Head Shake - For Our Own Good?

Chris Kallfelz
by Chris Kallfelz

How much is enough? When does a rational person look at what is available in motorcycle showrooms and say, “Okay, that’s enough for me.” Or even more paternalistically, that’s enough for you, too. What is too much? Is there too much?

There are bikes that are too dangerous to ride. I know this to be true. We had a long-term loaner Buell once, an S2-T, it cracked one of the welds that comprised its right pseudo clip-on bar. It was one hard countersteer or braking maneuver away from no longer having a right clip-on. Bikes are hard to steer without bars. Buell had issued a recall but somehow ours had slipped through the recall cracks. That bike was too dangerous to ride.

Kenny Roberts, Sr. once won the Indy Mile aboard a TZ750-based dirt-track bike that Kel Carruthers and a host of diabolical people from Yamaha’s Diabolical Department had assembled for him. It was, to hear him tell the tale, half the weight and twice the horsepower of the competition. He famously announced post-race that they didn’t pay him enough to ride that thing. The AMA subsequently banned that bike from competition. That bike was too dangerous to ride.

Okay, fair enough, bikes subject to NHTSA recalls to correct a defect that could put you on your head are too dangerous to ride. So is any motorcycle that Yamaha cannot pay Kenny Roberts, Sr. enough to ride. But what about the rest?

A two-part interview of KTM’s president and CEO, Stefan Pierer, by Alan Cathcart in Cycle News, inadvertently broached this issue; the response from Mr. Pierer got my attention.

“But let’s be honest,” said Pierer, “if your Superbike is reaching 200 horsepower or more, it’s impossible to argue that it belongs on the street. It really doesn’t, anymore … As soon as the RC16 is available for customers we will stop with the RC8. The design (of the RC8) is outstanding. I would say it’s still state of the art, and there is nothing else like it. It’s a classic Superbike. But with the increase in safety concerns, I’m afraid bikes like this don’t belong on the street, only on a closed course.”

Let’s not be hasty here, half the American SUV driving-texting latte-sipping populace probably doesn’t belong on public roads either.

Convinced that I must have misunderstood what I had just read, I went back and read it again. Cathcart was asking Pierer about KTM’s future plans, Pierer indicated KTM’s desire to compete in MotoGP, and he has concerns about the bureaucrats in Brussels in his role as a chief executive in the ACEM – think Euro-version of our Motorcycle Industry Council here stateside. Pierer cites the possibility of an EU-wide bike ban. The RC8 will be phased out to be replaced by what they are calling an RC16. The RC16 will not be homologated for the street. Why?

“No, because we at KTM think that a sport bike with such performance doesn’t have any place on the public roads,” Pierer further explained.

I was taken aback by that statement; I have heard and read similar sentiments before, albeit from much different sources. The message did not shock me, the messenger did. The president and CEO of a major motorcycle manufacturer just conceded the wrongheaded rationale of not only the pointyheads in Brussels that would like to ban bikes from European tarmac, but also of all the “safety” zealots here stateside that have tried to restrict or eliminate “race-design motorcycles” from public roadways. That’s a remarkable concession for a highly placed industry insider to make, and a first to my knowledge.

It is interesting on several fronts, not the least of which is that Pierer’s statements echo some of the very same language used by Senator John Danforth in explaining why he introduced his legislation, “The Motorcycle Safety Act of 1987.” In his introduction of the bill, Danforth explained his concerns to the U.S Senate and the American people in a lengthy printed statement;

‘“Mr. President, in 1984, the Japanese began selling what can only be described as “killer motorcycles” in this country. These are racing bikes that were developed for use on the track but they are being driven on our streets … Top speeds for some of these bikes can range up to 162 mph … the marketing of these killer cycles is a lesson in corporate irresponsibility.”’

Read Sen. Danforth’s statement in its entirety

A little over 30 years later Pierer’s words echo the Senator’s sentiments.

