“It’s clear to me that more of us are dying because there are too many people who really shouldn’t ride motorcycles and the industry and advocacy groups do nothing to discourage them.” – Me, “So Why Are we Dying?,” CityBike Magazine, August 2012.

It’s like some kind of media comet with a slightly irregular period. About every three to five years, a bored reporter gets a press release from one safety organization or another describing an increase in motorcycle fatality rates for older riders, and the reporter – who was deployed in an overseas combat zone or maybe just had some kind of head injury so he or she forgot about the last time the story appeared – writes with much gravity about the pressing problem of increased fatalities among older motorcyclists.

The stories follow a time-honored script: sensationalist lead paragraph, some quotes from motorcycle shop owners, a quote from one or two older riders, and then, buried way down around the 12th or 15th paragraph, a short sentence noting that perhaps the increased age of fatalities has something to do with the increased age of the riding population in general.

Somewhere in America, people are learning how to ride. Are they doing it the right way? Photo: TCTI

Somewhere in America, people are learning how to ride. Are they doing it the right way? Photo: TCTI

This is at least a change from the ’80s, when “hyperbikes” were the alleged cause of increased fatalities, or the ’70s, when it was blamed on (I assume) wild-eyed hippies high on The Pot. Luckily for those of us who enjoy riding motorcycles, the American public is pretty tolerant of us engaging in what is inarguably a fantastically risky activity and has eschewed safety-related regulation – helmets and rider training are mandatory in less than half the states.

Is this a good thing? Libertarians may love this kind of freewheeling non-regulation, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing in the long run for motorcyclists. The problem is that fatality and injury rates stubbornly stay high while safety in other passenger vehicles improves. Just wait until every car becomes self-driving (and I think we’re only about a decade away from that), and it’s statistically safer to be in your car than your bathroom. If moto-fatality rates stay the same, almost all traffic deaths will be motorcycle-related, and how long do you think we’ll be able to keep our right to ride? About 12 minutes, I think.

So, what’s the answer? Well, ABS and universal helmet laws will reduce fatalities, but I know a lot of you hate those. Weirdly, there’s more support for tiered licensing than helmet laws, but that would never happen here. Neither will mandatory training, or at least the kind of in-depth training that will have an impact on accident rates.

010814-skidmarks-NEW BOSS (5)Or will it? Readers of this column – in case there’s more than one – may remember my first-person description of what it’s like to be a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) RiderCoach. To spare you the slog through the swamp of my prose, I noted that I teach the MSF’s Basic RiderCourse (BRC) not because I think it has an effect on safety, but because it makes me and the students happy, plus they pay me. The course isn’t really effective – California’s moto-fatality rate is as high as it’s always been, maybe even higher – but, hey, it’s better than nothing, right?

No! Said the California Highway Patrol. In September, the CHP sent out an “Invitation for Bid” (IFB) for somebody to manage its California Motorcycle Safety Program (CMSP). The MSF’s contract expires January 1, 2015, a program it has been involved with since 1987. In November, the MSF sent out a (kind of pissy) letter explaining why it would not submit a new bid. The CHP (among other things) wants the right to alter curriculum and make other changes to the program with 30 days notice, something the MSF didn’t want to live with. The MSF “cannot administer the CMSP as proposed and remain true to its rigorous standards and strategies for serving the riders,” wrote the MSF’s Rob Gladden. The MSF has abruptly and not-so-gracefully bowed out of rider training.


Lee Parks believes he’s got a better way of training riders.

GONG! Enter the new boss man, founder and Pres-o-dent of Total Control Training, Inc. (TCTI), which won the bid to manage the CMSP for three years (with an option to continue it for two more). His name is Lee Parks, and full disclosure, he’s a friend-like acquaintance of mine. In fact, I met him through Motorcycle.com, when then-Publisher Sean Alexander sent me on a three-day junket with Lee. It was bromance at first sight – we rode on his mini-moto track in his front yard, shot trap in his back yard, and then roadtripped to Arizona, where I took his then-new Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic. There, I learned some great stuff aimed at making me a better, safer street rider.

