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Should police use Stingers on motorcycles?

When news surfaced that police were using stingers on motorcycle thieves it seemed half the motorcycle audience applauded while the other half expressed shock at their use on powered two wheelers. The police have tested them in use on motorcycles, but was that testing as thorough and as relevant as it should have been?

Full disclosure: If a thief is injured in the course of a motorcycle theft that’s the risk they take when they decided to steal someone’s property. I have no problems with that in the slightest.

I do however question if stingers should be used on motorcycles at all. After all, they were developed for use against vehicles with at least four wheels, each with a much larger contact area than a narrow motorcycle tyre.

Leaving that concern to one side, my real problem is I think the way a motorcyclist reacts to the presence of a stinger is very different to that of a car driver and it could more easily lead to the injury of the biker. To explain what I mean I’ll start with a little story of ‘a guy I know’ who was caught speeding one day.

He’d been busy wringing the neck of his bike around some country lanes for a while when, with a bit of blues and twos fanfare, a police van pulled next to him at some traffic lights.

“There are four police vehicles that have been trying to find you for the past hour!” the driver panted, excitedly. The biker didn’t even know.

Not being connected to their radio network and far from being in a pursuit situation he’d simply been out enjoying himself, admittedly way over the speed limit. Imagine how surprised he would have been  (or you in his place) if he came pelting out of a particularly glorious corner to face a police officer throwing a stinger across the road?

This is a key point to consider – how would any ordinary biker react?

Personally, I’m not sure how I would deal with thinking about apexes and vanishing points one moment before realising there is a row of extremely sharp spikes lying in my path. I’m not sure I’d wouldn’t panic and, despite 20+ years on big bikes, I can’t honestly say how well I’d control a bike with deflating tyres.

If at this moment you are thinking, ‘well that’s what you get for speeding in the first place matey’ then, if you have never broken the speed limit, you’re safe because it’s never going to happen to you. Everybody else should keep reading.

Perhaps you might be thinking the police would never use them on ordinary bikers? Well, the bad news is they already have and some quarters of the police want to do so again.

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Will the police use them against ordinary bikers?

Let’s be clear, no UK police force has so far openly advocated the use of stingers except in cases of extreme danger to the public.

Whether the case of bikers pulling wheelies outside the Oakdene cafe last year could be classed as extreme is questionable. But that’s exactly what happened.

Although MAG stepped up and got Kent Constabulary to issue a statement saying the stinger should never have been deployed, the point is that it was.

Far more worryingly, we have heard from sources inside the police service that there are forces who would have no hesitation in using them for ‘less than extreme’ motorcycle stops. Only the fear of public outcry has stopped them so far.

Stingers were also used against BikeLife ride outs on at least two occasions by two other forces, including Birmingham’s Halloween ride out in 2016. Although we are aware stolen bikes are a feature of the BikeLife movement, that was not what the stingers were deployed for – they were used for public order offences.

What concerns us is, if they are going to be more regularly used against motorcycle thieves driving dangerously, will that also lower resistance to their use against ordinary bikers?

Will the public see any distinction between a weekend warrior doing 120mph on a quiet duel carriageway and a couple of stolen scrambler bikes wrecking havoc in a town centre? And if they can’t, why would a non-motorcycling officer? Oakdene proves it can happen.

I believe the testing was flawed

Last year, a series of tests were conducted by West Midlands Police that concluded the devices were safe to use on powered two wheelers – this is why they are now an approved stop tactic against thieves.

The problem is the testing that was conducted wasn’t what you would think of as being ‘real world’ and also missed out on a, to my mind, crucial safety test.

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Problem number one: The testers had the benefit of anticipation

Each officer conducting the test knew they were about to ride inflated tyres over spikes.

They knew exactly the position they were placed in, the angle of approach and even the speed they should be approached (tests were conducted at various speeds up to 100mph on different types of bikes, including a sports bike and an off road scrambler).

