“They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work…”
– Punch line from an old joke in the former Soviet Union

Here’s the one thing you can count on if you’re a motorcycle-safety professional: your feet will hurt. I know I need to send away for some of those $300 custom-made insoles, but as long as it’s just me and Dr. Scholl standing in a parking lot for two 12-hour days in a row, by 3:00 pm Sunday my dogs are barking loud enough to prompt calls to Animal Control. Ow.

But of course, the joys of introducing a new crop of motorcyclists to our sport while showing them the basics of safe riding overcome those physical pains, right? The horrors of drinking McDonald’s coffee at 6:00 am, the wind, the rain, the cold, the scorching heat, the permanent sunburn on your face and neck fade to the back of your mind as you watch a line of riders slowly wobble towards you on their very first motorcycle ride.

In case you don’t know, in the vast majority of U.S. states, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation administers its venerable Basic RiderCourse (BRC) to teach prospective riders how to ride. This is a massive improvement over the previous system, which experts like to call “absolutely nothing at all.” Under that system, your dad, older brother, buddy or salesperson would “take you out back” and “show you a few things” to have you riding in no time. In many cases, the new rider would indeed pick up the basic controls and concepts and start riding in minutes. In fewer cases, the new rider would indeed be riding in no time. Riding right into a bush, right into a parked car, or right into a plate-glass window. Biologists call this natural selection.

MSF RiderCoach Rob Kong leads a class through a counter-steering drill with the USS Hornet in the background.

MSF RiderCoach Rob Kong leads a class through a counter-steering drill with the USS Hornet in the background.

After a giant surge in motorcycle ownership through the 1970s – quickly followed by a giant surge of motorcycles riding through plate-glass windows and shrubs – we got serious about rider training. USC researcher Harry Hurt‘s famed 1980 study found out many interesting things about motorcycle crashes. Tattooed and co-habitating riders, for instance, are over-represented in accidents, while salesmen and attorneys are (some would say unfortunately) under-represented. Riders were also more likely to crash heading home than to work, because, hey, nobody’s in a hurry to get to work.

The safety pros picked up on three main things from Hurt: helmets save lives, unlicensed riders are more likely to crash, and untrained riders are 92 percent of the injured and killed. Government and industry alike soon decided this called for an enormously complex national program, STAT!

By the end of the 1980s, there was an entire system of Motorcycle Safety Foundation-administered schools spread across this great land, and teaching newbies how to ride was its raison d’être.

An MSF student experiencing a serious lean angle. In the author's experience, the majority of MSF Basic RiderCourse students already have some experience with motorcycles.

An MSF student experiencing a serious lean angle. In the author’s experience, the majority of MSF Basic RiderCourse students already have some experience with motorcycles.

The MSF’s curriculum applied modern principles of adult education to effectively and safely teach the general public. To encourage prospective riders (and customers for the membership of the MSF’s parent organization, the Motorcycle Industry Council) to take the class, many states provided a waiver to DMV skills testing – a neat solution that at once solved both the lack of formal training and the lack of proper licensing associated with higher crash rates.

Now, over 25 years later, many thousands – millions – of riders have spent a weekend on hot parking lots, learning the basics without performing glass-shattering scenes from The Benny Hill Show. In California, the great majority of riders now have the proper license – the opposite of what it was in 1980, when only a minority had proper motorcycle endorsements. For new riders seeking training, the mantra has changed from, “I’ll teach you how to ride – it’s easy” to “take the MSF class – it’s easy.” The three-headed Hydra related to the fatalities and injuries in the Hurt study – licensing, helmets, training – has been mostly subdued.

That should have fixed things. Except … it hasn’t.

That’s what’s frustrating to me as a RiderCoach – I may be flattening my arches for nothing. Thirty years along and the fatality rate stubbornly remains as high as ever. The number of annual fatalities fluctuates depending on economics, but it seems more closely tied to how many motorcycles are on the road, not to how much training riders get. Exactly 4,957 motorcyclists died in 2012. Even one is too many, obviously, but would it have been 14,000 without the MSF programs? Or would it have been lower if the motorcycle industry had stayed out of the training game? I don’t know. But I do know that the number of other automotive fatalities is dropping like an anvil in a Road Runner cartoon, and what will happen when motorcyclists are 50 percent of the roadway deaths when we’re only .5 percent of total roadway users? Do you think politicians will let us ride motorcycles anymore? Really?

MSF RiderCoach Heidi Burbank coaches a student through a turn. Yes, she knows the throttle is on the right.

MSF RiderCoach Heidi Burbank coaches a student through a turn. Yes, she knows the throttle is on the right.