Now, Lee is a likeable guy and offers a great class for intermediate and advanced riders, but what does he know about teaching noobs? Can he do a better job than the MSF, which for all its flaws has more experience teaching new riders in one corporate pinky than Lee has in his entire body?

Yes, indeedy, says Lee. First, the curriculum will be better. The Total Control Beginner Rider Clinic (TC BRC) classroom portion will be “trained educators teaching in the classroom, not [helping students look] up answers in a book. The current program [where students sit in groups and find answers in the CMSP workbook] devalues the instructor.” Additionally, there will be California-specific material: “Lane-splitting, double-doubles, exhaust systems and emissions, HOV and HOT lanes, insurance. When you’re done, you’re really a big step closer to being ready to ride in California than if you took a generic class.”

The school will deliver the textbook as an e-book before class, a format that allows easier changes than the MSF’s pricey and infrequently revised paper handbooks: “We can immediately implement changes that may reduce fatalities.” Much of the curriculum is based on Idaho’s STAR new-rider program, supplemented with new material from Lee’s research for the second edition of his riding-techniques book, Total Control.

The instructors, Lee told me, will be … instructors, with real enthusiasm for the material and motorcycle safety, and both the instructors and the independent schools that employ them will meet higher standards.

“There are a lot of instructors that shouldn’t be teaching, and a lot of sites that shouldn’t be in business,” Lee told me. “[They] have to understand that, even though they’ve had successful businesses, the program has been a complete disaster as far as fatalities are concerned. If it wasn’t a failure, the CHP wouldn’t have wanted new curriculum.”

These are not words that will soothe the 100-plus owners of schools in California, many of whom struggle to stay in business. Expect a significant number of these sites to close – and a slew of new ones to open. Under the MSF system, ranges were guaranteed monopolies in their service areas (according to Lee), but “we’re free market folks, and I don’t believe in not having competition – you’re not motivated to improve.” And since all the instructors need to be retrained, there may be many RiderCoaches who will fail the TCTI prep course, never again to flatten their arches on a California motorcycle training range.

Lee Parks laying some knowledge onto his students, Irvine 2010. Photo by Jeff Cobb

Lee Parks laying some knowledge onto his students, Irvine 2010. Photo by Jeff Cobb

The range will be more familiar to current RiderCoaches who do survive the re-education process, though there will be changes. The class’ basic format – five hours of classroom time, with two five-hour range sessions – remains the same, mandated by the CHP’s requirements. However, Lee tells me the exercises, also based on the STAR curriculum, offer “20 to 50 percent” more riding time for students and are easier for the instructors to set up. It also eliminates the dreaded U-Turn box: “that created more stress than it taught tight turns.”

There are myriad other alterations, but the most important one, I think, is one of underlying philosophy. The MSF is owned and funded by the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), which is in turn owned and funded by manufacturers and retailers of motorcycles and other motorcycle-related products. This means the MSF’s mission is to promote motorcycling by making it safer – or as Lee would say, “manufacturing motorcyclists,” about 65,000 licensed riders each year just in California alone. Lee wants to “make motorcycles available to people who have the requisite skill, judgment and ability while informing them of the risks and dangers,” and there’s the key difference.

I’ve passed about 98 percent or more of the 2,000 or so MSF BRC students I’ve instructed, and though I don’t have national or statewide passage-rate figures, I’m guessing it’s about the same for all RiderCoaches. Lee pointed out that if commercial pilot schools had that kind of passage rate, nobody would want to get on a plane, and I agree with him. Lee’s class will be harder – hopefully much harder – to pass, but just as importantly, fosters a demand for further training by offering fun and engaging curriculum taught by enthusiastic and dedicated instructors.

I’m a veteran of five years of basic-rider education and have even opened my own non-MSF school, so I’m wary and not too optimistic about Lee’s chances of putting a dent in California’s gruesome motorcycle fatality rate. Still, the changes he’s implementing are a step in the right direction. It’s the first time a major program has acknowledged that motorcycles aren’t for everyone, the key to fixing the root cause of our moto-fatality problem.

