Oct 15, 2018

What's Wrong with Motorcycle Safety Training

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

I had a rare opportunity to talk with one of the big thinkers in national motorcycle training over the 2013 VBR3 weekend; David Hough. David has written about safe motorcycle riding tactics and skills for almost 25 years, both through his book collection (Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well, Street Strategies: A Survival Guide for Motorcyclists, More Proficient Motorcycling: Mastering the Ride, and The Good Rider) and his many magazine articles with the AMA's American Motorcyclist, Cycle World, Sound Rider, and Motorcycle Consumer News. He has also stepped out as a vocal critic of US motorcycle safety training in a series of articles almost a decade ago in Motorcycle Consumer News aggressively titled "The Fuss About Rider Training" and "Trouble in Rider Training." Oddly, he and I have been concerned about many of the same things: motorcycling's out-of-control fatality and injury rate, the lack of practical application for motorcycles, and the state of motorcycle safety training and licensing that contributes to our mortality and morbidity statistics. 
 
I've harped on the counter productivity of the AMA more than a few times, but David has an insider's view of that disorganization that is even more gloomy. Unlike me, David has a profound respect for Rod Dingman, the AMA chairman, and repeatedly called him "a brilliant man." From my distant outsider's view, I would have never guessed other than during that brief instance when Mr. Dingman was asked what issues most threaten motorcycling and he replied, "Noise, noise, and noise." Typically, the AMA promptly backed off of that moment of sanity and returned to the safer territory of representing the interests of motorcycle aftermarket vendors rather than motorcycle riders. Before that quick retreat, I almost joined the AMA for the first time since my racing years (30 years ago) when membership was required to be on the track. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a similar problem because the heart of the organization is barely more than a lobbying tool of the motorcycle manufacturers disguised as a motorcycle training business. With that as a core purpose, motorcycle safety takes a back seat in the long, long bus full of constituents that both organizations try to serve. 
 
One of the places Mr. Hough and I totally agree is that motorcycling is dangerous business. So dangerous that in the late 1970's, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki began to diversify their business models so that, when liability problems from motorcycling's terrible mortality records overran the profits derived, they could simply quit the business and go elsewhere. Honda and Suzuki build cars. Kawasaki and Yamaha build everything else. Motorcycles are just one division of a huge manufacturing business that will not be allowed to drag down the whole. Only the lame (economically and flexibility-wise) but politically-connected Harley-Davidson constituency has protected the rest of the industry from obsolescence . . .  for a while. Our time appears to be coming, though.

David's perspective on our share of highway mortality is considerably different than the already-awful numbers with which we're familiar. His take comes from the independent Motorcycle Safety Training Institute where the data is more directly related to what we care about; driver mortality, since motorcycles are primarily a single-passenger vehicle. That data says we are 20% of the driver vehicle deaths, nation-wide. The other place David and I agreed was that "registered vehicles" is useless information. While it may be a source of pride to industry promoters that motorcycles are 3% of registered vehicles, anyone who sets up a video camera on most any freeway, highway, or residential street will discover we are rarely 0.01% of total traffic. (Optimistic motorcycle promoters might claim we're as much as 1% of total traffic, but no reasonable observation over time would substantiate that.) With those numbers in mind, it becomes obvious that motorcycles are substantially more dangerous than any other vehicle on the road; several hundred, or thousand, times more dangerous. 
 
That last bit is at the core of what's wrong with motorcycle safety training. The first thing that needs to be admitted and recognized is that your mother was right, motorcycles can kill you. That old motorcyclist saying that "there are motorcyclists who have crashed and those who haven't crashed yet" is absolutely true and if you aren't bright enough to recognize that, you aren't aware enough to ride a motorcycle. This should be the thing we talk about most in the early stages of motorcycle training classes. The 1960's "Mechanized Death" videos ought to be revived and revitalized with even gorier crash pictures and up-to-date statistics. Students should be forced to look at the carnage and mayhem from motorcycle crashes and be made well aware that they are entering into an activity that can be lethal, crippling, or mindlessly saddening when we are responsible for the injury or death of a loved one who trusted us with their life on a motorcycle.

