In recent months, I’ve seen more people considering taking up motorcycle riding lessons in response to the dismal Certificate of Entitlement (COE) situation for cars.
It’s a natural outcome, given that riding is always going to be a cheaper transport solution than cars, even though the motorcycle COE premium is now hitting new highs of over $4,000 (nearly three times of what it was last year. UPDATE: And as of June 2015, it is over $6,500).
But I’ve also heard many people express doubt and uncertainty, because motorcycling is seen as an undesirable and dangerous form of transport. I’m writing this to help shed light on some important things before you make the decision to go on two wheels.
You might think that my immediate answer to the question “Should I ride a motorcycle in Singapore?” would be “Yes”. Actually, serious bikers focus so much on safety, that you should be asking “Am I able to commit to being safe on the roads if I want to ride a motorcycle?”. Many inexperienced bikers think that the Traffic Police is too preachy when it comes to road safety – well, you wouldn’t think that way if you know more about road riding.
If you are in your 30s and you aren’t already riding, you probably don’t know many bikers who can give you a balanced perspective on things. You’ll just be hearing advice from many non-riders who sometimes would like nothing better than for motorcyclists to be banned from the roads. I’m not a motorcycle guru, but I’ve do have 20 years of driving experience and 18 years of riding experience, so maybe you can believe me.
The biker community has a very weak voice in the public sphere – there simply aren’t as many prominent public figures or influencers who ride a motorcycle and can step on a podium to speak up for the community’s needs. That’s also why it’s difficult for motorcyclists to explain why we do what we do, and why Singapore can be increasingly inconvenient for bikers.
If you want to ride, you need to understand and accept the following
- There is widespread prejudice against all bikers, justified or otherwise
- Motorcycling is definitely high-risk
- You can mitigate risk but it is extremely inconvenient to do so
- You must develop great riding skills to survive the roads
- Family approval is mandatory
If you can’t do ALL of the above, please, do not ride and put yourself and other people in danger. What would really help the biking community in any country is having more responsible and skilled riders on the roads, and the sharing of motorcycling as a unique culture, not a disease.
(Update Oct 2015: I have created a new Ultimate Singapore Motorcycle FAQ that hopes to answer most of the questions you might have after you’re done with this piece. But please read on first.)
WIDESPREAD BIAS AGAINST BIKERS
Prejudice against motorcycles and bikers is not just in Singapore, but in many other countries as well. Over the past 50 years, the media and Hollywood have created stereotypes of motorcyclists as outlaws, rebels or angry anti-heroes. Think Easy Rider, Mad Max, Akira, Sons of Anarchy and so on. You won’t see Mary Poppins on a bike, will you?
In contrast, in the 1960s, Honda started a nice campaign called “You Meet The Nicest People On a Honda” to create a family-friendly image of motorcycles.
In Singapore today, there seems to be outright disdain for bikers in certain quarters. The immediate reaction by parents to motorcycling as a transport choice is often met with derision or fear, and an outright “no”. Many will claim to know of someone’s son who got into a bad motorcycle accident, but you also don’t hear of people telling you of all the elderly bikers who seem to have been riding for decades without issues.
Those noisy, reckless “kup chais” that drive you crazy on the roads? Trust me, I hate them too. They give safe and sane bikers a really bad reputation. I shake my fist at them when I’m driving.
I’ll admit that until I was forced by National Service conscription in 1996 to learn how to ride a motorcycle in the army (as a recce trooper), I never even gave thought to riding – such is the widespread mentality towards motorcycling. You are 100% likely to face resistance from family and friends if you suggest you want to take up motorcycling, and you have to work to convince them of the safety precautions available out there (see below).
Increasingly, SG bikers find themselves shut out of shopping malls or commercial buildings that refuse entry to motorcycles. The Land Transport Authority spends an extraordinary effort going after not just performance modifications, but harmless cosmetic mods (eg. replacement of signal lights with smaller, but brighter LED lamps) on motorcycles, which has heavily impacted bike workshops.
The motorcycle COE has shot up from $1,500+ to over $4,000+ in the past few months as the LTA has restricted motorcycle COE quotas in the same manner as cars, even though the former currently does not cause congestion on the roads.
