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North West 200 safety is in good hands, let's focus on plight of injured

By Jim Gracey

Published 18/05/2015

A picture taken moments after the crash captures the chaos at the scene
A picture taken moments after the crash captures the chaos at the scene
A picture taken moments after the crash captures the chaos at the scene
A picture taken moments after the crash captures the chaos at the scene
The injured spectator is airlifted to hospital
Dean Harrison
Stephen Thompson

It will be of little consolation to the injured and their loved ones, but when North West 200 race chief Mervyn Whyte sat down to analyse what went wrong at Saturday's event, he will have asked himself just one question: "Is there anything we could have done differently to prevent the accidents and injuries that occurred?"

And the short answer would have been no.

Any injury at any sporting event, particularly involving a spectator, as tragically happened on Saturday, is one too many.

All the eye-witness accounts of Saturday's three-bike crash between York Corner and Mill Road on the Portstewart section of the track, point to it being a freak... a set of circumstances no one could legislate for in terms of total prevention.

It all happened so quickly as first Dean Harrison's bike hit a kerb protector at high speed, throwing him onto the road. Harrison's racing leathers and helmet saved him from injury and he was able to walk away. And that would have been that, the kind of spill you see regularly at race meetings, the damage to rider, machine and property negated by safety precautions.

But in this instance, two riders in hot pursuit of Harrison collided with his downed machine. Both were felled and one of their bikes freakishly flew through the air, crashing into a garden where it struck and seriously injured a female spectator watching the race. The two riders were also hurt, one of them, Stephen Thompson, also critically, while the other, visitor Horst Saiger, hopes to fly home to Leichtenstein tomorrow, albeit with a broken arm.

The nature of the incident reinforced the warning printed on the grandstand tickets, in the programme and posted around the course - Road Racing Is Dangerous. The riders and thousands of fans who flock to watch the sport accept that... they just don't believe it will happen to them.

The harsh reality is the North West organisers could plan for 10 years and still not legislate for the type of accident that occurred on their watch on Saturday.

The knowledge did not stop Mervyn Whyte and his team launching their own painstaking investigation, and the event and the racing public are fortunate to have a soul-searcher such as him in charge.

From one North West to the next, Whyte works to cover every base in terms of rider and spectator safety. The barrier and bale-lined course has never been better protected in the history of the event going back over 100 years. It is not so long ago fans sat on the kerbstones and watched the bikes flash by.

Health and safety is a self-imposed discipline at the North West but as the bikes become more powerful and the speeds greater, up to 200mph in parts, it can never be completely risk-free.

All involved know the risks. It is Whyte's job to assess and manage those and to a degree protect some people from themselves and he does that very well. There will no doubt be the usual hue and cry from the sound-bite brigade seeking cheap self-publicity with calls to ban road racing altogether. That isn't going to happen for all sorts of reasons, not least the vast support it enjoys, on the back of a chance incident on a par with being struck by lightning.

The focus must be on the injured and seeing them quickly and fully restored to good health and in that respect, they and their families can take comfort from the thoughts and prayers of many thousands that go with them.

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