This means they were prepared for and could anticipate any action that might be required. Unlike a biker who may have only seconds to react.

Even then, the testers still experienced some results that don’t sound good “Bike difficult to ride and control post stopping”. One of the officers, a very experienced rider, described one contact with a stinger as“shocking.”

An unwary or speeding motorcyclist would not have the same benefit of anticipation. The possible reaction on seeing a stinger could be to panic and either lose control near or over the spikes or even ‘lay the bike down’ to avoid any contact at all. In each instance there is the risk of considerable injury to the rider.

Problem number two: Highly trained and experienced riders

Let’s be honest, your average Rochdale Rossi on a £16,000 superbike barely does a few hundred miles in a weekend.

Then there’s the 16-year old proving to his mate he can wheelie for a half a mile. He’s probably done less than one hundred miles in his entire life.

Compare that to the riding experience of the officers doing the testing. The officer who commented on the feel of his front tyre instantly deflating as being “shocking” has 300,000 miles on his service record. 300,000 miles of bike control experience in pretty much every type of conditions and road surface you can think of.

If they wanted to test stingers in real world conditions they should have used far less experienced riders (given appropriate safety protection of course) with far less warning on the tests being conducted, so they could monitor real world reactions to contact with the devices.

Problem number three: They didn’t test laying the bike down

The testing focussed on riding over the stinger devices. What they didn’t test for was a bike rider panicking before reaching the stinger, pulling on the front brake and the bike going down the road – along with the rider.

Therefore we don’t know what happens when a motorcyclist rolls onto a stinger’s spikes. Don’t think about it for too long…

If you don’t feel this is a valid argument, at least 49 officers from 15 forces were injured during stinger deployments in just three years up to October 2015. That’s just from using the stingers, let alone sliding into them at speed. Many forces failed to give their injury numbers so the figure is thought to be far higher.

One force alone, Police Service Northern Ireland, recorded 14 injuries injuries to officers, including one involved in a “near miss”.

This is not just about stopping bikes, there are people involved and they could get injured.

This scenrio is not far-fetched, hundreds of bikes go ‘down the road’ each week in far less stressful situations.

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Problem number four: They don’t always work

Despite the serious risk of injury to deployment officer and potentially rider, there are situations where the stingers don’t often work.

The design of one of the devices, the ‘Stopstick’ hollow spike deflator, proved to be so useless in penetrating off road tyres that the testers recommended they shouldn’t be used on those types of bike (the scramblers often seen at BikeLife rampages…)

The results for a ‘curved path’ – ie not entering the stinger area in a straight line – were recorded as “not effective at all” and “tyres not deflated.”

It was also noted that the “Deflation seems to have more of an effect at lower speeds. The faster you go with deflated tyres, the less noticeable and the more comfortable.” So if you have your wits about you and enough runway, if you see a stinger, speed up. Seriously, we couldn’t have made this up…

Despite this, they are still being used

Our concerns are mostly to do with how a biker reacts to the deployment of a stinger. You could argue if a biker is putting themselves in a situation where a stinger could be deployed, then they should expect to lose control and risk injury.

That’s a fair argument. If some nut has been racing his mate at 170mph endangering the rush hour traffic on the M62 and there’s no other way to stop him, he can expect to be taken down.

Nobody can be entirely happy about the use of stingers but, for as long as the police are handcuffed by their own pursuit policies and it is a viable way to stop a dangerous motorcycle their tracks, it’s hard to object to their use for that. If it’s the only way to stop acid-throwing thugs inflicting life-changing injuries or pulling a machete on a 70-year old, then so be it.

However, using stingers against ordinary bikers who have broken the speed limit or who are pulling low-speed stunts on a public road? In our opinion, that’s going too far.

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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He owns four bikes right now:

'78 Kawasaki Z650
'97 Triumph Daytona 955i
'02 Suzuki SV650s
'09 Yamaha R1

At any one time, only two of these bikes are ever working, as you can read about on our blog.