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Front Numberplates

Front Numberplates Discussion Paper

It has been proposed that adding front numberplates to motorcycles will reduce motorcyle fatalities. We find a lack of plausibility in this proposition.

We cannot identify specific safety benefits that will accrue from forcing front numberplates onto motorcycles. Neither have any been provided from government.

The impetus for front number plates appears to be driven by authoritarian blame or revenue considerations and hurt feelings resulting from photographs showing disrespect.

As a safety strategy, it appears inappropriate, a waste of resources and will fail to address the real underlying issues of motorcycle safety.

Significant technical difficulties present themselves, as motorcycles have not been required to carry front number plates for over 25 years, since they were removed worldwide for tangible safety reasons. Motorcycle frontal design has evolved since that time.

Fitment of a front number plate needs to consider suspension and steering movements, engine cooling airflow, obstruction of headlight and vision as well as not re-creating safety problems for riders or pedestrians. No single solution is available for all motorcycles and there will be considerable inconvenience and confusion to riders and authorities alike.

In the administrative decision by road authorities to purchase and operate front facing cameras they have either:

  • Chosen to ignore motorcycles because of ill defined safety benefits, or
  • Failed to consider motorcycles at all.

So the proposal for front number plates is either

  • Based on revenue or offended feelings, or
  • That motorcycles are invisible to public policy

In either case, it appears that motorcyclists are being made scapegoats for a faulty administrative decision and as a result will have onerous conditions placed upon them.

Faulty Decision

In purchasing a new device for speed enforcement, the road authorities could have just as easily chosen a camera which takes a picture of the side of a car and then complained that those people driving vehicles that are not sign-written, are somehow getting away with something.

The consequence of this, by the same reasoning applied to motorcycles, would be to require all cars to have a numberplate painted, glued or riveted on the side door or have a device like a taxi roof sign fitted.

We have seen photographs published in newspapers, released by the Police in various States, to incite public outrage against motorcyclists in an effort to sway public attitudes against motorcyclists. These photographs were taken for enforcement purposes and are now being used for other purposes. This political sensationalism has the unfortunate byproduct of creating an attitude change in car drivers, negating safety efforts of motorcyclists. This attitude is given official sanction by the releasing of these photographs and the loose assertions that this is typical of all motorcyclists. This is sabotage of motorcycle safety.

When the ANZACS first served abroad, there was outrage amongst British officers when Australian troops would not salute them. Respect needs to be earned. The Australian character, which includes the larrikin, will take an opportunity to thumb the nose at authority. A front facing camera presents this opportunity, as its very presence is a clear demonstration of an ineffective strategy AND that motorcycles have again been ignored in road safety considerations. So a different salute is given.

Do we write this off as offended officials outraged that these underlings would show disrespect? Or is it outrage at loss of revenue? Or, is it an effort to shout loud and distract attention to the faulty decision to install them in the first place? Perhaps it is the tradition of simply blaming the rider.

OK, so by doing a few laps of the block to perform for the camera, it is possible to trigger several photographs. In Victoria, it appears about 317 cases in the last year. Hurt feelings of the pompous are hardly a safety issue and it defies belief that the expense of retrofitting the entire motorcycle fleet could be justified for these small numbers. Vindictiveness arising from this, can however, create serious equity problems for all riders.

In short, forcing front number plates appear meaningless to safety, yet appear in the same light as a tactic of a bully, or a prejudiced autocrat.

Inappropriate Strategy

Essentially, front numberplates appears to be an inapproriate strategy for motorcycle safety, in that it is unlikely to actually reduce the crashes which are currently occurring and indexed as speed related.

If we look at "cost-benefit" ratios for expenditure versus the likely reduction in crashes, then we must consider alternative strategies to reduce crashes and look at costs and likely outcomes for those. The "speeding motorcycle" data comes from the RTA database which, as we point out in "Positioned For Safety" includes all motorcycles which skidded and fell over. We also know that the majority of these ocurred below the posted speed limit on local roads, so the base data creates a problem, in that it cannot distinguish between "speed that was inappropriate for the conditions" (i.e. gravel or other slidey road surface) and "speeding in excess of the posted speed limit".

Inappropiate strategies simply demonstrate to riders that the road authority does not understand the problem, or has chosen to ignore issues in favour of blame or simple revenue. By disregarding road condition caused crashes or low rider skill related crashes, and accepting them all as speeders, we miss the point. Lack of crash investigation data means the causes are being guessed at. Using the RTA data alone is known to be an inaccurate method for determining real speeding.

The problem becomes one of being able to conclusively say that front plates will reduce crashes. Front plates require a front-facing camera to have any effect. This means a large expenditure and a proliferation of cameras. In some specific instances it may be true, that front plates will reduce crashes, but it appears that generally this is unlikely and that other strategies may be more appropriate, such as training, through communication and awareness of the dangers of fatigue. For roads like the Nasho or the Old Road, riders and drivers alike will know exactly where the cameras are and simply ride around them, as virtually all drivers currently do anyway. This defeats the purpose and maintains the disrespect when it is perceived as revenue based, rather than safety based.

It is more likely that better communications and co-operation with motorcyclists will bring about a bigger reduction than simply running oppression and alienating motorcyclists. If the messages are seen as credible and useful, the level of judgement will go up and risk management improves. Simple high-profile policing of day-ride regions such as National Park and Old Road is usually far more effective in curbing the excesses of speed. Simply knowing that a hair dryer is on display somewhere up ahead is enough to make a big difference in the behaviour of riders on these roads and this does not require front plates. I am sure that all have observed this difference.