Studies after Hurt don’t show a clear relation between safety and training, and the insurance industry is lukewarm about rider education, preferring statistically-probative helmet laws and ABS to reduce death and injury. If your insurance company offers a discount for completing an MSF class, (according to motorcycle insurance expert Mike Felder, few actually do) it’s often a surprisingly small amount.

I’ve been studying motorcycle safety for over a decade, and what I’ve learned is discouraging and maddeningly static. I’m burying this paragraph deep down here, as my own conclusions aren’t very popular around other motorcycle-industry folk: Motorcycles are horrifically, absurdly dangerous and probably shouldn’t be ridden by anybody, ever. I feel oogy recommending any uninformed person jump on a motorcycle or scooter and start riding, as it’s about 30 times more dangerous than driving a car. Thirty times! If Delta was 30 times more likely to crash than Southwest, it would have to sell tickets anonymously through StubHub or at least let you check a bag for free. And yet a half million motorcycles and scooters get snapped up in the U.S.A. every year even though riding one is about as dangerous a transportation choice you can make, short of walking drunk at night on a country road. If we were up front about those risks, would that impact sales? Maybe a little. Would it keep the people out who are likeliest to crash? Probably not.

When I talk to other RiderCoaches about the dismal state of motorcycle safety, the best argument they can come up with in favor of our current system is that it’s better than nothing. This is also a good argument for defending Taco Bell or marital sex. But I disagree – it is much better than nothing, if not ideal. If you’re a fast learner and have reasonable coordination and balance, you can learn to ride in a weekend and even pick up habits that may keep you alive. For the low (or free in some places) tuition, it’s a screaming deal. Most of the RiderCoaches I know do it because they enjoy working with motorcycles and the people who ride them, not because they are idealists who believe in the system. I’m no different.

MSF RiderCoach Heidi Burbank encouraging riders to go faster with emphatic hand gestures.

MSF RiderCoach Heidi Burbank encouraging riders to go faster with emphatic hand gestures.

What may surprise you is who is taking this class. The last time I taught – weekend before last – more than half of my 22 students already knew how to ride, often taking the course because they had bought a bike they thought was too big for the DMV skills test. That’s common – in my experience with about 2,000 students over the last five years, two thirds of them already knew how to ride, or learned so easily they hardly needed the class. Another 20 percent learned reasonably well, and the remainder … well, they almost always pass the “skills evaluation” at the end of the weekend, but look out for those plate-glass windows. If it were me, I’d make the test harder – at least as hard as the DMV “lollypop” test – with no retest available if the student fails. They can retake the class, or they can go practice with a permit, but there’s no reason to give low-skilled riders a full motorcycle license endorsement. None.

My experience working for two years to found an independent basic-motorcycle-skills school revealed those challenged students – the ones with less innate ability, that learn slower than the rest of the class – usually don’t do much riding after they pass. They usually complete the MSF BRC, and get their license endorsement, but they usually don’t wind up owning or riding a motorcycle. But maybe that’s the mad genius of the MSF – they are (rightfully) frightened and intimidated by the noise, heat and violent movement of motorcycles and after they’ve proved to themselves they can do it, forget their dreams of ridin’ on a desert highway, long blond hair flyin’ in the wind. Forty years ago, those folks would have bought the motorcycle first and then possibly hurt or killed themselves learning that motorcycling wasn’t for them.

So we have a student body of mostly skilled and experienced riders taught by a corps of instructors who may or may not feel they’re fixing the problem of too many dead and injured riders. RiderCoaches there for the paycheck and satisfaction of being professionals who do their jobs well teaching motorcyclists there to take advantage of a loophole to easily get their license. And yet, this Saturday, thousands of men and women will head down to the ranges where they work, put on silly looking sunhats and sunscreen and start plopping cones down in familiar patterns. The student parking will fill up with minivans, pickups and (yes) motorcycles, and we’ll all dance the dance.

It’s fun, worthwhile and looks good – just like a well-executed Broadway show. Motorcycle Safety Theater. Is it really the best we can do?

Aside: Fantastic Photos

I selected these photos because I’m so proud of working with my regular photographer, Bob Stokstad. He’s photographed dozens of motorcycles with me since 2005 (when I started at Motorcycle.com), but he’s also talented as a photojournalist, nature and portrait photographer.

A few years ago I needed something to illustrate a story from David Hough about safety training. I knew Bob’s photos would catch the carefully choreographed dance of students and RiderCoaches much better than my writing, so in March of 2011, I asked him to photograph an MSF BRC at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station, not far from San Francisco. Yes, that’s the historic USS Hornet in the background. In the photos, RiderCoaches Rob Kong and Heidi Burbank show how they are hardworking pros who really enjoy “coaching,” as RiderCoaches call instructing.

