Many bike riders have succumbed to that 'dangerous patch of diesel', but the subsequent claim is in more expert hands. Chris Wheal explains

An accident is never a biker's fault. Even when bikers come off in the middle of nowhere, with nobody else around, there's always an excuse – most often they "hit a patch of diesel". But add up all the patches of diesel bikers claim there are on UK roads and you'd have enough fuel to keep every lorry in Britain driving for a year.

"There's a sense of guilt," says Peter Gallagher, claims director with motor insurer Highway. "Sometimes it makes us laugh. If you come off your bike going too fast round a bend, it is still covered on your insurance. So there's no need to claim it was diesel."

The other excuses are gravel, in town, and farmers' muck, in the country. During the foot-and-mouth crisis, many bikers even claimed the disinfectant mats across the roads had made them slip off.

Dave Bowcock, operations director with the UK's largest biker broker, Carole Nash, has a polite euphemism for when bikers are either going too fast or have less skill than they thought they had: "They run out of road".

But bikers do also get knocked off quite a lot too. Car drivers are known as cage drivers and the stereotype is the Volvo driver – the word for being knocked off is 'Volvoed'. Another biker word that claims handlers hear regularly is 'smidsy', which is an acronym of the phrase many a biker hears while trying to pick themselves and their bike back up again: "Sorry mate, I didn't see you."

But bikers are not a homogenous mass – much less so than car drivers. There are different types of bike, difference uses, different riding styles. So claims come from all angles.

"Group riding is a big source of accidents, junctions cause accidents, changing lanes causes a lot of accidents," says Gallagher. "Sports bikes are more prone to high-impact accidents and there's a high correlation between personal injuries and the size of the bike. Basically, the larger bikes tend to have bigger claims, more often. The older riders are not necessarily used to more powerful bikes, but they have the money to buy them and, because of their age, their insurance is cheap. We have moved out of the high-value sports bike market as a result."

Andy Russell, key account manager with Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA), has been on the sharp end of rising personal injury claims. "Theft was a big issue but that has been replaced by third-party injury. A lot of people using bikes will take young girls on the back inadequately protected," he says. "These bikes will do 0-60mph in three and a half seconds. They can't control that. Over 60% of our large claims are now from pillions. I don't know if we've just been unlucky but when I get in a room full of bike insurers, I realise our large loss allocation for pillion claims is larger than for other insurers."

Allergic reaction
There are few weird and wonderful claims too, such as animals walking out in the road and even allergic reactions causing havoc. "We had a claim from someone who got hay fever," says Carole Nash's Bowcock. "Imagine you're in a nice country lane and you're getting the best out of the bike, shall we say? You're visor is up and they've just been cutting the grass. Hay fever hits and it shows no mercy. You start sneezing inside your helmet, shaking and lose control of the bike."

The first point of contact is often the broker. Carole Nash manages the whole claims process. It has its own repair centre in Altrincham, Cheshire – a 7,500 square foot building with 10 technicians covering the North West, and a network of a dozen other repairers to cover the UK. In the first 12 months, the company reckons its in-house operations saved an average of £235 on a typical £1,800 bill.

Robert Perry is head of claims at giant biker broker Bennetts. A few years ago it in-sourced its claims line, taking the service in-house to make sure it knew what was happening to its customers and that insurers were meeting the agreed service standards. It handles 11,000 calls a year on a single claims line, regardless of who the carrier is.

"We provide the first notification of loss sum and ensure that total is notified to the insurer. We have specific service levels with each underwriter covering such things as responding to the claim within one working day and getting cheques for final settlements out promptly. We ask for reports on these service standards each month," Perry says.

Each insurer then takes over, with many using a preferred supplier or network for repairs. But life in the motorcycle market is far removed from the car and van side of the motor business.

First, there is little or no Thatcham material available for costing repairs. The size of the market has not justified the spending required. But that means costs are open to exaggeration.

Add to that the cost of parts. Bike manufacturers have not been as keen to agree price discounts with insurers and motorcycle parts are notoriously expensive. A bike that retails for less than £8,000 new can easily cost more than £40,000 to build if each part is ordered separately.

Many of the motorcycle repairers do not have the specialist skills required to carry out bodywork repairs to an acceptable standard. That's not just because justifying the costs of a bodyshop is a tough sum to prove, but because bikes are notoriously difficult. There are so many variations in colour, materials and decals that getting a 30cm bike panel to look like the original may take a lot longer than respraying a whole car.

Clamping down on costs
Some repairers even sub-contract respraying to local car dealers, while most prefer to replace panels with new ones ordered individually from the manufacturers. R&SA's Russell says: "We are way behind car repairers – 10 years behind."

He has a couple of ideas to clamp down on costs. "Fowlers in Bristol is the largest parts supplier in the UK. Everyone uses the Fowlers list for prices but there are others, such as David Silver Spares which is a bona fida Honda dealer yet charges about half the price for genuine Honda parts," Russell says.

"I keep asking our repairers to get their own paint shops and they keep saying they will, but nothing happens. And when they sub-contract out, it is often to dealers we already have contracts with on the car side. We should be dealing direct with them, not having it sub-contracted."

