A senior North Yorkshire councillor who was a professional speedway racer for seven years has called for safety advice to be given out to schoolchildren in a bid to cut the number of fatal and serious motorbike crashes on the county’s roads.
Tim Swales urged bikers flocking to the 6,000 miles of roads in North Yorkshire, where 14 motorcyclists died last year, to be honest about their abilities and “make sure your skills match the way you want to ride”.
The 67-year-old from Osmotherley was a full-time professional speedway racer between 1969 and 1976 before injury ended his career at the age of 26, and raced in both the National League and British League.
Now chairman of North Yorkshire County Council, he said his priority during his year in the role was to improve road safety, saying: “There are too many motorcyclists being killed, too many crashes.”
Speaking at the launch of a motorcycle safety campaign at Squires biker café at Newthorpe, near Sherburn-in-Elmet, he said: “The education part of it comes into it a lot. When I was 16 I passed my motorcycle test within a month of being old enough, and straight away got a 500 Gold Star and then a Norton Dominator, which were two quick bikes in those days.
“In the one year I rode on the road, I lost more skin off myself than in six or seven years of racing speedway. Although I broke bones, I broke collarbones, I broke arms, and I broke eight ribs on speedway, I didn’t lose the amount of skin that I did on that road bike.
“Temptation to take corners at speed, any motorcyclist knows what I’m talking about, at 70mph on a bike, you feel like you could step off it time and time again, because the sensation of speed is so different to when you are in a car.
“The track I took, after a stern talking to by my two brothers, was to go into speedway. I had a very successful career and it was good. In the main, most people are going in the same direction as you are racing, that is something you don’t have on a road.
“People say roads are dangerous. Within two miles of me in the last two years there have been two deaths. People say it is a dangerous road. It isn’t a dangerous road, it is a good road, it has some tight-ish bends, it is the ability of the riders to actually read that road and ride accordingly.
“The ability to ride in the conditions across this county, we have more than 6,000 miles of road in North Yorkshire alone, and a lot of those are really good to have a blast out on, but you must do it in the conditions. The speed has to be relative to those conditions.
“Last year there was a reduction in deaths but we still had 14 tragic deaths, and 116 bikers were seriously injured. That is a big amount, especially if your family member is one of those.
“The education side of it, the BikeSafe workshops, the way forward is to try to do that. Education, we should have more education and it should come into schools. Within North Yorkshire there is one of our schools where we are actually doing road safety courses for schoolchildren.
“That has gone really well over the last year. It is sixth formers who are just about to be able to go out and ride on the roads, and having track days and days out on the roads. it would be hard to get it across all schools, but certainly it is a start.”
According to the 95 Alive partnership, which aims to cut road accidents in the county, motorcyclist error is the main factor in more than 70 percent of accidents on rural roads, rather than other road users or road surface conditions.
Tim Madgwick, Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police and chairman of the 95 Alive partnership, said the number of motorcyclist deaths had hit a plateau recently after declining for between five and eight years.
He said his views on how to tackle the problem had changed “markedly” in the last two years and that he now believed “winning the hearts and minds of motorists” was more important than enforcement.
Mr Madgwick said roads would become safer for bikers if there were more of them riding, and that in countries such as Italy there were fewer motorcycle accidents because other motorists were accustomed to seeing them.
He said: “We are at the other end of that, where our population of motorcycle users is relatively small, and therefore vulnerability is greater. We want to see more motorcyclists across all bands of motorcycling.”
He added: “No one likes to have their skills challenged, but the fact is that some riders do overrate their abilities on a bike, and the mindset that ‘nothing will ever happen to me’ can, and does, lead to accidents - particularly on bends, when overtaking or when braking.
“We’re encouraging motorcyclists to really question how they ride, and to sign up for post-test training to hone their skills, improve their biking experience, and reduce the risk of rider error on the roads.”
Mr Swales said: “As a speedway rider, I had my fair share of broken bones, but racers expect a few injuries in the course of a professional career.
“No-one goes out on a motorbike for a leisure ride expecting to have an accident, but sadly it can occur, and we want to reduce those casualties as much as possible.
“North Yorkshire is a fantastic location for motorcyclists, and as a passionate biker myself, I want riders to be able to enjoy our beautiful county safely. So the message we’re sending out today is enjoy your biking, but never be complacent.
“Ride a bike you can handle, be honest about your abilities, and make sure your skills match the way you want to ride.”
In 2014, 130 motorcyclists were killed or seriously injured in the county, down from 139 the previous year, and 155 in 2010.
But the total number of motorcyclist casualties, including fatal, serious and slight casualties, rose from 338 to 352 last year.
Last year 63 percent of motorcyclist casualties involved bikes of 125cc or above, according to North Yorkshire Police.
As part of North Yorkshire Police’s BikeSafe sessions at York and Thirsk, bikers take part in an observed ride, where police motorcyclists give feedback on the rider’s strengths and weaknesses and offer tips to improve biking skills. Sessions can be booked at www.bikesafe.co.uk.