However, a number of single vehicle fatals actually were speeding, like seriously hot. So how can we address this issue and provide an effective alternative? If you believe there are better alternatives, then lets work towards them. We presently don't believe the issue has been delved into deeply enough and that front plates is a lazy quick fix. There is more to be gained from improving the conversation between riders and safety authorities, so that good, credible information enables riders to improve their own judgement. Of course, this takes more than one weekend to implement and it requires earned trust.

It appears that motorcycle specific issues are not understood. Worse than this, it appears they are misunderstood, but believed to be understood and this forms a barrier to healthy constructive communication and co-operation.

Front plates is a little like being forced to wear the yellow star, appointing blame first. This does not deliver an effective message other than "f you", actually inducing rebellion and its associated behaviour.

As with other areas, the high-profile actions of a few must not be used as an excuse to oppress the majority of lawful individuals.

Road Safety 2010 for NSW sets out the objective of reducing fatalities by half. Front numberplates appears appears to be a costly proposition that will not achieve this objective.

Revenue

The suggestion for front number plates may be simply driven by revenue considerations or hurt feelings resulting from photographs showing disrespect and exposing a poor decision.

Police speed camera photographs released to the press to provide some sensationalism imply that motorcyclists are "getting away with speeding" in a calculated and deliberate manner.

This is arrant nonsense. The front facing cameras were installed without regard for motorcyclists. Rear facing cameras work perfectly well.

The government will have to bear all costs associated with front plate fitments. Motorcyclists are not at fault for not having them, they were removed for safety reasons twenty five years ago. It is suggested that the cost of fitment will be about $50 per motorcycle, for each of the approximately 90,000 registered motorcycles in NSW, for a cost of approximately $4.5 million.

Riders cannot be expected to bear this cost to patch up a faulty decision which ignored them in the first place. That is a totally unreasonable expectation.

In Victoria, where front facing cameras are in operation, the proportion of unidentifiable speeding motorcycles was 0.3 per cent.

In the 12 months to March 2002, 98,624 cars and trucks escaped identification by speed camera because the plates could not be clearly read. There is no breakdown of the reasons - there are a number of potential ones - but that represents 2.8 per cent of the total Victorian fleet. In the same period, 3276 bikes escaped identification, which represents just 3.1 per cent of the Vic fleet.

So, 3.1 versus 2.8 per cent, but no breakdown of the reasons for lack of detection. If the 0.3 per cent difference is entirely because of no front number plates, it translates into 317 incidents in a year.

It is difficult to see the cost-benefit ratio for installation of front plates, by spending $4.5 million to catch these 300 or so riders, especially when any safety benefits are limited, at best.

However, there may be some officials who dislike the disrespect shown by the rogue riders who are doing laps of the block and performing tricks for the camera. But are these riders blithely speeding, or simply taking a calculated swipe at authority? The officials responsible for the purchase of the front-facing cameras may be simply seeking to cover their embarrassement.

It looks like poor management. Unfortunately for riders, this may have a component of revenge.

Lack of Safety Benefit

We cannot identify any specific safety benefits that will accrue from forcing front numberplates onto motorcycles. Neither have any been provided from government.

All that has been provided are motherhood speed statements of general applicability to all road users.

It is admitted that there are some motorcyclists who speed. Equally, there are many more other vehicle drivers who speed. LINK TO “speeding” on safety site.

Nearly half of all motorcycle crashes are caused by other drivers and the bulk of these are at intersections.

The bulk of motorcycles that hit cars, do so at intersections.

36% of all motorcycle crashes are single vehicle crashes and about one third of these are due to faulty road conditions that affect motorcycles but don’t affect cars.

Road Design Guides are available for motorcycle specific issues but not widely implemented, although Guides for other forms of vehicle as well as pedestrians and bicycles have been.

The coding of single vehicle motorcycle crashes into the RTA crash database, defines them as “speeding” because they fell over, even if the road surface was faulty. There are other issues here and speeding in excess of the speed limit is an undefined factor because of confusion with the automatic speed coding on entry to the RTA database.

Most single vehicle motorcycle crashes occur at low speed in built up areas, where the rider is not exceeding the speed limit, but regarded as travelling at "excess speed for the conditions" because they slid or skidded before falling over.

We simply do not accept the raw data as representative of riders exceeding the speed limit, which is the only reason given for the demand for front plates.

When we look at fatalities alone, we discover about half on straight roads and half on curves. We know something of problems at intersections on both curved and straight roads, but what about curves away from intersections? Rider skill and road condition may well turn out to be the prime factors, but we don’t know this, or the proportion actually speeding in excess of the speed limit, because of a lack of systematic crash investigation for motorcycle crashes, so this strategy of fitting front number plates is just an inadequately researched guess.

We do know that a number of fatalities are as a result of excess speed, but it is difficult to reconcile these crashes with a direct link to the benefit of a front numberplate.

Improving road conditions is proven to reduce crashes. Any crash on a motorcycle can have severe consequences because of the hostile roadside environment, which is a factor in over 60% of casualty crashes from motoryclces. Fitting a front numberplate will not improve the roadside environment.