Air ambulances are often called out to road traffic accidents and those that involve motorcyclists often have an unhappy outcome. When a motorcyclist has a collision, they have no roll cage, no airbag and no metal chassis to protect them. It doesn’t matter how quickly help arrives, how much blood the clinical team is carrying or what level of skills the attending clinicians have, the forces of a collision are often simply too great for the biker to survive. A high proportion of motorcyclists travelling at speed will die at the scene of an incident.
Ian Mew is an intensive care consultant at Dorset County Hospital and its former director of major trauma, where he was responsible for the care of those who had been involved in serious accidents. He also flies with Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance (DSAA).
It was clear to Ian, who has been a keen motorcyclist since the age of 16, that it was not enough to simply pick up the pieces at the roadside. Instead, focusing on injury prevention by reaching motorcyclists before they have a crash would be a far more effective way to prevent deaths.
Ian is a former Chief Medical Officer for the Dorset Police, and together with a colleague, PC Chris Smith from Dorset Police BikeSafe, they came up with the DocBike initiative which aims to reduce the number of motorcycle deaths through engagement, injury prevention education and roadside critical care.
‘Putting a non-police person on a high-profile bike allows them to engage more effectively with motorcyclists, who are often less keen to deal with authority figures like the police’ explains Ian. ‘An air ambulance doctor on a high-profile motorbike is a real draw. We can attend larger biker events and people will come and have a chat with us, so it works well as an engagement tool.’ Using an ex-police bike, rebadged as DocBike, Ian is also able to deliver critical care at the roadside.
The DocBike project delivers life-saving skills to riders through free BikerDown courses, which are held at events across the UK. The three-module course designed by Kent Fire & Rescue Services teaches riders about scene safety and how to keep someone alive, as well as how to avoid being in a collision themselves. The DocBike uses this last module to signpost riders to further courses that will specifically improve their awareness of why motorcycle collisions occur and help them to avoid being in a collision themselves.
‘We want to change the culture of how motorcyclists are riding,’ says Ian. ‘Not saying “slow down”, but instead raising awareness of what is most likely to kill them. If you approach a junction too quickly, for example, and a car does pull out in front of you, you need to make sure you have enough time to avoid the collision. If riders can do that instinctively because they understand and are aware of the dangers, they are more likely to react in the right way.’
Awareness of invisibility is also a key factor. Ian’s analogy is to imagine a dart being thrown at your face: you either won’t see it coming or, if you do, you won’t perceive its speed in time for you to catch it. If motorcyclists understand that is how they appear to drivers waiting to pull out a junction, particularly when riding at speed, they can modify their behavior accordingly.
Research undertaken by the Trauma Audit and Research Network and Dorset Police Traffic Department looked at all the motorcycle injuries and deaths in Dorset over a two-year period.
It concluded that 80% of motorcyclists would not have been in the collision that resulted in their death or critical injury, had they been riding safely for the circumstances.
‘We specifically don’t tell motorists to stick to the speed limit because we know they won’t,’ says Ian. ‘It’s pointless and they will just disengage. Instead we highlight the areas where using excessive speed will put them at risk of being killed because they won’t have time to react.’
Now the infrastructure is in place, DocBike can be scaled up, so Ian is in talks with a number of other air ambulance services. As the initiative grows, more air ambulance clinicians will be needed across the country to take DocBikes to events, draw the audience in and then encourage them to take BikerDown courses.
Although the charity is in its infancy when it comes to securing funding, it has engaged a PhD student from Bournemouth University for three years to carry out in-depth research. ‘There’s no point having more bikes out there yet if we don’t know what we are doing is effective’ says Ian. ‘Research is key to everything we do’. Once the evidence is in place, it will be easier to bring others on board to help deliver an effective injury prevention strategy.
Thanks to Haynes Manuals for allowing the republishing of this article from the Air Ambulance Operations Manual. Available to buy here.