“The biggest lie perpetrated on the American public is that learning to ride a motorcycle is safe and easy,” said Lee, wrapping things up. “It’s neither safe nor easy. Since we’re honest up front, they can take it more seriously.”

Will serious riders be safer riders? Let’s hope so.

Gabe Ets-Hokin’s chain of frozen-dessert superstores has over 37,000 outlets in the United States, Peru and Mongolia. Mention this column for a free sample of our new candied lychee-nut topping product.

  • Old MOron

    I first got my moto license in 1992. I took the lollipop test at the DMV on a Rebel 250. EZ-PZ. Ten years later, as a returning rider, I took the MSF BRC. I thought it was time very well spent. A few years after that, I took Lee’s ARC, and that was better still. I’m optimistic that TCTI’s training will be good for motorcycling.

  • JMDonald

    I have been riding since the seventies. When I turned sixteen I got my motorcycle license. There was no training that I knew of back then other than the motorcycle section of the state driver manual. I am a recreational/occasional tourer type rider. I almost never go more than a week or two without riding. That being said I do not consider myself an expert or beyond learning. In the mid nineties I took an advanced rider course. It reinforced the mental mindset needed to ride enjoyably and safely. I consistently use Mr. Parks Total Control as a reference book to help me maintain the focus I need out on the road. There is no doubt his new rider school will benefit any rider privileged to take it. It is however up to the individual to obtain the proper training not the States to mandate it. You cannot legislate intelligence. With all the high quality training available today one would be a fool not to take advantage of it. Motorcycling is a serious business and should be taken seriously.

  • John Delara

    I think the falling fatality rates of passenger vehicles has more to do with the vehicles themselves becoming safer ( airbags, crumple zones, etc). I certainly haven’t noticed the public at large being better drivers. It actually seems the opposite, with distracted and aggressive drivers being more common than just 10 years ago.

    • My point exactly! Cars are much safer, but motorcycles can’t be made (much) safer, though universal ABS would help. I will say this–car drivers get their licenses after being evaluated by a disinterested 3rd party, not their driving instructors.

  • Jack Johnson

    Making the class harder will only end up with more people riding unendorsed or untrained.

    • DickRuble

      Unless states mandates much more stringent license testing.

      • Jack Johnson

        We have a lower pass rate where I teach, our students are only allowed 15 points on the evaluation not 20 as in other states.

        • DickRuble

          That probably helps a bit. However, to see a difference, one would have to go the European way.

          • pch1013

            And that will never happen here — not as long as most state motorcycle rights orgs are far more interested in keeping helmets optional (and pipes loud) than in agitating for better training for all riders.

  • DickRuble

    ‘The course isn’t really effective – California’s moto-fatality rate is as high as it’s always been, maybe even higher – but, hey, it’s better than nothing, right?’

    Is the MSF BRC mandatory in California? If yes, the author’s statement is correct under certain circumstances (e.g. if moto-fatality rate is measured in those who took the course). If not, the author needs to take some basic logic classes before teaching anything.

    • It is not mandatory in CA. Completing the BRC allows you to test out of the riding portion of the license exam, though.

      • DickRuble

        Didn’t think so. The writer is, intentionally or not, implying that the MSF courses are ineffective using obviously flawed reasoning. He should try the LRC (Logic Remedial Course)

    • Dick, the MSF trained over a million riders in CA with no effect on the fatality rate. That’s what I call ineffective. It did introduce plenty of people to motorcycling, which was the point of the program.

      • DickRuble

        Unless the statistics were done strictly on the one million riders that took the MSF introductory course, your statement is incorrect. Were the fatalities due strictly to operator error? Were there an additional four million untrained riders added to the pool of motorcycle users? Absent more information, your statement is unsubstantiated.

        • The fatality rate per million population rate in the USA went up 50% between 2000 and 2010, despite the MSF program being available in pretty much every state and training millions of riders. That people learned to ride and learned how to manage risk and ride more safely is true. That it had a postive impact on motorcycle safety is not. My substantiation is 3 decades of NHTSA motorcycle fatality rates. You can read more here: http://www.nmcti.org/data.php

          • Old MOron

            Your reasoning is very simplistic:

            “The fatality rate … went up 50% … despite the MSF program … training millions of riders. [Therefore] it is not true that MSF training had a positive impact on motorcycle safety.”