YES, IT IS HIGH RISK
This negative perception of bikers is reinforced by frequent media stories on motorcycle accidents, which unfortunately, do form 45% of fatal motor accidents according to official 2013 Traffic Police data.
The number of fatalities involving motorcyclists and their pillion riders fell by 5.3% from 76 persons in 2012 to 72 persons in 2013. Overall, we have also seen a decrease of 14.7% in the total number of riders and pillion riders casualties, from 4, 370 in 2012 to 3, 726 in 2013. The number of motorcyclists and pillion riders who died or were injured in accidents along expressways has also decreased from 1, 205 in 2012 to 1,031 in 2013 (-14.4%), although the proportion of motorcyclists and pillion riders casualties along expressways remain fairly constant at an average of 27.8% over the past 3 years.
It’s grim to know that 1031 riders and pillion riders were injured last year. That’s an average of 2.8 injuries sustained on a motorcycle each day. The truth is motorcycling is a high-risk activity and you cannot sugar-coat this.
If you decide to ride, you have to be 100% responsible for your own safety. And no, you can’t blame other drivers or pedestrians if you get into an accident even if you weren’t the cause. A car may bolt out of the blue into your path, but you are required to take the necessary precautions and ride in the most paranoid manner possible to preserve your life and get home safe.
However, I find that it is the bad attitude and poor riding skills of many riders on our roads that are the real cause of their own accidents. They ride recklessly, refuse to wear protective gear, they don’t check blind spots, race through danger zones (eg. all traffic junctions) and they have no idea what the driver is able to perceive of the traffic situation.
As all experienced drivers will know, there are some key blind spots around a car that are really hard to check, but many riders don’t know about this nor do they care until it is too late. I still cannot believe it when I see small bikes trying to weave through small gaps between large trucks – the truck drivers really cannot see you and you are seconds away from becoming a meat sandwich.
SO WHY RIDE?
One can ride for many obvious reasons – cost and convenience being the top two. But those are the pragmatic reasons, bikers very quickly learn that riding offers a special type of freedom not available to drivers, commuters or pedestrians.
In the words of my friend Jonathan:
You might be a newbie and one of the smallest member of the road using community, you are nevertheless still a biker. Bikers are a special breed. It is difficult to explain to others. Many will call you crazy, reckless, selfish and seeking suicide. While it is dangerous like many other things in life, you know you will do whatever you can to stay safe. You ride because you love the feeling of freedom a motorcycle gives you (either that or you desperately need a cheap transport . Therefore, ride with pride. It does not matter what type of bike you ride or it only has 100cc.
Have you ever dreamed that you were flying in the air? Well, every biker experiences that dream with each ride.
I ride to work almost daily and my senses are always 100% switched on because I’m making sure I’m fully aware of all traffic conditions and I need to be in control of my bike or else it will control me. Unlike driving a car, which can be a boring routine, riding is never routine because you cannot afford to lose focus for even half a second. Can you imagine how then, our brains change over time when it is firing at full blast like this, compared to the dullness of being in a car or public transport?
Bikers earn a spatial and emotional awareness that is hard to explain, but you’ve probably noticed that they tend to be more easy-going and accepting of life than many others. (Disclaimer: “tend to be” doesn’t mean “always”) You’ll often see bikers stopping to help other bikers or drivers in need, because they truly care.
Personally, I ride to work because I’m disgusted with the state of public transport (too many train breakdowns) and it’s just to expensive to drive to work downtown. I wake up early on weekends to ride alone through empty streets because it’s a great de-stresser like no other. I also really enjoy the rumbling and power of my Ducati Monster, an Italian machine with the personality of an angry but beautiful woman.
Most importantly, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck in a traffic jam any more as you can just go between stationary cars and keep on moving (but be extremely careful with lane-splitting!!)
So if you think you can accept the risks and desire to find out what’s been missing in your sensory experiences….
IT’S NOT SO EASY TO START RIDING
Much as I loathe the local Traffic Police riding test system for its difficulty and inconvenience, it makes sense when you accept that it is helping to reduce the number of motorcycle accidents through a rigorous and long-drawn process.