Check out more of Bob’s portfolio, including vintage motorcycle shows, Supermoto and Flat Track racing and his trip to the South Pole as a physicist (!) at his website. Thanks for all your hard work, Bob! I would still just be another jackass posting on the MO discussion forums without you.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is a senior partner in the firm of Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Moe, specializing in legislative solutions to non-existent problems. He’s best known for writing “Frankie’s Law,” legislation in 34 states and the District of Columbia which bans dog walking in enclosed parking garages while using Robitussin DM and listening to a “This American Life” podcast on even-numbered Saturdays.

  • Luke

    Statistics don’t lie, but I can speak for my personal experience with the MSF course. One rider clearly wasn’t cut out for it, and although the rider came back for day 2, the instructors said “nope, you shouldn’t ride” – and the rider was clearly happy to have tried, and relieved when the instructors made their points.

    We had a couple of pros, working off points on their license (the GSXer one drove in probably had $10K in aftermarket go fast on it, and the other was literally a motorcycle drag racer). A few folks who seemed to be “naturals” were there, and a few riders (like me) who got better as the weekend went on really fast based on excellent coaching. I still hear their voices in my head when I come into a turn a little wrong or suffer that moment of target fixation. I’m super grateful for their help and I know with 100% certainty that I am a better rider because of it.

    I also listen to numbers. Even though in my state a helmet isn’t mandatory, I ride with a one and enough armor on to go jousting at the local ren fair. I was also extra careful this season as the stats point towards the second year of riding being extra dangerous. But I’m under no illusions, riding a motorcycle is not the safest way to travel – but it brings enough joy to me that I’m willing to take those risks (and do whatever I can to mitigate them).

  • JMDonald

    It is more than being able to work the controls. The MSF does a great job helping riders understand and incorporate the mental aspects into their riding.

  • Robotribe

    Great article. I’m 100% in agreement with your opinion that the test at the DMV should be more difficult, but I’d add that it should also be more comprehensive; include an on-road driving test with an accompanying DMV tester and mandatory “rider’s education” class like we had to take as teenagers. I’m not so naive to believe that any of these suggestions will solve for the problems you highlight; there isn’t an exclusivity clause for idiocy with motorcycles as opposed to cars or even bicycles. I think what you rightly point out is that the potential for serious injury or worse is greater for bikes vs. cages. The motorcycle test and endorsement SHOULD be harder to pass and earn because riding a motorcycle IS harder, more complicated, and more risky for the operator as compared to operating an automobile.

    I’m in my mid-40s now, and had my first experiences with riding on and off since my late teens. I’d say I never really became a competent rider till I took it up more regularly in my 30s and started from scratch with the MSF course and read the Proficient Motorcycling books like they were instructional and not just for entertainment. This is totally in line with your observation of many folks taking the MSF with some previous riding experience. A combination of having been away from riding for almost 10 years and being a new dad motivated me to want to be more of an educated rider than just an “intuitive” rider. So far so good (knock on wood).

    I like you how you highlight the value of the MSF class acting as a “filter” for those who probably shouldn’t be operating a motorcycle. There were a couple kids in my class who were better off learning this lesson at the $200 class than had it been after they’d made their bike purchase, or worse, wiping out as you’ve described shortly after leaving the dealership lot. I’d say those two learned right then and there that riding was either not something for them altogether, or something they really needed to take seriously.

  • BDan75

    Great article. It’d be interesting to know how the actual fatality rate (as opposed to #s) has trended over the years. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that even as the overall level of rider education/skill has risen, the gains have been offset by greater numbers of cars on the road, increasingly distracted drivers, more bar-hopping bikers…etc.

    It’s too bad there isn’t a better way to do “scenario-based training”….rather than simply turning people loose to encounter the scenarios in real life.

    • Luke

      I got to think too that while the fatality rate is relatively flat, the power/speed of the bikes has gone through the roof – which has to be a contributor. When a sport bike guy says a modern 600cc super sport isn’t a “real bike” as it’s not a liter bike, we have clearly hit some sort of strange hyper-danger land.

      Even the modern Bonny, which I just criticized for begin 10hp short and too heavy in another post is probably many times quicker than the bikes of 20 years ago.

      • DickRuble

        Many times quicker.. maybe not.. A 1996 Kawasaki GPZ 1100 was a pretty quick bike. And so was the first version of the Suzuki Bandit.. The original, 1985 V-max had 115 hp and 83 ft*lb of torque, about the same as a current r1200rt. And these were not even considered sport bikes..They didn’t handle all that well, but the power was there.

        • Luke

          You’re totally right on the “very fast” part of the spectrum. I’m thinking more of the bikes that are marketed as “good for beginners” like the FZ-07 – a light bike with 75hp that can easily do power wheelies in 3rd gear. That seems less-than-ideal for a rider that is just getting their first few miles on the seat.

