Tiered Licensing - A Counterpoint

story by Fred Rau, MO Featured Columnist, Created Jan. 07, 2007
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I recently read Gabe Ets-Hokin's editorial rant against tiered licensing, and I have to say I enjoyed it immensely. I could have almost written it myself, but the devil is in the "almost." While I wouldn't characterize myself as being a strong proponent of tiered licensing, and I believe most of Gabe's reasoning is valid, if given a choice between a tiered licensing system (like that in Great Britain) and our current state of affairs here in the US, I would probably have to vote against Gabe.

First of all, I agree with Gabe's contentions that, "...nobody cites any evidence to prove that there are more crashes because of the extra power..." and that, "...the best protection for a motorcyclist is to avoid crashing in the first place." So far, so good. But then he goes on to say, "But how does tiered licensing make new riders get proper training?"

Well, this is the way I see it, from studying several different European systems:

First of all, I think it is only common sense that a new rider should start out on a smaller, lightweight machine. If nothing else, simple parking lot fall-overs from an unsteady foot or improper braking or clutching are reduced, because the bike is easier to hold up. Watch any BRC course, and I think you'd have to agree. And yet, here in the USA, one of the most popular bikes purchased by first-time buyers is the 800-lb. Honda Gold Wing. Can you really make any argument that this is an intelligent move? Don't you think it is pretty obvious that a rookie is considerably more likely to get himself/herself into trouble on that Wing than on, say, a 250 Rebel?

One of the advantages of the tiered system is that it forces a new rider to stay on a lightweight machine for at least one year before moving up to a larger bike. And even better, it requires that the rider remain accident-free and citation-free for that year to qualify for the move. Finally, when the year is up, that rider is required to take more extensive training before being allowed to the next tier. This process repeats itself through several layers, or tiers, the exact number depending on what country you're in, and how big a bike you ultimately want to own and ride.

Are testing standards running parallel to Gabe's pilot license training?In a sense, Gabe himself already conceded this point when he said, "...we should be encouraging the power to wait. Wait until you've been trained to ride your motorcycle." That is exactly what the tiered system forces on new riders. And as much as I hate that very terminology, "forces," it seems to work.

What makes it work is our own lust for power and size. How many riders are content with the 250cc or 500cc machine they begin their riding career on? Very, very few. We pretty much all go through a natural progression, stepping up in size and power with each new purchase. Or at least, that's the way it used to be. But now, the trend is changing. Men and women in their 50s and 60s, who have never ridden, are buying Gold Wings and Electra Glides as their first mount. And 18 - 20-year-olds, with the ink still wet on their motorcycle endorsements, are riding out of dealerships on Hayabusas and ZX-14s. Both scenarios are almost sure-fire recipes for disaster, and you and I pay the toll in increased insurance costs and increased government regulation.

So what is tiered licensing except more government regulation? You're right -- it is -- but it is far less intrusive regulation than what we're going to end up with if we don't start bringing those appalling accident stats down. Already, in several states, legislation is pending that would simply require that each and every rider purchase supplemental "catastrophic" insurance before being allowed to ride. Insurance experts estimate the cost would be approximately $3,000 per year for each of us. I don't know about you, but I'd have to hang up my helmet at that point. I think I'd rather see tiered licensing.

Do I think that tiered licensing is the answer to all of our problems? The answer isn't just "no," it's "Hell, no!"

As Gabe so rightly pointed out, the answer to the problem is more and better training, practice and testing procedures. The only reason I even slightly favor the tiered system is because it mandates these very things.

The first motorcycle training and testing program I ever went through was called the "MOST," for "Motorcycle Operator Standards Training," I think. Later, that was followed with the "MOST II." Both of these were fairly difficult courses to pass. Which is exactly why, I believe, the MSF got rid of them. Back then, in the courses I took, about 30 percent of the riders failed their first attempt at the course. I didn't pass until my third try, after lots of private coaching and practice. But you've got to remember that the MSF is owned and operated by the motorcycle manufacturers, and losing out on nearly a third of their potential customers didn't sit well with them. That's why -- again, in my opinion -- over the years we have watched motorcycle training and testing in this country get watered down over and over; now we have a system that over 98 percent of those signing up can get their motorcycle endorsement on the first try. Never mind that they have barely learned the basics of throttle, clutch and braking -- they're ready, in the MSF's opinion, to buy any bike they want and head out on the Interstate.

So, the real answer isn't tiered licensing, it's more and better training and testing. But if the industry continues to insist on trying to give licenses to anyone who wants one, whether they can show any expertise at handling a bike or not, then tiered licensing may be our only hope, as repugnant as that sounds -- even to me.

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