good directional and warning signage
  • Prohibition of very slow vehicles and learners.
There is also the unquantifiable but noticeable advantage that, on a motorway, most people are on a longer journey and tend to be focused on the task of driving, rather than looking for a parking space, shouting at the kids, checking out shop windows, and so on. People can still be idiots on motorways, but they are idiots in a limited number of ways: pulling out without checking/indicating, for example, or lane hogging. Good observation and a restrained driving style can overcome most of these hazards. The infinite variety of ways in which motorists can be stupid on normal roads is reduced to a manageable number on a motorway.

Another thing in favour of motorways is the ability to maintain high average speeds. As long as a motorway is going in the direction you want, there is no quicker way of getting to your destination. It is easy to average 60-65 mph (not to be confused with cruising speed) on a journey with a lot of motorway miles, compared to a journey on A-roads, where an average of 45-50 mph is good going. (I'm talking about total, door-to-door journey times here.) Maintaining a cruising speed of around 80 mph is easy, safe and quite practical. There are regular and convenient places to stop and have a comfort break, although bringing your own food and drink is advisable from a quality and budgetary standpoint.

What's not to like about all that?

Well, the main objection is boredom. Mile after mile with nothing to look at but the number plate of the car in front. In a car, you can have music on, or the radio, or chat with your passengers. On a bike you don't even have that. Roadworks or congestion can mean long delays, although some of the worst delays I have experienced have been on A-roads. A lot of people find motorways stressful and competitive, although there is no need. Just chill out, be nice to everyone, and adopt a Zen-like acceptance of whatever happens. It works for me.

The biker's objection to motorways is that it's not what bikes are good at. Bikes love twisty roads, plenty of bends and variety. Bikes are not meant to spend much time in the vertical plane. Because the rear tyre has a curved profile to allow the bike to lean, riding upright concentrates all the wear in the middle section, leading to the tyre becoming 'squared off' and handling badly, as well as wearing out prematurely. (I'm talking about the UK here; in countries with huge distances and long, straight roads, the cruiser style of bike, which gains comfort and stability but loses manoeuvrability and dynamic performance, is more appropriate.) In addition, on a 'naked' bike such as mine, without wind and weather protection, sustained high speeds can be very tiring on the neck, arms and back.

So, for any journey where time is not critical, I will avoid motorways wherever possible. But if I need to use them, I will do so quite happily. There is no easier way of getting through large urban areas that you don't want to visit but merely pass through. And if there is congestion - well, a bike is the thing to be on.


  1. Motorways are, basically, dull but worthy - which, I guess, is why the main danger is being collected by a half-asleep and zoned-out driver.

    But if you need to be somewhere more interesting*, quickly, there's no better way to do it. I just take my mp3 player, loaded with loud (to counteract wind noise), and let the miles rack up. It's not "biking" per se**, but it does the trick.

    Funnily enough, a lot of drivers have some bizarre preconceptions. We have a big work site in Telford, for example: many's the time people have assumed a bike will beat them there hands-down. Generally, no. Motorways are really cage territory: the acceleration and maneouverability of a bike don't really count for much and physically it's much harder work to keep the throttle to max than it is to sit in an equally rapid Deutsche turbowagon. So most bikes - me included - seem to travel at the same speed as the rest of the traffic. Although, of course, if you hit the M5/M6 interconnects at Birmingham at the right sort of time, you can easily pull an hour out on a car by filtering. There again, unless it's racing pit-stops all the way, you'll probably waste most of that stopping for petrol and dallying with a coffee afterwards.

    Actually, the one thing I don't like about motorways is having to filter. In some respects, it's safer than urban or minor roads because more people expect it and there's generally more lane space to work with. However, there's also usually miles of traffic jam to negotiate and it only takes one driver to pull a banzai lane change... Getting back from Brands after a race day is just dreadful: it's usually solid all the way to Clackett Lane, with about 10,000 bikers of varying skill and ability all trying to cram into the gaps. I usually prefer to hang around the trackside for an hour or so, rather than ride through that.

    * To get anywhere interesting in France, for example, requires a day's flat-out motorway travel, or about 3 days of rather tedious and scenically-challenged minor roads.

    ** No corners. Boo. However, in younger days (and I'm sure the statute of limitation applies) I came back from Telford at 2 am on a CBR600. Pinned the throttle wide open at the top of the M42 and didn't let off until the tank ran dry where the M40 joins the M25. It's the fastest sustained ride I've ever done and that did feel like real biking. It's quite amazing how much shallow curves tighten up at that sort of speed...!

  2. I agree that motorways negate almost all of the advantages of a bike. A naked bike is worse; I can easily cruise at 90+ in the car all day if the traffic is right, but I never go over 70-ish on the bike for more than a few miles at a time. My neck won't stand it. Add in a 500-mile tank range on the car and it's game over for the bike in practical terms. I tend to stick to 70-ish on the bike for sustained riding periods. The economy is worth it.

  3. Interesting points you made there Richard. It was mainly the cross winds and the spray from lorries that made me finally give up on the motorways.
    I used to date a girl from Blackburn and rode down the A74 / M74 /M6. Fantastic scenery but so exposed over Shap summit etc.

  4. Cross winds and spray are bad enough in a car. If I encountered conditions like that on a bike, I would get off the motorway, that's for sure. IOf course, going over Shap Fell is pretty exposed, whether you are on the M6 or A6.

    Glasgow to Blackburn! Nearly 200 miles for a snog? I hope she was worth it.

  5. Aye she was worth it ;)


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