            Here is a simple rebuttal. Without the MSF training, the fatality rate may have been even higher.

            All you’ve done is point to some bar charts and presume a conclusion. Until you compare with MSF training to without MSF training, you haven’t even come close to making a convincing argument.

          • Well, with MSF training is the same rate as without MSF training, so I don’t see a compelling case the other way, either.

      • Phil

        Gabe: What percentage of M1 holders took the MSF program? OK, now look at fatalities. Someone needs to compare MSF student fatalities to non-student. It’s not like MSF was mandatory (age mandates not withstanding). I think chalking MSF up as a failure is a sweeping overstatement.

        I took the MSF as a novice rider with a year or so total time behind the handlebars. Did I feel it prepared completely new riders? Heck no. It taught some theory and then the mere mechanics of how to ride a bike. Merely a few minutes talk of “rider radar” is not the same as an effective module or two on real world street riding. Teaching “outside-inside-outside” is not the same as an intensive module on taking the curves. You get my point. So I hope the new BRC really educates riders.

        • Phil, there are studies comparing formally trained riders with untrained riders, and the results are very inconclusive.

          • DickRuble

            Please show us those studies, with segmentation by cause (rider or other party).

          • I’ll get right on that!

          • DickRuble

            Good, do your homework.

          • Old MOron

            What? You’re fully aware that studies are inconclusive yet you’re telling anyone who will listen that MSF training is ineffective?
            I’m beginning the think that Kevin Duke should vet your articles more actively.

          • You and me both!


    While I’m fine with improving things, I have nothing but great things to say about the MSF basic course I took in NY at Lakehurst Naval Base. My instructors were excellent and the classroom time was key in alerting (or reminding) us what dangers to constantly be aware of. I saw people with no riding experience gain confidence and learn how to handle their bike in emergencies. I’m happy to say that out of my class, I was the only one who completed the final road course exam to earn my motorcycle endorsement, with a perfect score. No mistakes on any of the procedures!

    I’ve owned 3 bikes (Honda Pacific Coast, Kawasaki ZRX1100, Kawasaki Z1000) in total since taking the MSF course and I’ve been fortunate to not have had a single mishap or accident with any of them. I’ve not owned a bike in 9 years though, but should I buy another, I plan to sign up for MSF’s Intermediate Course as a refresher.

  • Brent Crash Allen

    This is great for riders every where. A rising tide lifts all rides. More voices, more involvement–it’s all good

  • I am a 25+ year rider in Texas. About a year and a half ago I took the MSF course with my 22 year old son. First time for each of us. Other than riding my 1500 Vulcan on a vacant lot (in 1st and 2nd gear) he had never ridden a motorcycle before taking the course. Other than myself he was the only one in the class to score 100% on both the written and skills exams. When we got home from our last day of class we rode around the neighborhood. After riding a few minutes we talked and he stated that he was NOT yet ready to ride outside the neighborhood. One thing he pointed out was that they never taught him how to make a turn from a dead stop. We had fun, but were both dissappointed in the quality of the material and skills required to earn a motorcycle endorsement in our state. I was also concerned for others (mostly young people) in the class, who had “earned that endorsement” and were about to hit the streets on their own.

    • artist_formally_known_as_cWj

      At the conclusion of the BRC I took in Louisiana, we were told that “you now have a license to practice”. The point was made that the 3 day course was not encompassing and there was more to learn. It is an introductory course not really intended for one to immediately begin venturing out past one’s own neighborhood (or street for that matter).

      Given that so many of the courses take place on community college campuses, it would be nice if the curriculum was setup as a full-semester course.

      Even if there is an extended course, the issue is one of getting people to take it. TCT is planning to do a more intensive course, but will it be longer? Is it going to be something that is intended to graduate competent street riders?

      I’m all for increased training. So, how do you get people to take it?

      Regulation isn’t always a horrible thing…

      Particularly when public tendency is not to do what’s prudent.

