I could almost guess how this would work out when I heard the original idea. The highly entertaining YouTube bike magazine, 44 Teeth, bought a couple of second-hand Italian bikes and decided to find out which was the better by riding them across Europe to the racetrack at Mugello in Italy. On the way, we the viewers would have plenty of laughs as well as finding out something about the two Italian thoroughbreds (©bike magazine clichés) and how they stack up as Europe-crossing steeds, not something they were necessarily designed for, but something that many owners, including myself, want to use them for.
The route was across a dull bit of France (motorway) to the Black Forest in Germany, and thence through the Swiss Alps to northern Italy. And therein lies the rub: the Swiss Alps. A decade ago, this would have seemed a wonderful idea – indeed it would have been pretty stupid and even sacrilegious to have done anything different. Switzerland was the biking mecca, an almost obligatory pilgrimage for anyone who wanted to experience the ultimate biking roads. Motorcycling is all about corners and if you can corner on well-maintained tarmac surrounded by the most stunning scenery, there can be no better two-wheeled experience outside of a racetrack. One of the reasons I ended up living in Switzerland was to have this motorcycling nirvana on my doorstep. Bye-bye the clogged, Gatso-infested roads of the UK with their endless urban sprawl and 30 mph limits and hello the sweeping blacktop of the Grimsel, Furka and Susten passes, to name just the most well-known three of a seemingly endless list of mythical Alpine roads. And I made the most of them. I have done most of the Swiss passes on my bike, and some of them I have done many times. I even once did 12 of them in a single day and had the aching forearms to prove it from braking for hundreds of hairpin bends.
But that was then and this is now. Since those days of fun, the Swiss have passed the Via Sicura laws, their absurd and almost Stalinist take on how to behave on the road. The idea, of course, is to save lives and reduce accidents, but there is also a hidden ecological subtext which implies that simply using a petrol-powered conveyance for fun is in some way reprehensible and antisocial and anyone who gets their fun that way can be treated like a second-class citizen. Via Sicura came into force in 2013 and introduced a whole raft of repressive measures designed to make speeding, not to mention driving under the influence of alcohol, so financially painful that no one would ever do it.
Once you have voted in such laws – and strangely, and for reasons I have still not ascertained, these laws were never submitted to a popular referendum as just about any laws in Switzerland are – you can react in different ways. The normal way is to know that they exist but only enforce them in the case of stupidity or negligence on the part of motorists. This is how traffic laws were enforced for decades. The overriding cause of traffic-relate death occurs in built-up areas where there are many people around whom you might injure or kill if you misbehaved. And who really complains about speed-traps in town? No one that I have ever met. But out of town, where accidents involving injury or death are far rarer, the authorities used to let people get on with it, to use their own judgement, really.
Not anymore. Not only are the fines and sanctions absolutely iniquitous for such benign infringements, but the police do their utmost to use their insidious robotic speed traps absolutely everywhere. It’s a bit like being spied on by the Stasi the moment you get behind the wheel or clamber aboard a motorbike, and then being sentenced to the Gulag for a chance remark.
Try this. There is a long, straight road near me between two villages. It’s about a kilometre long and goes past no buildings. There are fields on either side with perfect visibility. It is in the middle of the countryside. How many accidents occur on this road? I can’t think that there can be any. Your biggest danger would be falling asleep at the wheel. In June, however, on a cloudless summer day, the police installed a speed-trap on this road. They hid their little tripod speed camera under a black net, laid out a long cable and hid their van on the edge of the forest some 75 yards away from the road. The radar was very hard to see as it was almost entirely hidden in the wheat field. As bad luck would have it, I had an errand to run that day. I drove past the camera in one direction and unbeknownst to me, was clocked. Then, 20 minutes later, I drove past it again and was clocked again.
The speed limit in Switzerland on the open road is 80 kph or 50 mph. Compare this to the 100 kph or 60 mph in the UK. As letters in the post later pointed out, I was recorded at 98 kph on the way out and was awarded a CHF 250 fine – about £193. Were I to have done this in the UK, I would still have been driving legally and incurred no fine at all. Then, on the way back, I got caught at 108 kph. They kindly subtracted 6 kph to leave me with a recorded speed of 102 kph. For this offence, I was given a CHF 400 fine and CHF 50 costs. I was also the subject of a criminal enquiry which finally stipulated that the offence was not a severe one and that no further action would be taken. I didn’t lose my licence, even for 3 months (the Swiss minimum). Nonetheless, this little bit of paperwork has engendered another CHF 70 of costs. So in that direction, I got hit with CHF 520 of expenses, about £400. Thus my little excursion to the neighbouring town cost me nigh on £600, for a speed that wouldn’t even have caused UK law enforcement to blink. How guilty do I feel? Not very. I’ve been driving along that road almost daily at similar speeds for about 15 years. That is not a dangerous speed. It’s not even an uncommon one.
Ah, you say, but the proof is in the pudding. No doubt Swiss accident rates are hugely inferior to UK ones. Wrong. They’re not. As this graph shows, all countries in Europe reduced traffic fatalities between 2010 and 2017 without resorting to such ridiculous measures. The UK didn’t make much progress, but then the UK was already about the safest country to drive in. Short of banning vehicles on the roads, you will never reach a zero-fatality accident rate. So it appears that the ludicrous Swiss legislation has simply criminalised the populace, destroyed lives, caused people to lose their jobs and created misery and unfairness in spades. As if the non-car-owning bicycling denizens of Zurich cared.
Back to the unfortunate journalists of 44 Teeth. Having spent a superb day whisking along the bends of the Black Forest road in Germany, they inevitably fell foul of a Swiss Alpine speed trap, cunningly designed to fleece tourists. The result? A CHF 4000 franc fine, payable on the spot and an instant driving ban for doing 140 kph, reduced to 138 kph. Just as well it was: over 140 kph can put you in prison. As I pointed out in my previous Via Sicura post, travelling at 140 kph is not only easy on a modern motorbike, it’s almost obligatory. That is the speed at which they work and the suspension, brakes and motor are easily up to the job. Is 80 kph really that much safer on the open road? Not in my experience. You just lose concentration and start looking at the scenery, of which there is much.
So let’s be honest here for a moment. Most motorcyclists will not even take their bike out of the garage if they really have to ride it at 80 kph. They aren’t designed to travel at these speeds and the experience is no fun. You might as well do something else. And no motorcyclists are going to visit Switzerland if they think that they are going to be entering a lottery whereby they stand to go home CHF 4’000 poorer or worse. The comments to the video are unsurprising. There are currently 1’260 of them and the video has been seen 52’000 times. In 24 hours. If Switzerland wanted to torpedo its tourist industry, they wouldn’t go about it any other way. You might think that no one needs a load of speeding motorcyclists to keep their tourist industry afloat, but visit the Alpine passes in the height of summer and you will find the roads seething with motorcyclists. These same motorcyclists are eating dinner and staying in hotels and buying petrol. A CHF 4000 franc fine says “Fuck off and don’t ever come back!” and most people will read this message loud and clear. Swiss hotels and infrastructure need two-wheeled tourists. God knows that with climate change, the day of skiers filling Alpine hotels are surely numbered. There won’t be any snow soon.
And that’s pretty much the only hope we, the motorcyclists in this country have, namely that money talks. When the bikers have all been driven away, and surely it won’t take too long now, then maybe there will be political pressure for Via Sicura to be scrapped. Via Sicura, the raft of legislation that other countries have done without and still managed to achieve the same results.