Senator Danforth didn’t emerge from some sort of mystical vision that compelled him to venture forth and propose eliminating performance bikes. The driving force behind the bill’s introduction came in the form of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an organization that represents and advances the interests of its members, namely the insurance industry.

Can you spot the “killer motorcycle”? Careful, looks can be deceiving.

The IIHS has perennially campaigned to have performance bikes eliminated from the marketplace, and it produced a guide for its membership, the insurance companies, to use in establishing blacklists of certain bikes that, in their view, the insurance companies should no longer offer to insure. Having failed to eliminate the bikes, I suppose, the next best thing from the IIHS’ point of view was to eliminate the insurance coverage for them. The rationale was simple enough; no insurance coverage results in no bike loans being secured against loss, and fewer loans means fewer high performance bikes on the road, or so their thinking went.

The IIHS was hoist on its own petard when its own “study”, which was not peer reviewed, was debunked. None other than USC’s Dr. Hugh “Harry” Hurt, the lead researcher in the landmark, “Hurt Report,” was one of the chief critics of the IIHS study’s methodology at the time.

Senator Danforth’s legislation was stillborn, and despite the best efforts of the IIHS, its campaign to eliminate performance bikes has not been successful to date. This is an issue that seems to surface perennially and is likely to continue to do so. Particularly now, as the world gets smaller in a global marketplace that ties our fates closer together, we have not only U.S concerns to take account of, but also the European Union as well.

Which brings us back to Mr. Pierer. He is obviously a thoughtful man and a smart businessman, and KTM is doing very well and manufacturing some world-class bikes. He has legitimate concerns about the future with an eye on Brussels and any forthcoming EU regulations that would affect KTM and their customers. All of this begs the question, how much is enough? And who, if anybody is going to put the brakes on? And should they?

“…we at KTM think that a sport bike with such performance doesn’t have any place on the public roads.”

If Senator Danforth was concerned with sport bikes in the 1980s that could top out at 162 mph, I can only imagine what his modern day counterpart would be like today – apoplectic maybe. While performance standards have continued to rise, performance numbers alone are not the sole measure of the “safety” of any motorcycle. We have witnessed other advances as well, everything from the rise of track days producing more competent riders, more advanced riding gear to protect the overzealous, and maybe most critically, the introduction of a whole host of electronic rider aids to keep errant pilots upright. The increasing prevalence of everything from launch control to bank-sensitive ABS and a choice in engine maps to account for weather and riding conditions results in what, I think, are arguably the safest bikes this world has ever seen.

Set the launch control to “civilized” and, amazingly, you get civilized.

Tell me what in your estimation is more dangerous: a 1972 Kawasaki H2 Mach IV shod with a single front disc, a hinged frame, and tires chiseled from granite? Or the newest iteration, a 2015 Kawasaki Ninja H2 with well over twice the horsepower and enough new age technology to account for every ham-fisted move under power or brakes, upright or heeled over, wet or dry, that mankind can conceive?

A moped is a potentially lethal object in the hands of the irreconcilably idiotic – that’s a given – but a smart rider knows the throttle goes both ways. For every performance advance evident in today’s bikes, rider safety has rapidly progressed as well, and it is engineered into many of today’s machines.

The bottom line from my knothole is this: Full-tilt big-bore sportbikes are only as safe, or unsafe, as the person piloting them. I’m willing to concede that exercising top-shelf sportbikes to anything within their potential on public roads is virtually impossible for most mere mortals in almost all conditions. Not only would it be unwise to do so, it would also be damn near impossible. Track days are best for that sort of WFO exercise.

However, I think we, as riders, have to be careful in lending credence to any claim that such-and-such bikes do not belong on public roads based on nothing more than public perception or fears of future regulations coming down the pike. The arguments that propped up Danforth’s “killer motorcycle” bill back in the ’80s, and the same old tired tune trotted out by the IIHS that promulgated insurance blacklists, were specious back then, and are still without merit today.

Ride hard, be safe, look where you want to go…

About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.

Chris Kallfelz
Chris Kallfelz

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