    • DickRuble

      “they never taught him how to make a turn from a dead stop”.
      That’s odd. The three times I took the course it was part of the course. Both in beginners and advanced and it was one of the more challenging parts for the beginner as you were required to shift into the second and gather pace, all while staying between the narrow lines and effecting a turn of approx approx 120 degrees (definitely more than 90). Most people were doing the turn but failed on the count of insufficient speed. In Texas, the instructor showed us how to slightly lean the bike into the turn before taking off, to make a tighter turn. That part took a bit of practice.

      • Jack Johnson

        Turning from a stop was dropped from the curriculum in 2000, I hear it might be coming back though. It is a skill I see absent in a lot of riders.

    • @daleakers:disqus congrats on an excellent score, especially the riding portion!

      Your son’s comment about not turning from a stop was exceptionally surprising and an inexcusable oversight by his RidingCoaches. According to the MSF Range Cards, Revisions July 2001 and February 2008, this turn was first introduced in Exercise 4 (Shifting & Stopping) and then practiced again in Ex. 9 (Stopping Quickly). I am very sorry to learn this as your son accurately pointed out a key skill that was, for whatever reason, not taught/excluded/glossed over etc.

      Having taught the MSF course for 10 years I was dismayed to read your post however thanks for sharing.

      Patrick Shaughnessy

  • I took an MSF course in the 90s in MN. I remember riding around cones and never once being on a public road or going above 30 mph. At one point I messed up a section of cones I was supposed to ride around and the instructor said: “Close enough.”

    Needless to say, I didn’t feel confident getting on a bike until several years later, when I went through the ridiculously hard training and licensing process for European motorcycle licenses. Bare minimum, you need roughly 28 hours of on-public-roads training, and you are required to take 5 different tests –– four of which are administered by disinterested 3rd parties (the first, your CBT, is delivered by your instructor). Because I’m dumb, I ended up needing about 42 hours of training before I passed my final exam. If I had been under the age of 24 the process would have been even more difficult.

    The knock-on of that training is that, by and large, riders in the UK are unquestionably better than those back in Minnesota and Texas, where I grew up. The negative side, though, is that it is so rigorous (and expensive) that it is somewhat prohibitive. It would be nice to see people in the United States striking some sort of balance.

    • Adam

      Are the last four tests on the motorcycle?

      • The first test (known as CBT) is an on-the-road assessment. Test 2 is a written (well, computerized) theory test, test 3 is a video-based hazard perception test, test 4 (known as Mod 1) takes place on the bike in a controlled area, test 5 (known as Mod 2) takes place on the bike on city streets.

        That’s the process for a person older than 24. Younger riders face additional testing, as well as tiered licensing that restricts the sort of bike they’re allowed to ride.

        • pch1013

          Many states in the US used to have tiered licensing, but that has mostly disappeared, except for really small displacement bikes (<50 cc) and scooters.

          I took the RSS in Oregon in 1991 and got my <500 cc license that way; later I moved to California where the cutoff was, IIRC, 150 cc. I explained this to the DMV lady in L.A. and she gave me an unrestricted license, saying "Okay, go out and get yourself a 'hog."

        • Roger Hale

          I had a similar experience as Chris. I took the MSF weekend course in Florida about 18 years ago. All of the training was done in a parking lot. I certainly did not feel confident upon completion of the course. After a 10+ year break from riding I decided to try the Euro training. A few months ago in England and Spain I completed the European direct access scheme (DAS) training and exams. I did this precisely because the training is so rigorous.

          The CBT was an all day affair riding a 125cc machine. We started the morning in a parking lot with basic handling, slalom, u-turns, figure-eights, swerving, emergency braking, etc. Then all afternoon was out on the streets, sometimes in dense city traffic.

          The theory exam required studying a 500 page book. Part 1 involved answering 50 questions in 57 minutes. Part 2 involved detecting 15 hazards in 15 minutes.

          The module 1 training was done on a ER-6N, (650cc, 53KW, (70CV), about 210Kg wet) machine. This consisted of more parking lot maneuvers, culminating in the emergency straight brake and an emergency swerve and brake, both done at 50km/h or more. For the actual test a radar/speed measuring device was used. Touching any of the many cones would result in an instant fail.