Russell has a personal example. He came off his own bike – "We always blame somebody else. I blamed the Golf GTI, but if my speed had been 10mph less, it might not have happened" – and did the repair himself. "The panel was going to cost £200, so I repaired the crack myself and paid £45 to get it resprayed."

Average repair costs are somewhere around the £2,000 – £3,000 mark depending on whether you insure sports bikes or not. And repairs generally take as long as three weeks to complete.

One solution R&SA has trialled is giving its repair network, managed through the Motor Vehicle Repair Association (MVRA), the ability to negotiate with claimants and do deals. One example was a Kawasaki ZX12 that needed a new exhaust end. The original would have cost £760, but many owners prefer aftermarket alternatives, so the owner was offered a choice of two leading alternatives, Micron or Scorpion, which only cost £250, plus a discount on their excess of £150. Both insured and insurer saved money.

R&SA uses the MVRA. Its chief executive, Mike Monaghan, explains: "I've been into bikes, man and boy, so some insurers asked me if I could help." Six years ago he set about establishing a network of approved repairers. "We started from scratch. There were no rules so we were able to set the skills and competencies we wanted and some exacting standards. We defined the minimum equipment we expected our repairers to have and we mandated the training courses their staff had to go on."

There are currently 62 around the country – some early ones have been jettisoned along the way – and there is scope for a few more to join.

"There are probably more differences between bike repairs and car repairs than there are similarities," Monaghan says.

"A car is just a daily means of transport, but for most bikers their bike is their pride and joy. It's not just a big of metal that needs repairing, repainting and sent back."

A priority is dealing with the customer correctly. "They are either someone who has damaged their pride and joy, or they are a family member of someone who didn't make it.

"Our claims staff are all experienced motorcycle riders. You have to demonstrate immediate empathy. You have to use the language they understand. You put their minds at rest because you show that you understand," he says.

Then there are the specialist engineers you need. "If a bike goes to a dealers, they either want to sell a shed-load of spare parts or a new bike. It is difficult for a company engineer who doesn't know the true costs of repairs to be able to judge. We only use motorcycle engineers – they do not look at four wheels."

Sourcing parts has been an issue. "It has got infinitely better in recent years. We have deals with major suppliers in Europe who stock parts and we can normally get Japanese parts in about four days. Ducati, Aprilla and the Italian exotica are still slow and expensive.

"There are also issues with having so many model numbers, panels, paint colours and decals. These change regularly and are different for imported bikes."

Highway uses 4th Dimension. Its managing director, Neil Foster, explains: "We're a motorcycle design company originally. We design the aesthetics for manufacturers around the world. They give us a brief on the market, target riders and style of bike and we design it, build a prototype and test it – make or break stuff.

"We've got engineers with degrees in engineering, design and automotive engineering. We work with all the specialist materials that are used in modern bikes, such as carbon fibre and extruded aluminium. We also have colourists and chemists who formulate paints and finishes."

About five years ago a number of insurers asked if the firm could help. "Matching to the original finish is very hard. There are hundreds of people who can paint any colour you want but very few who can paint it to match the original finish," Foster says.

The materials that are being painted are non-standard and have different properties and the colours are often unique.

"We can do it because we have specialist skills," Foster says.

"We went round salvage yards with underwriters and claims managers and they were shocked when we told them that we could have repaired many of those bikes.

"We have set up a separate division of the company just to do this. Of 100 bikes damaged, we now repair an extra 40 for the insurers we work with and save about 38% on total costs."

4th Dimension now has five centres in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Bradford and Glasgow, plus one in Roscommon in Ireland, employing about 70 staff and dealing with 15,000 claims a year.

For insurers such as Highway, the company deals with everything now, from collecting crashed bikes after receiving the customer's call to paying out on write-offs when even it cannot repair a bike economically.
"We had a call at 10am and picked the bike up as a roadside emergency. By 5pm that day we had agreed a value and posted the cheque. That's the service Highway allows us to give," says Foster.

Areas of concern
It doesn't always go right. The ombudsman says 15% of all motor claims are from motorcyclists. The big areas of concern are over whether accessories are covered, over modifications that the insurer had not been told about, arguments over the value of the bike and whether or not the bike was garaged (if a discount is given for garaging).

Others don't make it to the ombudsman.

Ben Samways rode from his Isle of Man home to Italy last summer but, on 14 July, crashed into an oncoming lorry – he had slowed but not stopped in time – near Vipiteno. The Honda Dominator was an old bike of little commercial value and the costs of repairs and repatriation was uneconomic, making it a write-off.

But despite Highway recording the claim as registered on 17 July, Ben was forced to invoke the company's complaints procedure in October after failing to receive a settlement. Highway admitted a series of mistakes. It partly blamed the Italian summer shutdown for a slow response from its Italian appointed engineer, but held up its hand to other errors. It eventually settled the claim in November.

Robert Lewis was knocked off his BMW GS Adventure near his south London home. The bike was recovered to the Park Lane workshop (the BMW dealer where the bike was bought). Lewis had to chase and chase and eventually discovered that insurer NIG was faxing the Park Lane showroom, not its workshop, and the workshop was refusing to start work until it had the go-ahead.

Lewis also claimed the assessor failed to include some damage and had to have it pointed out to him. "NIG kept promising to phone me back but never did," says Lewis. It took three months for the repairs to be completed. NIG refused to comment or provide anyone to speak to for this article. IT