Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Biker life - Scotland vs Australia

While I haven’t had a bike for a long a long time (with the wrong choice of hire to blame), I have been a road user in the UK, cumulatively for a few months now, so I thought it might make for an interesting blog post to compare being a motorcyclist in the UK to Australia, from my perspective and own observations.
Apart from everything being measured in miles, I'd say the standout differences are roundabouts and population density. Roundabouts are everywhere and often have more than five and up to eight or more exits; some have their own traffic lights. The population density is really noticeable with towns often being a few minutes apart, and Motorways taking you to capital cities within hours, not days. It's even worse in England, but I didn't travel that far south (on two wheels) this year. They approach roundabouts slightly differently that Australians too.

When you’re approaching a roundabout, to go straight ahead, you stay on the outside lane on approach. The inside lane is reserved for turning right or exiting at one of many said other exits. It feels strange in a car and even stranger on a bike, which I put down to Australians being pretty crap at using roundabouts, and also that there are not many larger, dual carriageway roundabouts, down under. I could also be so jet lagged I don't remember how to use them back home properly. So you enter on the outside, find yourself in a three lane roundabout and you need to exit from the middle lane, which means there can be someone entering from behind you on the outside lane, causing a feeling of general panic.

 As you enter, whack your LEFT indicator on, and switch lanes to your given exit, and move across - road users get what you are doing and let you bye. If you don’t indicate, road rage of a Scottish variety can occur (not pretty). All of this is happening in seconds with some roundabouts having dual carriageways that split into three or four, and as mentioned can include traffic lights as well. I found it confusing at first, but got the general swing of things and how traffic flows into and out of roundabouts after a few weeks. It mostly feels confusing as you can enter a roundabout and change langes, indicate and keep going then end up indicating a different way while in the bloody thing. In general I’d say it’s way better than all of our congested inner suburbs with their endless traffic lights. If only you could turn left on a Red light when it’s safe (as you can in the States of America, on turning right) I’d be in heaven. My advice comes from Douglas Adams. Don't panic. Better yet, don't hesitate either, be confident and smooth, understand where you are exiting and confidently (with correct indication) do what you need to do. Hesitation causes accidents. Traffic lights also switch from Red, to Amber, then Green while you are standing still waiting to go, or approaching a traffic light which is about to turn Red.

 This means that traffic flows better again, because the Amber means okay get ready and get moving. It gives you that second or two to acknowledge you are taking off, select a gear and on Green, take off. I think it affects traffic flow and is a really simple way to avoid people running Red lights. I’d love to see some comparison stats on Fines by country. It works in reverse of course, Green to Amber (pulses) then Red. It makes sense. I found the average Scottish road user to be über courteous. This is something we Aussies could learn from.

Truck drivers, cagers and motorcyclists are all extremely polite, lights flash from behind to let you out to pass on Motorways, people wave you on if you are trying to merge, or turn left, into a main road in peak hour, and for the few days that I was on two wheels, every single motorcyclist I passed gave me the full helmet wink or raised his/her left hand in a full ‘alright son’ acknowledgement including Harley cruisers. This just blew my feckin head off. People even stopped in the main streets of Glasgow to allow me to reverse park in my cage and not one horn was tooted. Amazing. There are also quite a few one lane bridges, called ‘toot-toot’ bridges oddly, on corners. As you approach, give your horn a double toot and on you go. Quite keen on the old toot-toot bridge, liked them a lot in fact, especially when you’re looking at stone masonry that is possibly hundreds of years old and could lead to a Castle, or a 'Secret Nuclear Bunker'.
Look out for road signs, they can reveal interesting sights to see

We ride on the same side of the road, Motorways are everywhere for main destinations (Scotland has two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow) and many others within hours riding distance of each other, not days) and then you have A roads and B roads which make it pretty easy to stay on track or take the road less travelled, and often more interesting biker road. Some of these are poorer in surface quality and less well maintained, but I have had such a blast exploring and never gotten that seriously lost that I couldn’t make my way back on track easily enough. Owning a bike here (in Scotland at least) is a different affair from an Aussie rules and regulations perspective. First up, your Registration is paid up once only, on purchase of a new bike. That’s it, done and dusted. Then you need to do an annual MOT and pay your insurance. The MOT is only on bikes that are over three-year old so if you own new then you can escape that cost, but insurance is an absolute killer. An MOT is much like our Australian Road Worthy Certificate system.

