Can Motorcycles Provide a Green, Safe Ride?

TURIN, ITALY—Motorcycles. What could be more Italian? No wonder then that this year's ESOF program lured me in yesterday with a session provocatively titled "MYMOSA: The pros and cons of motorcycles." MYMOSA, which stands for MotorcYcle and MOtorcyclist SAfety, is a research project funded by the European Union with several industrial partners. It may be hard to think of motorcycles as the green transportation of the future, but the ESOF program makes that suggestion:

According to the WHO 2008 Global status report on safety, about half of the estimated 1.27 million people that die each year in road traffic accidents around the world are pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists. It's a staggering number. On the other hand, at a time when resources become increasingly more limited, the motorcycles show several economical and ecological advantages against their direct competitor, the car: less fuel (more than 50km/l), less expensive to buy and maintain, easy to move and easy to park. Is there a way we can improve the negative safety record of motorcycles and other over-exposed groups?

The MYMOSA researchers hail from universities in Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Each of them gave a broad overview of safety vices and fuel-efficiency virtues of motorcycles. One safety recommendation shared by Steffen

Peldschus, a physicist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, is to add a bottom guard rail to the sides of highways. It could save the lives of motorcyclists who sometimes strike the rail posts while sliding during an accident, but, Peldschus notes, "it is very expensive to implement."

Aside from a survey that asked motorcyclists about their preferences for new motorcycle-safety features, the session disappointingly offered little fresh information. "We have some new results, but we just submitted them as papers," said Peldschus. "So I can't discuss them now."

As promised in the program, the session was followed by a "debate on the pros and cons of motorcycles." But it came across more like a debate on the pros and cons of MYMOSA. "I actually wonder why you are saying that the motorcycle industry is going to help with sustainability," said Christian Siegmund, an engineer at the Institute for Aerospace Technology in Bremen, Germany. "Those companies have shown no motivation to reduce emissions or noise. ... And the way they market them encourages people to drive in a way that is not at all fuel efficient."

In reply, Filipe Fraga, an engineer at TNO Science and Industry, the Netherlands, tried to explain that when he says "motorcycle," he's referring to a "spectrum" of two-wheeled vehicles, of which motorcycles were only one example. "Of course we're not talking about racing motorcycles," says Fraga. (Yet his PowerPoint presentation, like that of the others, only featured images of powerful-looking motorcycles rather than electric bicycles or even gas-conscious scooters.)

Siegmund stressed that improving motorcycle safety wasn't all about adding safety features to roads or to bikes. Educating, or somehow motivating, motorists in general to follow proper riding behavior might offer the biggest safety boost, he suggested.

Afterward, Siegmund said he remained "unconvinced" by the scientific value of the project. "I came to this session because I'm a motorcycle enthusiast. But the motorcycle is not the answer for sustainability. They are dangerous and inconvenient to use on a daily basis. They should be talking about improving public transportation if sustainability is the goal," he said. Indeed, perhaps Italy is now listening to more than the enticing growl of the motorcycle. Outside the conference building, construction continues on a subway line connecting the site to the city center.