The first riding licence you can earn is the Class 2B for bikes under 200cc. Then you have to wait a year to sign up for Class 2A (400cc and under), and another year to get the coveted Class 2 (all bike capacities) licence where you can enter the big leagues and choose the bike of your dreams.
In 2013, about 74% of the bikes in Singapore are Class 2B bikes, which are affordable (Usually $6k or under for a new model, excluding COE) but lack torque or power. They do offer phenomenal fuel economy – one tank of petrol is about $20 and can last over 300km. This is great for people who have to commute long distances daily.
About 15% of the bike population are Class 2A bikes ($10-$14K excluding COE). The 400cc Honda Super 4 is like the Toyota Altis of motorcycles here – familiar, reliable, not exactly cheap but easy to maintain and ride daily. This class of bikes is probably the best compromise between price and performance for city riding. Recently quite a few new models have appeared in Class 2A – the revamped Honda 400cc range, the KTM Duke 390, the Kawasaki Ninja 300. All these are good value-for-money bikes that can last for years.
The remainder 11% of the bike population are Class 2 big capacity bikes ($15K and beyond, with $20-40K being common). There are many genre models like adventure tourers (BMW GS series), big maxi-scooters, naked bikes (Ducati Monster, Aprilia Tuono, KTM Duke), superbikes (Yamaha R1, R6, Aprilia RSV4, Honda CBR1000RR), modern hybrids (Honda NC700X), cruisers (Harley-Davidson) supermotards (Ducati Hypermotard) and so on. The range and variety is staggering, and many of these bikes can outaccelerate most fancy supercars on the road easily.
Personally, if one can afford it and fuel economy is not a concern, I recommend every rider to strive for Class 2. Yes, a bike is a bike, but your choices really open up when you can go for bikes above 400cc – there are so many gorgeous and exotic models to choose from. Just look at this list of new bikes for 2014. For Class 2B and 2A, you are largely stuck with generic models designed for emerging markets.
The riding lessons are vigorous and usually in the hot sun or heavy rain. Student riders all wonder why is there a need for constant blind spot checking, annoying circuit maneuvers and correct posture and so on, but the truth is that these are essential skills that will save your life.
A lot of young riders go out and ride like speed demons right after they get their Class 2B licence, not knowing the true dangers of the real-world roads (especially our terrible SG roads).
Many of them get into accidents, some fatal. What is sad is that I see many P-plate riders exhibiting really bad habits learned from other lousy riders, and they are hard habits to break.
PROTECT YOURSELF FULLY AT ALL TIMES
Your chances of walking away intact from a crash are much higher if you wrap yourself up in highly protective gear than someone who doesn’t. Just because most riders don’t do so in SG, doesn’t mean they’re right or that nothing will ever happen to them. Even if I’m riding back from the nearby coffeeshop to my house two minutes away, I will still take a few minutes to put on all my gear.
Remember, it pays to be paranoid about safety, because your safety gear is your only protection.
I’ve seen some female riders who think it’s cool and sexy to wear tank-tops, hotpants and bare their long legs while on their motorbikes. Sorry sister, you just appear stupid to me. Keep the bare skin to modelling assignments, thanks.
Any exposed skin is liable to get scrapped off if you fall off your bike, and you have no idea how expensive skin graft operations are. The most common excuse is the hot and humid SG weather, but if you can’t take the sweating, you should take public transport instead. I won’t judge a rider if he wears no protection, because I assume he understands the risks he is undertaking, but I Not Stupid.
Full-face helmets are a must, because open-face helmets still allow your nose and chin to be hurt if your face connects to the asphalt. FFHs are heavy and hot, but how much do you value your skull? Good FFHs can be gotten from $300 SGD onwards, and I usually spend about $500-600 on a mid-range one from AGV or Arai.
Armored jackets with shoulder and elbow paddings reduce injury further. You can also insert in back-protectors or chest protectors, depending on the model. Today, there are many models of mesh jackets that allow for great air-flow.
I also own a leather jacket that offers better abrasion protection and yet has lots of perforation to allow for air-flow in this crazy humid weather. The best thing about a motorcycle jacket is that it’s always a talking point with non-riders. You will look like a superhero when you step into the office.
