Power to Wait
Remember Steve Forbes' bids for the presidency in 1996 and 2000? Remember how he would bleat out "flat tax" as the solution for all our economic woes?
There's a motorcycle equivalent to Forbes' unblinking lunacy; guys who insist having tiered licensing for motorcyclists -- a system that would restrict new riders to smaller-displacement machines until they develop their skills -- would somehow reduce the number of crashes.
Recently, the State of Washington investigated the increase in motorcycle crashes and fatalities over the last ten years. Their report is an interesting and quick read [pdf], but despite any mention in the report of displacement, one of our Motorcycle.com readers glanced over it and wrote that it "reads like a good argument for tiered licensing."
Did I miss something? The report cited "lane errors" (meaning the rider blew a corner), speeding and drinking as the vast majority of accident causes. Why do experienced motorcyclists that eschew helmet laws and other forms of government interference get all lovey-dovey over the idea of a tiered licensing structure that would similarly restrict rider choice?
Why are we so certain having a faster machine makes you more likely to crash? The new report's findings are substantially similar to those of the 25-year-old Hurt Report's. Alcohol and rider error were cited as main causes by both reports. What that really means is lack of rider training and common sense. In the Washington state report, 86 percent of the victims lacked formal training, where in the Hurt study it was 91 percent. Not much has changed since the Carter administration; helmets don't even provide that much more protection then they did 25 years ago, and people still insist on wearing bell bottoms.
The main thing that has changed is the attitude of consumers. Today the lowly SV650, with 70hp and about 410 pounds of wet weight is now considered a chick bike, even though each pony only has to push 5.8 pounds. Compare that to the 7:1 ratio of your typical early-`80s big-bore streetbike like a CB900F. Mr. First Time Buyer can finance a GSXR-1000 and be in charge of a cruise missile-like 2.7 pounds per horsepower. It sounds like that's the cause of rising fatality rates right there, but we still have to average in cruisers, the most-popular streetbike category. Even though power and displacement are up immensely, mellow tuning and plenty of lard means they don't accelerate that quickly, even if a middle-aged drunkard riding one has shaky command over 100-plus pound-feet of torque.
Despite the fact that nobody cites any evidence to prove that there are more crashes because of the extra power, that's still the assumption. If we were all forced to ride Yamaha Jogs and Rebel 250s, we would probably still see similar crash rates, although there would admittedly be fewer fatalities and less-interesting crash stories. We all want to reduce fatalities, but the best protection for a motorcyclist is to avoid crashing in the first place. If a rider is untrained, will putting her on a smaller bike really make her less likely to crash? Since I have no idea how to fly an airplane, I'll crash an ultralight just as fast as I'll crash an F-117, although the F-117 crash would probably create a more dramatic explosion.
A Neanderthal could look at the evidence and see the majority of fatalities are self-styled action heroes who buy motorcycles without getting proper training, or jackasses who think they can handle drinking and riding. That's regardless of displacement, brand, weather, time of day or any other factor. Tiered licensing merely moves the onus of safety from the riders to manufacturers and dealers. But how does tiered licensing make new riders get proper training? How does it make sure Bob doesn't stop for happy hour before he rides back home?
How does it ensure he will leave the house wearing something more protective than a plastic yarmulke and scrotum-exposing Bermuda shorts?
Like helmets, tiered licensing wouldn't lessen the number of crashes. Instead, it would merely mitigate the effects. If motorcyclists could somehow muster the discipline to not drink and ride as well as attend the MSF course before they purchase their dream machines, the crash rate -- as well as the numbers of fatalities -- would be so much lower that helmet laws wouldn't even be an issue. The number of lives saved by helmets in a state like Washington would be measured in dozens rather than hundreds. More people than that are killed hitting their heads after slipping in the shower.
Rather than talking about the dangers of power-to-weight, we should be encouraging the power to wait. Wait until you've been trained to ride your motorcycle. Wait until you get home to have a beer. Wait until you've racked up some experience before you speed on a twisty road. Accepting tiered licensing would work to limit our choices as consumers and perpetuate myths and stereotypes about motorcycles being dangerous, uncontrollable machines. Training and promoting motorcycle awareness are the keys to keeping us and our sport alive.