The rush to the scooter
- 3 February 2012
- From the section Magazine
Scooters are becoming increasingly popular as people look to cut costs and stretch their budgets, but could the boom spark safety problems?
Scooters were once seen as the preserve of the Mod generation, but today the market is very different to that dominated by Lambrettas and Vespas in the 60s and 70s.
Today there is a complete spectrum with 50cc models at one end and, at the other, powerful beasts in the 600-700cc range. They are scooters on steroids.
The scooter's star is in the ascendancy with new registrations up nearly 12% in 2011. The January 2012 statistics due out soon are expected to continue the trend.
It's easy to speculate on why scooter sales are strong. With the price of fuel remaining stubbornly high and public transport costs rising faster than inflation, the scooter is a very tempting way to get from A-B, particularly in cities where parking is at a premium.
"Some scooters will do more than 100 miles on £5 of petrol so that's a whole week of commuting," says Glen McMahon, from Honda.
Company director Roy Green, 52, from south London, has never ridden a motorcycle of any kind. He's considering buying a scooter to cover the 10 miles between home and office.
"I travel around the UK and overseas and I would also use it to get to and from central London railway stations and the airports," he says while perusing a range of scooters at the Motorcycle Show in London.
"Parking is free and there's no congestion charge."
He's typical of many people switching to scooters - they're not necessarily captivated by the idea of speed or freedom or lifestyle that drives many other motorcyclists. And it's easy to get on a scooter.
Motorcycle licence requirements are complex but all that's required to get on a moped (up to 50cc) or a scooter/motorcycle of up to 125cc is the successful completion of a one-day course called Compulsory Basic Training, better known as the CBT.
Anyone who passed their driving test before 1 February 2001 can ride a moped without L-plates. The CBT is recommended but not required.
Green, who sometimes cycles in London, intends to take his CBT but go no further. Concerns over safety will not stop him.
"Some of my friends have scooters and they've had a tumble at one point or another but nothing serious."
Hardened motorcyclists spend years learning to ride "defensively". They develop a comprehensive awareness of all the potential dangers. Veterans might be concerned that new scooter riders will take a while to develop the same mindset.
Emma Petitt, 41, a sales manager from Brighton, is already riding a 125cc scooter, but is considering a new, bigger model. She is well aware of the dangers faced on city roads.
"When I ride around in Brighton, it terrifies me. Car drivers just don't look."
There is great emphasis at the moment on safety for pedal cyclists, with the Times newspaper launching a major campaign this week.
But look on any motorcycle forums and you can see the fraught relationship between other road users played out daily. For those on two petrol-driven wheels, the facts are grim.
In the decade to 2010, motorcycles made up just one per cent of road traffic, but their riders accounted for 21% of all fatalities. It is something that lurks in the mind of many bikers.
New riders are making a conscious choice to get on a scooter or motorcycle but safety training is critical, says Peter Baker, deputy editor of Motorcycle News.
"If you want to be safe on a motorcycle, the best armour you could possibly put on yourself is the stuff between your ears. It's to make you road and traffic aware and stop you having an accident in the first place."
The motorcycle industry runs a scheme called Get On, which offers complete novices a free, one-hour taster session at a local training school. Beyond that, police forces around the UK run BikeSafe courses and in London, the Metropolitan Police also runs ScooterSafe days.
London is the UK's scooter capital and is now said to be home to 160,000 motorcycle riders. Since last month, they have been given permanent access to bus lanes on red routes - a blessing to bikers, a curse to some other road users.
"I don't think we quite appreciate the impression we're giving when we're nipping through the traffic, certainly in London, when we're virtually banging wing mirrors with car drivers," observes Sgt Mick Cheeseman, who runs safety courses.
"But on the flip side, drivers are now cocooned in a car that's sold with great safety features and I think that gives everybody a false sense of security."
A low-speed collision can mean nothing more than scratched paintwork to that cocooned car driver but a serious danger to the unprotected motorcyclist.
And speed is a pivotal factor in the chances of having an accident, notes Cheeseman.
"Being in the right doesn't hurt any less, but if you're going more than 30mph, the chances of your accident being more serious is greatly increased.
"A lot of fatal accidents are around 30-40mph involving motorcyclists when they come off the bike, hit something solid and stopped and of course all the organs are still travelling. It does a lot of damage internally.
"Scooter riders tend to ride a bit madly around London in my opinion but their speeds are relatively low."
Of course, some modern scooters can be powerful beasts. BMW manufactures larger, 600/650cc "Maxi-scooters", which are aimed at longer, motorway commutes and can be used for touring.
But although the newer models are more muscle-bound, many bikers would turn their noses up at them.
"A 'biker' doesn't ride a scooter but that prejudice will be broken down eventually," suggests Tony Jakeman, marketing manager of BMW Motorrad.
For riders who decide to progress to the full test, more changes are afoot next January, when a new, single-part on-road test will be phased in.
This is aimed at reversing the drop in numbers of riders taking the test, which was caused by a move in 2009 to replace local centres with a smaller number of test "super-centres" where off-road manoeuvres could also be assessed.
Craig Carey-Clinch, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCI), said: "People take CBTs, ride on L-plates then don't go further because of this, creating the 'permanent learner class'.
"It's critical that we make the test more available for them. This would improve riding abilities and overall safety."