A new report reveals improved safety measures are needed to protect motorcyclists.
Road-side crash barriers clearly have an important role to play in reducing the damage and injury caused by car accidents.
But motorcyclists’ groups say that the way most barriers are designed actually increases the risk to bikers.
"Crash barriers that save the lives of car occupants can be killers of motorcyclists," says Neil Greig, director of Research and Policy at the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM).
"The statistics are stark: hitting a crash barrier is a factor in 8 to 16 per cent of rider deaths and riders are 15 times more likely to be killed than car occupants.
"Barrier support posts are particularly aggressive. They can cause a five-fold increase in injury severity compared to the average motorcycle crash."
Colliding with crash barriers is more dangerous for motorcyclists than hitting other stationary objects – 66 per cent of impacts with barriers result in injuries classed as serious compared with 59 per cent with trees and 19 per cent with pavements.
Barriers ‘could not be more damaging’
The Federation of European Motorcyclists' Associations has even concluded that certain crash barriers "could not be more damaging to motorcyclists than if they had been designed with that object in mind".
In response to this situation, the IAM recently sponsored a report by the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP) Motorcycle Review Panel into crash barrier design and locations and how that could be improved in order to better protect motorcyclists.
This is particularly important and timely since motorcycle use is becoming increasingly popular for both leisure and commuting.
The number in use across Europe reached over 17 million in 2005 – an increase of nearly 50 per cent from 1998.
One possibility is the introduction of more secondary rail systems.
These systems, such as BikeGuard and Shield, are metal rails or plastic tubes that fit below the existing barrier, preventing riders from sliding under the horizontal beams and offering protection from the metal support posts.
They are the most common motorcycle-friendly system being promoted.
France leads the way in applying these systems, with a dedicated annual budget of €3 million (around £2.4 million) for fitting of new installations with a further €2.3 million (£1.84 million) for the installation of systems to existing barriers at accident blackspots.
Early evaluation suggests that this will halve the number of biker deaths caused by traditional barrier design.
‘More research needed’
But the report advised that secondary rail systems shouldn't be seen as the only option and that more research into safer crash barrier design is needed. Many of the studies that exist are outdated and based on research from the 1980s so funding for additional work is required.
Another recommendation is that the risk of motorcycle accidents should be mapped across the European road network separately from other traffic so as to highlight high-risk roads. And, given the risks to motorcyclists, road engineers should also be asking themselves if crash barriers are needed in the first place.
According to the Road Safety Department of the French Ministry of Transport, 15 per cent of crash barriers are useless. It would be better if they were removed completely, and the vehicle that was going off course, whether a car or a motorcycle, just ran off the road into a field rather than colliding with a barrier.
The report also advises that every road safety engineering department should have a "motorcycle champion", as is the case in France. This would guarantee that safety issues affecting motorcyclists would have a voice, rather than being sidelined.