          The module 2 training and test was done on the streets. This took 5 long days on the bike in rain/wet conditions on very dense city streets and in freeway traffic with the instructor following in radio contact. The road test took about 45 minutes and included a couple of very tight turns, a uturn and hill start.

          Both module 1 and 2 exams must be done on bike that is >595cc and >40KW, or >54HP.

  • DoctorAmmo

    As an Instructor/RC for 17 years, anyone who thinks that a beginner riding class is going to reduce crashes, has serious delusions. Going back to an outdated class that Idaho Star is based on is a step in the wrong direction. But time will tell if Parks has the savvy to succeed, especially when he is going lose half the training in the most populous state in the nation.

  • notfishing

    I find the CHP’s emphasis on additional training of motorcyclists interesting and odd. “Motorcycle fatalities in California increased 175% in ten years, from 204 in 1998 to 560 in 2008” from the CHP site.

    However from the LA Times “Federal officials highlighted the overall decrease in (car) deaths. But at least one traffic safety group said the figures were alarming, particularly a 3% increase in pedestrian deaths and an 8.7% increase in cyclist fatalities from 2010 to 2011.” (due to cars hitting them)

    So my question is: What new program is the CHP mandating to decrease the deaths of motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians caused by cars? (with the understanding that Los Angeles has a higher population than most states along with a 40% “hit & run” accident rate)

  • Gruf Rude

    Maybe Gabe is simply right with his introductory comment, we are “engaging in what is inarguably a fantastically risky activity.” 175% rise in fatalities doesn’t sound like it is going to be fixed by voluntary rider training or anything else. Riding on crumbling infrastructure with more and more distracted drivers is going to get us killed and injured at ever increasing rates, PERIOD.

  • Adam

    What is the note about Double Double yellows in California? I ride inbetween them when they delineate the carpool lane but I assumed that wasn’t legal.

  • vastickel@gmail.com

    My question would be, even realizing the value of ANY rider training, what percentage of accidents involve alcohol,(I would expect it to be significant), and how does training influence that behavior?

    • DickRuble

      In France, more (they say more than one in five, not how much more) than 20% of deadly motorcycle accidents involved alcohol.

      In the US, in 2013, 27% of those killed in motorcycle accidents had a BAC higher than 0.08%, an another 8% had a BAC between .01% and .07%.

      • vastickel@gmail.com

        Yep, not at all surprised. Absent the booze, and accidents that stem from simply not respecting the fact that you are mounted on a highly unstable vehicle(showing off, stunting, etc), We would be halfway home to putting a serious dent in the statistics. I do recognize, however, that training , particularly for a new rider, is imperative .

  • Always a great read, Gabe, thanks!

  • Essexgirl

    I did the MSF course 3 years ago and passed although I don’t consider myself an especially good rider. I think I know my limitations which is important, and I’ve ridden safely these 3 years. One thing that struck me is that the course seemed aimed at youngsters who were not just new to bikes but actually new to the road, while my entire class actually consisted of people who were definitely not kids (I’m in my 50s) and were already experienced road users in cars, (in fact, possibly rather jaded road users in cars..) The theory course seemed aimed at 16 year olds who needed Drivers Ed., rather than more mature people who needed Surviving Bikes 101. I never got out of 3rd gear on the range, and when I first headed out on the road alone, I was frankly terrified. I suspect the course dates from a more innocent time, when a motorbike was a cheap first entrance into getting mobile for youngsters, and they mostly rode fairly small bikes around town. But nowadays most parents wouldn’t let their teenagers near a motorbike, preferring to start them driving in giant SUVs with automatic gear boxes, and in fact many people are coming to bikes much later in life, like me, for pleasure cruising. Plus bikes seem to be much bigger and more powerful in general. When I was a teenager myself, riding on the back of my boyfriends’ bikes, 250cc was the norm, and 500cc was considered a big bike, while a 750 was a real rarity that only nut cases rode. Now everyone seems to be on 1200cc+ machines, and they all weigh a huge amount. I suspect that the MSF course hasn’t kept pace with the new reality.