Contrary to the industry's advertisements, riding a motorcycle is not a gleefully liberating activity: motorcycling is a life-threatening, dangerous, high-risk activity that requires all of our concentration, ability, and constant practice just to minimize the risk to "really, really dangerous." Beyond  and because of all that, the casual motorcycle "bike-curious" should be discouraged. Anyone not actively and irreconcilably drawn to motorcycling because of the many great things about taking your life in your own hands and tempting fate on a balanced pair of wheels is pretending that motorcycles are a "lifestyle" and has no business on a bike of any sort; powered or otherwise.

In fact, anyone who hasn't already put a few thousand miles on a bicycle isn't interested enough in this kind of machinery to be a motorcyclist. If you are going to take your life in your own hands, you ought to at least care a little bit about staying alive. If you don't, buy a gun and take yourself out in America's Favorite Method. Don't make our dismal statistics even worse because your daddy didn't appreciate you or your mother liked your sister better. I am dead serious about this. Riding a motorcycle is a commitment in time and money that requires concentration, study, practice, and the kind of attitude you might expect from skydivers or rock climbers. We can lightly remind beginning riders that motorcycling is a "skill of your mind and eyes," but that's just a fraction of the reality.

It is also a physical skill of the sort that you need to practice until muscle memory overcomes natural reactions. You won't get that kind of result from an occasional weekend ride. Muscle memory requires practice. Martial arts experts say it requires 3,000-5,000 repetitions to ingrain a exercise.1 For example, just practicing the single skill of emergency stopping could take you twenty or thirty hours of continuous practice. If you want to get to 25-30mph for your practice run, you'll need at least a 100 foot range for that attempt. Add 50 feet for the return loop and you have a 250 foot total practice loop. Five-thousand attempts later and you have traveled about 240 miles. If we assume you are stopping and returning to your start point quickly, you're still going to have a hard time managing a 10mph average. That would be 24 hours of continuous practice for a single skill.  Do you have that kind of dedication to becoming a good rider? If not, you are probably the wrong person to take on motorcycling.

1 Motor Learning and Performance,  by Dr. Richard Schmidt and Dr. Craig A. Wrisberg and Performance and Motor Control And Learning by Dr. Richard Schmidt and Dr. Timothy D. Lee







5 comments:

  1. I dont appreciate your denigrating the efforts of thousands of MSF instructors who work hard to provide well documented safety training to hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists across the country. The training we provide has been tested and proven to be effective. We are all glad you quit since you dont believe in what we are doing.

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  2. We all start with zero motorcycling skills. The MSF and similar courses are introductory. They should be used to explain the risks and rewards of the sport, and teach the fundamental operation of the vehicle, but should not be used as license waivers. A better solution is to start kids in the dirt, when they are young, slow, and cannot fall as far, fast and hard. By the time they reach licensing age, passing real riding skills exams will be second nature. Tiered training and licensing is the right way to go about bringing new riders into the sport.

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    1. If you've read my column and blog for any time at all, you'd know I totally agree.

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  3. i went through the advanced skills training this summer. after starting off with the basic class three years ago, taking the experienced class a year later, and finally doing the halfday advanced class i finally get where you are coming from. i feel like the advanced class was the first time i actually discovered how complicated riding a motorcycle is. if there were a grade given in that class most of the people in the class of six would have failed and most of those who failed would have thanked the instructors for their honesty. i will take it again next year and hope i "pass" the next time.

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    1. I went through the "Expert Class" for the first time last summer: https://geezerwithagrudge.blogspot.com/2017/10/157-who-is-expert-rider.html. I came away from that thinking, "Damn, I really need to practice a lot more at higher speeds and giving myself a lot less tolerance for screwups." I highly recommend it. I would have given myself a failing grade, too.

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