 It means you have to take your bike to a garage (mechanic) annually and check all your normal operational stuff including brake pads, tyre tread, chain (not over stretched), sprockets within wear limits, you’re forks get checked etc and it’s going to cost you in the vicinity of £35 (GBP). Bike Insurance in the UK -  this is a doozy, so bear with me. For a start all of your insurance cost is based around your age, experience and No Claims Bonus. If you are over a certain age (let’s say 40 in my case ugh) have a completely clear license and have kept your bike on the road consecutively for a few years; you’re looking at $1000 - $2000 GBPounds to keep a nice Ducati on the road (this is based on my mates trick 998 sitting in the garage). No Claim Bonuses are really important here, you have to build up your no claims on the road, by keeping your bike insured, ridden, MOT’d and have no gap for more than two years, or it drops back to nothing and your premium goes through the roof.

So it makes sense, I am told as a bike owner to really to keep your no claims going, and keeping your bike insured at least for third-party. If you don’t and the years tick by as they do, you are back at the starting line with hefty premiums and you need to keep a good clean record or it gets nasty expensive, fast. Speeding is a serious offence, if you are caught at double the speed limit in any given speed zone, they take your license immediately, if you get caught doing over 96 miles anywhere, you are automatically banned from driving for a hefty period. Add another 20 miles an hour to that and you could find yourself in the slammer automatically. No messing around. 70mph is the national speed limit, and in towns that drops to 30mph in general. Pretty similar to our 60km and 100km limits.

 I haven’t seen any mobile radars, but I'm told all Police vehicles are fitted with the normal anti-speeding gear - they can catch you on approach and tell exactly how fast you’re going and it’s all caught on camera so there is no debating the issue. Fixed speed cameras are well sign-posted in advance and themselves are very big obvious things, so it’s pretty stupid to get done by those if you’re staying alert (and I hope you are because you are riding a bike).


 The points system is almost the same - you get 12 points and if you lose it, bye-bye license. Ours is simply in reverse, you start with zero and if you hit that magic 12 number - same same. No license (or soup) for you! I am not 100% sure, but I think filtering (or lane splitting) is legal but only when traffic is stationary, the Road Traffic Act 1988 rules applied and are on the web to read up on. Whereas we can park on the footpath in Victoria, Australia it can be charged as 'causing an obstruction' here so parking up on the curb may not be the best idea. Getting your license here looks to be a lengthy process taking in all of the above, you need to be over 21 and there are a range of courses to complete before you can ride on the road. More info on that here. Fuel is pretty expensive. I am currently paying £1.30 - £1.40 for Premium Unleaded which by our current conversion rate to AUD is over $2 a litre. Ouch! Cars (which the Scotts call 'motors') are predominantly Diesel, but there are two types of Diesel - red and white. White diesel is for cars/motors and red diesel is for industrial machinery.

 Of course many try to use red diesel (which is cheaper by subsidy) for cars/motors but if you get caught doing that it's an automatic £60 fine. Ouch again! Then of course you have the evil weather to deal with. When the old testament God said ‘I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights...’ he was of course talking about the Scottish Summer. It rains a lot. And because of the amazing country side you have to watch out for black ice at any given time. Overhanging trees and dense forest means the roads may not even be touched by the sun in Summer, so black ice is anywhere and everywhere just as is the wet conditions in general. Makes it pretty easy to bin an expensive Italian beast on cold Pirelli Diablo Corsas I imagine.

 I found a free monthy motorcycle magazine as well which is packed full of local op-ed pieces and reviews, as well as quite a few pages of Classifieds if full colour, so if you're looking for a secondhand bargain and a sense of biker life in Britain then head to a dealer and pick up a copy of Motor Cycle Monthly, well worth the read. Similarly if you are travelling to Australia we do a similar free paper available in most dealerships (can't remember the name of it) and it's worth checking out the AMCN (Australia Motor Cycle News) mag for local info. Biking is definitely a way of life in Scotland, when the sun comes out, so do heaps of different bikes from every variety in the range and you know you are a part of a hearty community that support each other and look out for one another. When touring, everyone is more than happy to chat about riding in general or the best road to take and I personally enjoyed every bit of my motorcycling in Scotland. I love being a biker, no matter where I am. I just wish a Hypermotard was a bit easier to jam into a suitcase.

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