One thing I’ve learned this past year with humility is how driving in North America is different to everywhere else in the world, and not necessarily for the better. I used to think it was great: a long open road, having a whole lane to myself, getting angry that a car was too close behind me, constantly having my head on a swivel to ensure surrounding cars take notice of me. But maybe the driving culture in Canada is just rigid, to the point of being dangerous driving.
David Booth mentioned a staggering statistic when comparing motorcycle deaths in Europe and North America in his Last Word column in the July/August issue 2022 of Motorcycle Mojo. He found that in 2019 the motorcycle deaths average in the U.S. amounted to 58.33 for every 100,000 registered motorcyclists. In Europe, the best he could find, according to the European Commission, the average rate in 2018 was 11 for every 100,000 motorcycle registrations. By the best he could tell, in Canada, our average is around 30 for every 100,000 motorcyclists.
Considering there are more riders in European countries overall compared to Canada or the U.S., these stats pose the question: why are European drivers safer, and can we learn a thing or two from them? Of course, infrastructure plays a big part in how driving culture has evolved around the world. In many other countries, the roadways are older, often causing them to be narrow, and sometimes butted up against buildings. The concentration of people is higher overall, causing large amounts of traffic at any given time, and many roads and highways are often lined with cities or towns, adding a constant change in speed at any given time.
These factors force users to use every inch of the road to their advantage, to understand spatial awareness with their vehicle, and to have a constant awareness of the vehicles around them. They also give little opportunity for riders to get distracted by those pesky cellphones. Not to mention, the abundance of scooters and motorcycles in other countries far outweighs the number of riders in Canada. I think this is attributable to a hyper-focused — what we would perceive as hectic— culture that helps to build driver’s awareness skills instead of fostering complacency, as we do here.
Yes, I do think drivers in North America overall are complacent and I don’t think that’s our fault; it’s merely caused by our landscape. In Canada, we have wide-open roadways, and riders rarely enter the congestion that our few cities offer. Our roads are new, and most were set up to take on a large amount of traffic to begin with, allowing for more space overall. Our lanes are wider, our cars are bigger and so is the cushion of comfort we feel safe in while driving. Experiencing large distances between cities — although some of the roads might be windy — certainly doesn’t foster the concept of constantly checking your surroundings, because there’s no need to.
To embody a new way of thinking about driving in Canada would be nearly impossible to adopt because of the diverse landscape of driving terrain in the country, from rural to urban. And that’s fine: there’s nothing horrendously wrong with our driving culture; it just seems inefficient compared to others.
In Lisbon, I rode through the streets, easing up to the front of the lane at each traffic light, greeted by people with the understanding that a motorcycle is not the same as a car. Casablanca and Marrakech were chaotic, to say the least, with bumper-to-bumper traffic. With inches to spare, a car would pull into the next lane and jam on the brakes, horns honking and a continuous flow of cars criss-crossing. Somehow, though, it worked. It was organized chaos: understanding the space you take up, checking your mirrors, and knowing that other road users do see you, and they’ll still get closer than you could imagine.
It seems that what we call chaotic is just normal for others. In Morocco, I gained a whole new set of riding skills, along with a new love of city riding. If you find yourself riding in a new country this year, ease into it, and take the time to understand the driving culture. The rules that are enforced or abided by may be different than ours. Also take the time to learn common road signs and even traffic lights, as they may be different to what you’re used to.
Understand that a painted lane on the road may only be a suggestion, and that fostering their style of driving instead of our rigid style can help keep you safe. Most of all, stay relaxed and have a good time. If you’re riding in another country, it likely means you’re on a trip of a lifetime. Enjoy the chaos.