The Dangers Of Renting A Motorcycle On A Tropical Island

Not for motorcyclist use? But it came with the motorcycle...

While staying in Malaysia recently I saw the aftermath of something fairly horrific. Someone, a tourist according to someone I spoke to, had a fairly nasty motorcycle accident. I'm not sure if they were initially parked on the street or if they were traveling along it however their bike had crossed the footpath, dropped down a ledge, crashed through a shop's closed plate glass door and smashed into a glass counter inside the store.

It was a busy street so when I heard the sound of a lot of glass breaking and saw lots of people rushing over I didn't go myself. We were probably 50 meters away, there were already plenty of people rushing over and I'm not a doctor or nurse. The first people on the scene don't need more lookie loos getting in the way.

As the sound came from within a shop, I imagined it was someone dropping something heavy on a glass counter or something similar. It never occurred to me that it could have been a bike accident.

After a few minutes I decided I should go and have a look. I was having visions of a distressed and injured westerner unable to speak Malaysian surrounded by people who may not speak sufficient English for this situation and decided I should at least check that it was all under control. Fortunately by the time I got there the person had apparently been bundled into a car and taken to hospital. The trail of blood from the store to the curb verified this story. I don't know much about the ambulance service here however I suspect getting to hospital is advisable rather than calling for an ambulance and waiting as you would in Australia.

I don't know anything about the injuries sustained by the rider. The quantity of blood certainly looked worthy of a trip to hospital. It did not look life threatening but what would I know.

Relieved that some quick thinkers had the injured person on their way to medical help I examined the scene. There was blood inside the store as well as on the pavement outside. Not a huge amount (relatively) so it looked like the person had not spent long there before being moved. There was a lot of broken glass. The glass door was still technically closed but was completely smashed. A glass cabinet inside the store had been smashed and also pushed back most of the way towards the back wall of the shop. The bike, an automatic scooter, had been stood up inside the store and put on its side stand. I assume it had been stood up and did not come to rest like that. It bore the scars of its impromptu entrance.

Standing there looking at all this a few things occurred to me:

1) Just because you're on a tropical island it doesn't mean you magically know how to ride. I cringe a bit as I write this because the very first time I rode any sort of motorized two wheeled vehicle was on Bali. I spent a few days zooming around town risking life and limb far more than I appreciated at the time. Then when we moved to Thailand, where small bikes were the main form of transport for everyone, I progressed from a rented automatic scooter, to a rented manual (a postie bike essentially), to one we purchased. All self taught. No proper lessons. That I survived this learning process is more a matter of good luck than good planning. It probably helped that I both drive and ride like your typical grand mother. In my defense when we returned to Australia I had lessons and gained an actual motorcycle license.

When you visit somewhere like Bali, Thailand, Malaysia etc there are no shortage of offers to rent a bike. The people offering them will ask to see precisely zero documentation. I have both an Australian and an international motorcycle license. I have never ever had to show either of them to anyone. The most thorough check anyone has ever performed is asking "oh, you can ride right?" as I'm about to pull away on one of their bikes.

The thing to remember is that they don't care if you wind up dead or injured. I don't say that maliciously. I'm sure the people involved are good people but you have to remember that their bikes are probably insured and that bit of paper you signed very definitely says that you assume all liability. The cost of any damage or injury is on you. In Australia someone renting bikes may have a duty of care to ensure that their customers are properly licensed. This is not Australia.

2) Bike rental places usually have lots of automatic scooters because they are much easier to ride. They are also more dangerous.

On a manual "proper" motorcycle, one with a clutch lever at your left hand, the big challenge for a new rider is to make the bike move. If you release the clutch too quickly and don't balance it with throttle correctly the engine will stall and the bike with stop dead. If you simply release the clutch altogether the bike would likely lurch forward a few feet, stall and immediately stop as the wheels are now engaged to a no longer running engine. When I was learning I spent a good ten minutes stalling the bike over and over and it was at least five or six hours before I could reliably shift gears without stalling occasionally.

That level of difficulty cuts out most of the rental market so they stock lots of automatics. On an automatic if the engine is running, the engine is engaged. Any movement of the throttle will cause the bike to move forward. There is no clutch with which to disengage the engine. It is also not possible to shift into neutral. It is always in gear. Given that, its easy to see how an accident like this could happen.

Take one parked automatic. Add a rider who isn't practiced in turning their body or the handlebars without also moving their hands and thus the throttle. If you don't ride a motorcycle isolating your hands is pretty tricky. Have your rider get on the bike and start the engine. In the course of either backing out the bike or looking back over their shoulder at the oncoming traffic there's a good chance they'll accidentally turn the throttle enough to cause the bike to move forward. That throws their weight back causing them to turn the throttle even more. If they don't reflexively hit the brakes, a reflex gained through practice, both rider and bike are going over the footpath, over the ledge and into the shop.

If the bike is already in motion its even easier. The rider is traveling along the road and sees a parking spot. They under estimate the stopping distance required. They turn towards the parking spot going much too fast, realize how little stopping distance they have and either fail to execute an emergency stop, because they don't know how, or simply panic and fail to brake at all. That also puts them and the bike over the footpath, over the ledge and into the shop.

I'm not sure what the point of this post is. Life is dangerous. We all die. Certainly, given my story I'm not going to tell you to never get on a bike. Nor am I going to tell you that if you never take any risks that you'll live forever. If you're going somewhere where bike rental is common or where bikes are the primary means of getting around take some lessons. Get your license. Do it in advance. You will never regret being too skilled, especially when its an activity that can kill you.

3 comments

  1. jim davis 18 January, 2012 at 09:06 Reply

    I like a well written post that is consistent in quality and style as well as being informative and certainly useful in the advice that is given. Very ‘readable’.
    Jim/Daddio

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