Thirteen years ago the members of Cape Town’s Wheels motorcycle club, appalled by the number of fellow riders who were being killed and injured on the roads, decided to get off their collective butt and do something about it.
From the start their approach was essentially practical, teaching and honing the riding techniques - many of them counterintuitive - that help you get out of trouble when somebody else does something stupid, which is why they originally named it the Skills Campaign.
Since then it has become one of the Western Cape’s most successful public/private partnerships, involving the provincial department of community safety, the Gene Louw traffic college in Brackenfell and pretty much the same group of dedicated Wheels members.
Its scope has grown to include protective bikewear and basic first aid for when the worst happens, and the Wheels Safety Campaign is now an annual event. So it was that 76 riders (entry is limited to 70 but it’s difficult to say no) gathered at the Gene Louw College on Sunday to talk about - and practice! - staying alive on two wheels.
‘ONE DEATH IS A TRAGEDY’
Keynote speaker David Frost, deputy director of road safety management in the Western Cape, quoted Joseph Stalin’s cynical statement, “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic”, when he told the group that 43 riders had been killed on Western Cape roads during the first 41 weeks of 2013.
“That’s a statistic,” he said. “The tragedy is that every week, on average, a biking family has to bury a loved one.”
When he spoke about protective clothing Frost, himself a dedicated rider, threw into the audience the jacket he was wearing when his bike suffered a rear-wheel blowout at about 110km/h, and which saved him from what would have been serious skin loss, adding that the impact when his head hit the road sounded like a pistol being fired inside his helmet.
He pointed out that alcohol takes about 12 hours to metabolise in the body; if you were out partying last night, you shouldn’t be on a bike this morning. Without preaching, he said that he would not ride if he’d had even one drink - never mind that he was still within the legal limit.
Riding instructor - and former traffic officer - Lloyd Castle hammered home the fact that by relying on other road users to see them and react correctly, riders are putting their lives in the hands of people they’ve never met and about whom they know absolutely nothing, ascribing to them a level of driving ability they may not have.
(The last words spoken by movie icon James Dean to the mechanic sitting next to him in his speeding Porsche were, “That guy has to stop”. He didn’t.)
The only factors under the control of the rider, Castle said, were the bike’s speed and direction - every other factor was under the control of a total stranger. But by looking at least 12 seconds (that’s four cars) ahead and reducing speed when heading into known danger areas such as blind corners and high-risk intersections, it was possible to ‘buy time’ by preparing for road hazards before they become ‘clear and present danger’.
After the break Castle towed Bush Radio presenter Richard Green up to 60km/h behind a bike in the grounds of the college - sitting on the ground! Green’s locally made armoured jeans protected him from injury, but it was pointed out that the supposedly tough outer layer of denim - which most riders rely on to protect their lower body - had literally gone up in smoke.
Then it was time for the riders to gear up and put theory into practice in a number of exercises based on real-world scenarios - such as riding straight at a marshal, who would operate a system of lights indicating to the rider whether to stop - or on which side to pass - at the last possible moment. No marshals were harmed during this exercise, although several traffic cones got squashed.
Slaloms both fast and slow showed that some bikes are more agile than others – but even a 400kg cruiser can get through them if you use enough body English, while two straight stripes on the tar, just a handspan apart, gave the riders valuable practice in lane-splitting; however you feel about the practice of riding between cars on multilane roads, you need to know how to do it safely.
After all the exercises were completed, the participants had the option of entering the timed gymkhana, a fun event set up by Castle, each on the same bike. First prize went to Chatillon van der Westhuizen, with Jayson du Preez a very close second.
At the end of the day the riders agreed that they’d all learned something, regardless of their level of experience, and they rode home with the safety campaign’s bottom line ringing in their ears: “We taught you – now you teach your fellow riders.”