          I suppose it’s great that a bike like that can grow with a new rider, but I got to think that the cocktail of that much hp and a new rider could lead to more disastrous endings when things go wrong.

          • DickRuble

            It’s a difficult choice for a beginner. A 350cc or a 400cc seems the reasonable size. However, nobody wants to invest $5000 thinking they’re going to have to upgrade within two years or less, lose a bundle on the trade and have to pony up extra $$$. Moreover, with a 350cc you won’t be able to keep up on a highway. Fifteen years ago I had the same conundrum and ended up buying a mild 660 with great ergonomics as a first bike. I still own it, though it has some mods now.

          • Mark Hunter

            I’m with Luke. What has changed over the decades is the peer pressure – you can’t have a nimble little sub-500 bike because it’s not manly. I have an SV650 that yields (to me) crazy power, which comes in handy in situations like a few weeks ago where I could pass five cars in a brief stretch of dotted line on a mountain highway that was otherwise double yellow. But I ride my Ninja 250 by preference in my L.A. commute. It’s still faster off the line than three-quarters of the cars out there, and it hits 80 indicated (probably about 73) with a fair amount left over. Has done 105 indicated. What is it, exactly, that these displacement addicts think they need? Because whatever it is they’re feeling, it goes way beyond need.

          • DickRuble

            I still ride my 660, it can do 105 but is happier at 70-80mph… I haven’t ridden anything smaller on highways other than a 600 honda shadow, long time ago in TX, where 75 is the speed limit nobody respects. I was getting passed by 16-wheelers, which made me abandon the highways very quickly. My bike has a lot more oomph than the Honda, yet I long for a bigger bike on highways. No peer pressure for me, I don’t congregate well and frankly don’t give a rat’s derriere about what people think.

          • Thomas Day

            I ride a 250 (WR250X) on freeways all the time. Getting passed doesn’t bother me, but it doesn’t happen often enough to think about it one way or another. Texas, of course, is home to the world’s most drunk, least competent, most arrogant drivers, so I would avoid that state in any kind of sub-SUV/tank vehicle. I’ve never been on a road or in traffic where my 650 V-Strom felt underpowered. I suspect you are more concerned about appearances than you admit.

      • BDan75

        Certainly bikes are more powerful, though as DickRuble points out I don’t know if they’re really THAT much quicker…and tire technology, suspension, electronics, riding gear, etc., have all improved quite a bit in the past 30 years. I’m sure there are some accidents due to people getting in over their heads, power-wise….but it doesn’t seem like it would be that much bigger a factor now than it was in 1980.

  • DickRuble

    The MSF course was my introduction to motorcycling. Back then it was $45 for the two day basic course,if I remember correctly, 18 years ago. Best $ I’ve ever spent in my entire life. I had so much fun that I took it again four years later. Four years after that I took the advanced course. The first one was the best, but they were all money well spent.

  • Backroad Bob

    Nice piece. Points well taken. Thank goodness you have the guts to talk about this. The dedication of the MSF volunteers is exemplary and your observation that they feel better about themselves for helping riders even if they aren’t certain they are making a difference is an admirable trait of all altruists. The downsloping curve of motorcycle fatalities flattened as cell phone use rose. Coincidence? Perhaps not when in some states the majority of multi-vehicle motorcycle fatalities is now “distracted driving” (cell phone use in LEO PC speak) and not DUI drivers as it has been for the past 50 years.

    • Thomas Day

      Most MSF instructors are paid, not volunteers.

  • Aaron MacDonald

    It could be that another part of the problem is that the riders who could benefit the most from the course never attend because they already think they have it all figured out. I’m pretty sure the risk takers you see doing wheelies on the interstate at 80+ mph never stopped to think that the safety course could help them become a better rider.

  • Thomas Day

    I totally disagree with this statement, “I feel oogy recommending any uninformed person jump on a motorcycle or
    scooter and start riding, as it’s about 30 times more dangerous than
    driving a car.”
    Maybe in California we’re that “safe,” but in 99% of the country, motorcycles wouldn’t make up 0.5% of road traffic on a perfect summer day. We’re a lot closer to 0.001% than 0.5%, which means it is more like 14,000X as dangerous to be on a motorcycle than in a cage. (Simply divide our usual 14% of fatalities by our traffic contribution to derive what our fatalities should be vs what they are.)
    The current tests are a joke. Motorcycling is at least as dangerous as skydiving, scuba, hanggliding, or flying a plane, but the complexity and detail of our license testing is a tiny fraction of even unregulated sports activities. Like you suggest, there is no future in continuing to be a massive portion of road fatalities when all other vehicles are getting safer.