Isn't it time for SA to take to two wheels?

It’s not often that a politician proposes a change to the law that will loosen the state’s grip on ordinary people’s lives and make their day-to-day existence easier, but the unthinkable recently happened right here in South Africa.

African National Congress (ANC) MP Peter Hendrickse wrote to Transport Minister Jeff Radebe proposing that drivers’ licence legislation be amended to make it more convenient for his countrymen to take to two wheels. Hendrickse pointed out that Cape Town had recently seen a 50% increase in the number of applicants for motorcycle learners’ licences, with waiting lists around the country now extending to months, and suggested that holders of Code B light motor vehicle licences automatically qualify to ride motorcycles.

A learner’s licence for a motorcycle cannot be compared with the same thing relating to a car. Once he’s passed the theoretical test, the wannabe car driver is allowed to drive only under the direct supervision of a full licence holder. A motorcycle learner, however, may not by law carry a passenger, so he’s on his own from day one, as long as he can prove that he understands how things are supposed to work on the road.

An eighteen-year-old can thus, with absolutely no practical driving or riding experience or tuition behind him, hop on to a 300km/h superbike, ask the salesperson to show him where the throttle and brakes are, and zoom off into the traffic—legally. Yet a licensed car or even extra-heavy vehicle driver who wants to ride a motorcycle has to undergo a theoretical test to prove he understands the implications of a 120km/h signboard before he’ll be trusted to venture out on an 80km/h scooter. There seems to be something very wrong with the logic here.

There’s no question that cheap, lightweight motorcycles and scooters provide an affordable solution to transport hassles in dozens of developing countries, but the same isn’t really happening here.

Although sales of these budget machines are growing in South Africa, they still remain largely the preserve of white middle-class city dwellers or young students who treat them as novelties, with relatively few being seen in the townships. Yet if the government encouraged motorcycling, the benefits for the country and its population would be enormous. A 125cc scooter or motorcycle that can be bought new for as little as R5 000 sips just two to three litres of fuel per 100km and costs next to nothing to maintain. The little machines also produce very little in the way of pollution, and, if used by enough people, can do a tremendous job of reducing traffic congestion in the big cities.

Earlier this year I visited China, and in the streets of Beijing saw just how important two-wheelers are in that fast-growing country. The bicycle is the most common mode of transport, with many fitted with electric motors in their wheel hubs to help with the pedalling. Next up the ladder come the scooters and motorised tricycles, some of them very decrepit, and finally the motorcars of the wealthy minority. Two-wheeled transport is thus an essential component of the economy, and to those people who have one, a small motorcycle is as valued a possession in China as a car is in South Africa.

Malaysia is similar to China in that millions of citizens rely on basic two-wheeled transport. Of the six million motorcycles in that country, more than 90% are of less than 150cc displacement, and most are of the step-through Post Office type, with big, narrow wheels, automatic clutches and manual gearboxes. Kuala Lumpur enjoys about two metres of rain a year, but that didn’t seem to be a deterrent to the riders I saw, most of who ride around in slacks and sandals irrespective of the weather. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand—the story is basically the same across Asia, with two wheelers playing an important role in mobilising the masses.

Small, affordable motorcycles are also very popular in Africa, particularly north of the equator. Indian manufacturer Bajaj claims to sell 200 000 of their Boxer model in Africa annually, in a market dominated by cheap Chinese machines. The factory announced in December that it will soon be sourcing and producing an ultra-cheap 125cc machine in China, for sale in Nigeria. Pricing, they say, will be held below $500. Yet here, on the southern tip of the continent, our people still place their lives and their funds in the hands of taxi drivers.

I believe that there are two avenues of opportunity for the motorcycle industry in this country. Firstly, many of the millions of people who through poverty rely on public transport could be encouraged to shift to economical two wheelers for added independence and greater control over their own safety. Secondly, many of those who already have and use private motorcars could be motivated to use motorcycles or scooters around the city, at least some of the time. This would cut congestion and pollution, allow them more time at home in the mornings and evenings, and as a bonus, most would arrive at work with smiles on their faces.

The government could play an important role by setting up dedicated motorcycle licence testing centres and simplifying the licensing process for beginners. And, as far as those who already have car licences are concerned, Peter Hendrickse’s suggestion should be heeded: there’s really no logical need for further testing. If the authorities don’t feel confident enough that car licence holders know the rules of the road, why do they not automatically suspend the existing licences of every applicant who fails a learner’s for a different category of vehicle? If the real issue was road safety rather than economics, they surely would.

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