WHO calls for greater focus on the dangers of two-wheeler driving

The business case for using powered two- and three-wheeled vehicles might be compelling, but it brings increased risk for riders and the organisation

The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its guidance on how to reduce the number of road traffic deaths and injuries involving motorcycles and other powered two- and three-wheelers (“PTWs”).

Nearly 30% of all road traffic deaths reported to WHO involve PTWs, a category that covers motorcycles, mopeds, scooters and e-bikes. These vehicles are increasingly used by businesses, particularly in low-and middle-income countries (“LMICs”) and the proportion of deaths involving them is rising.

Growing trend in lower-income countries

In LMICs, these vehicles are often seen as a solution to increasing traffic congestion in urban areas and the high cost of other forms of transportation. Easy access to finance to purchase such vehicles, the convenience of parking and low cost of maintenance/insurance have also contributed to their growth. 

The WHO South-East Asia Region had the highest proportion of registered PTWs in 2019, followed by the Western Pacific and Eastern Mediterranean. In Cambodia and Thailand, where there is a large PTW fleet, motorcycle fatalities in 2016 accounted for 73% and 74% of total road fatalities respectively.

The key risk factors

The WHO has identified the key risk factors for PTW traffic injury as: traffic mix, road hazards, vehicle instability, braking errors, non-use of helmets, use of alcohol/drugs and speeding. 

If there is no designated lane for PTWs, the main safety issue comes from the movement of other vehicles into the path of the PTW rider, when drivers have not seen or are not expecting the PTW to be there. 

In higher-income countries, it’s more the low familiarity with PTWs for some car drivers – as well as challenges in detecting PTWs and judging their speed – that can make the mixed traffic environment dangerous for PTW users.

The road surface condition also presents a significant level of crash risk to PTW users. Uneven road surfaces, deterioration, potholes, unpaved curbs, manhole covers, bumps, drainage, spillages, poor road markings and debris are all factors that have been shown to increase the risk of PTW crashes.

Helmet use is so important

Unsurprisingly, the non-use of helmets by PTW users is a crucial factor highlighted by the WHO. Injuries to the head and neck are among the main causes of death, severe injury and disability among PTW users. 

The WHO guidance notes that during a PTW crash two key factors that come into play in head/neck injuries: direct contact with a surface or object, and the impact of acceleration/deceleration. 

Each causes different types of injuries and the risk varies according to the quality of the helmet and face coverage. Wearing poor quality and non-standard helmets also puts the rider at increased risk of head injury and fatality in the case of a crash.

Live fast, die young?

Although there are specific risks for PTWs, the universal risk factors, such as speeding, drugs/alcohol and lack of experience apply equally. 

Excessive and inappropriate speed is the leading cause of road trauma in many countries.

Excessive and inappropriate speed is the leading cause of road trauma in many countries. The higher the speed at which a vehicle travels, the longer the stopping distance and the lack of protection for PTW users during a collision means they are particularly vulnerable to severe or fatal injury associated with excessive speed. 

Speed is also implicated in a higher proportion of fatal motorcycle crashes compared with other road users, which makes speed a particularly important risk factor for this group. In the USA in 2013, for example, 34% of all motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, compared with 21% for car drivers, 18% for light truck drivers and 8% for large truck drivers. 

Other research has shown that motorcyclists drive faster and engage in extreme speeding more often than other road users.

Motorcyclists drive faster and engage in extreme speeding more often than other road users.

Other risk factors

An important factor to mention in connection with speeding and not using helmets is that drug/alcohol consumption makes accidents more likely. In one hospital-based study of PTW-related injury cases in Sri Lanka, the majority (67%) of night-time crashes were related to alcohol.

It’s a consideration for employers because a study in Australia in 2018 showed that motorcyclists involved in crashes due to intoxication had the highest average length of hospital admission and the longest average periods with disability before returning to their previous occupation. 

Employers should also note that young and older riders have a higher risk of injury. While the increased crash risk among young riders is predominantly associated with their lack of experience and greater propensity to adopt risky behaviours, the increased injury risk and injury severity among older riders tends to be associated with physical fragility and decrease in riding practice. Riding ability and performance of older riders has been shown to decrease in riders over 60 years of age.

Lessons for employers

The phrase ‘risk versus reward’ is often cited in business circles. With TPWs, it might be tempting to focus on the rewards – a convenient way to reduce outlay and overheads, negate the impact of traffic congestion and even contribute to reducing carbon footprints.

But the risks also need to be factored in. How will you mitigate against the temptation to speed? Will your schedules demand that they must rush from delivery to delivery, for example? How will you ensure riders don’t glance at their phones to check directions? What training will you give to younger riders and how will you check that they are suitably protected and visible to other road users?

There’s no doubt that legislation, road infrastructure and medical care all have an impact – but employers have a responsibility to ensure that they aren’t putting people at risk in a rush to cut costs.

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