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Paul Charman: We motorcyclists are (mostly) mad

Paul Charman ,
Publish Date
Tue, 19 Jul 2016, 2:52PM
Let’s be honest — we motorcyclists are mostly mad — and Paul Charman doesn't mean in the jocular sense (NZ Herald file photo)
Let’s be honest — we motorcyclists are mostly mad — and Paul Charman doesn't mean in the jocular sense (NZ Herald file photo)

Paul Charman: We motorcyclists are (mostly) mad

Paul Charman ,
Publish Date
Tue, 19 Jul 2016, 2:52PM

Let’s be honest — we motorcyclists are mostly mad — and I don’t mean in the jocular sense.

For some of us, “the motorbike appeal” weighs heavily. In my case it’s been a lifelong obsession, and I feel I’m about to be joined by throngs of fellow travellers. But they should know what they’re getting into.

Bikes on the roads are going to increase as more homes shift out to city margins and thus further from places of employment. For example, many Aucklanders have been left scratching their heads over how best to commute in from city fringes north and south.

You live way out where the rents and house prices are cheaper, but work in one of the big commercial hubs; you’re fed-up with sharing bus or train seats with all those coughing, 'phone-staring-zombies', and so — if you were born with what some of us call “the motorcycle gene” — the solution will seem simple: just buy a bike to commute to work. On paper it all adds-up.

By lane-splitting (riding in between lines of stationary or slow-moving cars) you’ll cut commuting time by up to half. You can legally ride the bus lanes and parking is generally free.

Running costs and maintenance look good on paper too, so you could save hundreds of dollars a month by motorcycling. But pretty motorcycles are a bit like “wine glittering in the cup”. They can leave you with a massive headache.

In fact, without wishing to sound overly dramatic, why not save yourself before it is too late. Think before signing that hire purchase deal drawn with “Rob” down at the motorcycle shop.

What Rob won’t tell you as he waves you off on your new bike, is that — even if you survive with 10 fingers and 10 toes intact — riding will change you.

It’s not just that, on average, the risk of being killed or injured in road crashes is 22 times higher for motorcyclists than for car drivers over same distance travelled.

No, it’s more than that — think mental health.

Outwardly, motorcyclists stand out as a wee bit eccentric, of course, but that’s not what I mean. We tend to have bad helmet-compressed hairdos, possibly bloodshot eyes and, in winter at least, wet shoes.

Unless it’s an automatic, the top of the left shoe will be stained black from contact with a rubberised gear-change lever. (Note: Check the left shoes of anyone who wants to work for your company, take your daughter out etc. If “the black stain” is discovered, take appropriate action).

We bike commuters walk round in ridiculous high-vis vests and hog coat-hanging areas with our dripping wet-weather gear. Once arrived at work, greetings and instructions are repeated twice, or even three times, due to ringing ears from exhaust and general road noise.

But in any case, don’t expect much out of bikers newly arrived at work stations. They’ll be dazed, reviewing their most recent near-misses with cars and pedestrians.

All the above should diminish the perceived gains of bike commuting, but there are deeper issues. What of the psychic changes — unseen, internalised long-term effects evident among bike commuters, like:

Mood swings

Rider self-esteem can rise and fall like a perpetual sine wave — even during a single commute. There’s the thrill of firing up a machine in the driveway, or fair weather riding by the sea etc, followed by extreme dejection following those near misses with cars, or heedless pedestrians.


Bikers constantly choose “the path of pain”, especially in winter. I mean everything from man-handling motorcycles (they can be quite heavy) in and out of tight parking spots; sitting stopped at a red light in pouring rain, with water running down the inside of your wet-weather-suit collar, and pooling at the crutch; freezing your hands off during hours on the motorway; getting virtually “elbowed” into the weeds by passing cars, and so forth. Remember, all this bad stuff is needless; riders could end the pain by taking the bus, but we don’t.

Grand delusions

Bikers are just so mobile. Some roar in between cars on the crowded motorways, ducking and diving between the lanes. There’s the fast take-off, the panic stop, the big-engined “roar”, needless healing-over when cornering. Many ride with bare legs, or open-toed footwear. ACC offers us low-cost motorcycle safety courses but there are relatively few takers. And all the while, the belief seems to be, “it could never happen to me”.


Even after pushing our luck, we bikers seem convinced we’re in the right, perhaps signalling other road users with raised fingers, or fists. Encased in body armour and hard hats, we can act like avenging road warriors, apparently also trapped inside a belief system to the effect that the whole motoring world is against us.

Hearing things

A psychosis achieved only through long diligence and application. As most motorcycles don’t have on-board hi fi, we really can end up re-playing songs in our memories, so to speak. For me on wet days it’s “Let’s Ride the Rain”, a tune by 60s Kiwi Band the Quincey Conserve; while maniacally scorching along the motorway, “Catch Us if you Can”, by the Dave Clarke Five; following a near miss with a truck, the “Days of Pearly Spencer”, (Avengers version) and so on . . .

Look, I’ve experienced most of these over the last 45 years or so, but can motorcycle commuting really be worth all this danger, discomfort and weirdness?

I’ll happily run with the hares and hunt with the hounds on that one — seeing the drawbacks, yet having left it too late to change.

Following a lifelong addiction to motorcycles I wouldn’t swap my daily commute in the Auckland traffic; it really wakes-me-up, makes me feel invigorated and alive.

So like the old alki, or greying addict, I still want my fix. But like the “Ancient Mariner”, I warn others not to do the same as me.

Mad, see?



Lane splitting clarification:

Read this with interest. It struck a chord with me as I have been a motorcyclist, racing and owning a number of large road bikes over many years, so I love my motorcycles.

However, readers should not be left unclear about the legality of lane splitting.
It’s quite simple:

While overtaking to the right of a car is not actually an offence, overtaking through the middle lanes can be.

Most motorcyclist are unaware of this, until stopped by an enforcement officer, who writes a $150 infringement for it.

The offence occurs when there is one vehicle already in the lane (the car about to be passed), and a second vehicle enters their lane, passing them on the left. This is called overtaking on the left and the road code declares it illegal.

In fact, please note the following:

During such an overtaking-on-the-left manoeuvre, if the car being passed were to move from the right to the left of their lane, and were to knock into a motor cyclist, the bike rider could be at fault and the car driver may not be charged with any offence, circumstances around this need to be investigated by the attending officer/s.

It is something to be aware of, as I have had motorcyclist complain that they have been told in print and on TV that lane splitting is not an offence.

Most of the time those motorcyclists targeted are the ones that blast down the middle of lanes at crazy speeds and with no indications, the more reckless of the riders. The vast majority of riders display a safe approach to lane dividing. Remember, ride safely at all times.

Senior Sergeant Scott Rees
Auckland Central Police.

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