A new upcoming technology is the inclusion of inflatable air-bags in riding jackets, but it’s extremely expensive and won’t go mainstream for several more years.
Riding gloves now offer knuckle armor, leather construction and good airflow. Yes, gloves are troublesome to keep taking off, but ask yourself if you want to scrap your bare palm across the road at high speed.
Riding boots can help prevent dislocations with their stiff construction, as well as engine burns. There is a good variety these days, from sneaker designs to space-age boot designs. Normal work shoes or sneakers will not provide much protection.
Riding pants are the most difficult thing to purchase. There are Kevlar jeans available with armor inserts along the knee and shin, but the lengths are too long for my short legs. At least wear pants instead of shorts when you ride!
You should visit local shops like Regina, Ah Boy, Racing World, JR Singapore, Ban Hock Hin to check out their protective gear. At home, Revzilla is a great place to browse for stuff online.
RIDE WITH SKILL, NOT STUPIDITY OR IGNORANCE
The Class 2B riding course is just a beginning, it barely scratches the surface of what you need on the roads apart from basic technical skills. By the time you get to Class 2 after about two or three years, you should be competent enough to handle the raging power of a superbike, or do not even try it.
Good…scratch that…expert riding skills take time to develop, and that’s why young riders need to rein in their emotions on the roads and ride frequently in all sorts of situations while trying to stay as alert as possible. As mentioned earlier, many riders pick up bad habits from the minute they pass their Class 2B, but they don’t spend enough time observing what experienced bikers do.
Firstly, 360 degree situational awareness is important. You have no choice but to keep looking forward, in the mirrors, and at the sides, constantly in order to ensure there is no big truck hurtling towards you.
You need to learn the behaviors of good and bad drivers on the roads, and never assume any driver will keep to his designated path of travel.
Like any driver, you need to fully learn the limits and capabilities of your own bike. How fast can it accelerate out of a dangerous situation? How long does it take to do an emergency brake? What is the braking distance on a wet road? You cannot assume anything here.
You ought to make friends with experienced and older bikers, not just your peers who are as green behind the ears as you. It’s easier to pick up good habits that way.
And here is some wide-ranging advice on essential riding habits from my biker friends (we have a small community called Geeks On Motorbikes), and yes, I don’t kid when I say I practice all of these every day:
Read Twist Of The Wrist II by Keith Code. Head to the track to practice. Gear up on EVERY ride. No such thing as “scooter no need gear lah”, “short ride only. ..” ~ Rex
Don’t slip in the left hand side of a car making a left turn especially at a give way line. Cars always try to make the turn quickly without stopping so they will focus on the cars coming from their right and often ignore what’s on their left ~ Richard
It’s safe to assume everyone and everything (manhole covers inclusive) on the road are out to get you, thus a defensive attitude is a necessity till you are proven wrong when you get home to hug your loved ones each day. ~ Terence
The road is a battlefield. You are besieged by danger from all sides, at all times. That innocuous van chugging along in a straight line? A 2-ton battling ram that’ll change course and mow you down within the next 3 seconds. 1-finger on the brake, 2-fingers on the clutch, be ready to drop a gear and roll on the throttle while you peel out of the way. Check your surroundings ALL THE TIME. Check your mirrors, your blind spots, 500 metres down the road from your 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock, REPEAT. Check every 2 seconds. DONT YOU F******* SLACK! You’ll be minced meat and bone under someone’s BMW X5 if you do. ~ Lawrence
Always turn head to check blindspot. Never rely on just your mirrors. ~ Wahab
One of my favorite motorcycling sites is RideApart, which has many many useful “How-To” articles for novice and expert bikers alike. Do have a read.
This has been a really long post and I hope it’s been useful. To conclude, riding is a personal choice and how you approach riding is your own business.
But remember, it’s 100% your responsibility to stay alive and that’s what you must never forget.
Now if you’re ready to ride, you can continue on to the next chapters “A Practical Guide To Motorcycle Ownership in Singapore” and “How To Stay Alive Riding A Motorcycle In Singapore”