May 23, 2017

Backseat Driving

I just took what will probably be my last MSF instructor training session and got a little more insight into where motorcycle safety training is going, in the process. The “new” (2014) classroom design is a giant step back from the MSF’s earlier attempt at “learner centered” or adult training. While I might suck at the delivery, I’ve always been a big fan of that concept because the alternative leaves me out in the cold as a student. The “education system” I grew up with is often called “the sage on the stage,” which would be one thing if the person on the stage was actually a sage (“a profoundly wise person; a person famed for wisdom. someone venerated for the possession of wisdom, judgment, and experience”), but it will always be difficult to attract that kind of person to western Kansas (where I grew up and experienced my K-12 “education”). Most small-to-mid-sized towns have the same problems, from the intolerant majority segments of the Midwest and Southeast, and most of the country’s underfunded public education system. 

For many years I was too often stuck listening to someone who had put about as much effort into their lecture topic as me, although that person was 20-30 years older and a whole lot lazier. If it hadn’t been for the years I spent in southern California’s university system, I’d have lived my whole life believing that teachers were nothing special. Lucky for me, that didn’t happen. Otherwise, I’d have been so bored with “education” that I’d have given it up after my first junior college semester in 1966.

Becoming one of those “lazier than me” lecturers has never been a goal of mine. In fact, for the first 40 years of my life I had absolutely no interest in being any kind of teacher, although I’d been roped into dealer, technician, and customer training with a couple of my employers for about ten years. I didn’t consider myself to be a teacher and if someone had called me one I’d have laughed at them. My father was a career high school teacher and I spent my first 15 years surrounded by adults who made their living “teaching.” Nothing about that experience provided any inspiration toward that career path.

Some motorcycle instructors claim they teach the MSF program to “give something back to motorcycling.” I don’t get that. 

Motorcycles are a transportation vehicle or a luxury toy. If their primary purpose is to be a “lifestyle” prop and noise-generating irritant, that’s nothing worth the “giving back” effort. After paying my vehicle license and fuel taxes, I don’t feel any compulsion to give back any of my time and energy to Wisconsin, Iowa, Detroit, Japan, or China. Honestly, for at least half of the years I’ve taught the MSF program my primary motivation has been self-preservation. While I do not believe the remedial training we provide or the license testing the state requires does anything significant toward making new or even experienced riders safer or more competent beyond a few weeks post-training, I know that thinking, talking, and demonstrating decent riding techniques make me a safer, smarter, and more competent rider. And I get paid to do it, which brings up my decision to wind down my motorcycle instructor career. This is something I haven’t done for the money for the last 16 years, but wouldn’t do without getting paid for it about 90% of the time.

Over the last five years, I’ve discarded all of the other things I’ve done to make a living that fall into that category. I used to repair professional audio equipment for $175/hour. I wound down that work and business starting in 2012 and by July 2013 all of my customers had been redirected to someone else. I did commercial acoustic consulting and audio forensics, which sometimes paid fantastically and always paid well. I did my last 911 call analysis in late 2011 and completed my last acoustic consulting contracts in early 2012. A decade ago, when someone asked me what I did for a living, I used to say, “I teach rock and roll.” (Nobody wants to hear about the repair or consulting stuff and most people don’t take self-employment seriously; including me.) For more than a decade, teaching music production and technology at MSCM felt exactly like that. After the last couple of uninspiring semesters, there was finally more money than fun in that job. After a minor heart attack in late 2012 I decided I had been there long enough. My last months of teaching came at the end of the spring 2013 semester. I pretty much knew I wasn’t going back, but decided for sure on my 65th birthday that summer. The only thing I do for pay, now, is teach “motorcycle safety” classes a few times a summer. (2015 was the last summer I taught something resembling a full load. Plus, I am still selling off stuff in hopes that we can downsize “bigly” one more time and hit the road full time. Come on by. See anything you like, make an offer!

The “fun” part of teaching motorcycle safety classes was working with and getting to know the students. Even during the Harley/Polaris/Star/hippobike boom days I still had occasional students who made the job worth doing. [For example, two near-retirement medical doctors from Stillwater who took the class, listened to my advice on their first motorcycles, bought a pair of Honda Nighthawk 250’s, and rode them to Alaska and back.] I assisted with my first range portion of the MSF course in 2001 and wrote about freezing my ass off in 2” of slush back then. I went through the training program in 2002 and became an official MSF instructor and taught a boat load of classes that first year of the MSF’s Basic Rider Course. I wrote about that experience in MMM, too. For the next dozen years, I filled most of my summers with basic and experienced rider classes and enjoyed a good bit of that. I got to work with some dedicated, talented, and entertaining instructors (and a few who weren’t any of that) and I met a lot of hopeful prospective motorcyclists.

Over the years, I’ve had lots of conversations about teaching techniques, read a few dozen books about adult education, and have thought and written about teaching everything from computer applications to motorcycle safety and expertise to music, audio recording, and electrical/electronic engineering. One of the many things I’ve learned about teaching is that, like everything, it only works if there is a corrective (negative) feedback loop to provide input that keeps the system on course to achieve the intended outcome(s). There is only one meaningful outcome in motorcycle safety training: reduced mortality/morbidity occurances among “trained motorcyclists.” That is not only something the MSF warns instructors and programs not to expect, it’s not being measured by anyone. Without that critical piece of the puzzle, it seems to me that the effort, time, and money spent on training is wasted. I don’t have a lot of time left, so I’d like to waste as little of it as possible.


  1. I took the course from you a few years ago at St Paul College. I really liked the classroom because of the discussions we had about equipment and helmets. What changed? Why?

  2. At least from my perspective, it appears that the MSF has quit trying to disguise where it is coming from: the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). The new program is pretty much march-stepped through the material only allowing time to briefly answer the questions in the book. Our primary purpose has pretty much always been to put butts on motorcycle seats, as a sales and marketing function. That's no different than drivers' ed for cages or even the DMV's "test" for cars, trucks, or motorcycles. Nothing about the system weeds out incompetent or insane drivers. If you can't pass the drivers' test, you aren't sentient. The new MSF program, which we're not really using yet in Minnesota, is dumbed-down and sub-minimal training. The classroom is an example. We don't even bother with a graded test at the end. You could nap through the class, doodle on the test, and move right on to the range without paying a minute of attention.


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