All Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. DayWhen I invited him to hang out at last year’s ZARS customer appreciation event at the Dakota County Technical School's driver training range, a friend replied, “I think I need a class on how to go slower and stay out of the way more effectively. That's my thing; ride on empty roads. You won't find me in any ‘single vehicle accidents.'” That’s not an uncommon theory on safe riding. However, statistics in Minnesota don’t support that philosophy of accident prevention. Motorcyclists, on average, get killed in the least intuitive ways and places. I'm unclear on how "going slower" can be a tactic for "staying out of the way," but it doesn't seem to be working for the people who are generating motorcycle mortality and morbidity statistics. Of course, if you're riding on "empty roads" and crash, the only possible statistic you are going to contribute to will be "single vehicle" crashes.
Of course, a lot of the state’s stats can be interpreted a lot of ways, for instance the chart at right. In 2013, Minnesota had 60 motorcycle fatalities (about half of the state’s worst year, 1980). Along with the 2013 fatalities, the state’s motorcyclists suffered 166 severe injuries, 533 moderate injuries, and 398 minor injuries. As a side note, 14% of Minnesota’s motorcycle fatalities were wearing helmets and 4.7 of every 100 reported crashes resulted in a fatality as opposed to 0.5% of all reported crashes resulting in fatalities. 55% of Minnesota’s fatal crashes were “single vehicle crashes” and 20% of the fatalities weren’t even real motorcyclists, since they did not possess the minimum motorcycle rider credential: a legal license.
The chart that is most applicable to this discussion, however, is this one (at left). The overwhelming majority of fatalities happened where the population of a city or township was “under 1,000.” The big cities accounted for damn few fatalities, crashes, or injuries, in fact. So much for being terrified of the big, bad freeway. The state used to track and report the sort of roadway that crashes occurred on, but the 2013 report didn’t seem to contain that information. Like city populations, the relationship between getting killed and being on a low traffic road was direct. For a variety of reasons (see the chart below), most of what gets motorcyclists killed is counter-intuitive. The hope that being on a lonely road out in the country or cruising through small towns is a crash preventative is wrong-headed. It just doesn’t work that way. It's possible that the reason for crash over-representation on these roads is because so many uncertain and unskilled riders choose to ride in these places for "practice."
So, with that in mind, what kind of training do motorcyclists need to stay alive and intact? Contrary to popular paranoia, training programs like the Zalusky Advanced Riding School, Keith Code’s Superbike School, Lee Park's Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic, and the rest of the long list of excellent riding schools are not all about going fast, sliding a knee or elbow, or putting your life and bike at risk. When you watch one of these courses from the sidelines, it probably looks like that is exactly what’s going on. The riders are going faster than your average street racer and doing it with a lot more style (present company excluded), but all of these schools encourage students to ride at roughly 70% of their capabilities where the maximum educational value is derived. Not all of us are smart enough to resist the urge to compete. Still, we’re all adults and if peer pressure is enough to make us do stupid stuff on a closed course, it will do the same on public roads where the hazards are dramatically greater.
When I attended the ZARS program in September, I did not one time receive any encouragement to “go faster” from any of my ZARS coaches. When I did something well, I was complemented, but not once did Joe, Brent, Debby, Karen, or Jessica say anything about how I might increase my speed. In fact, Brent consistently gave me exercises I could use at lower speeds to work on control, precision, and getting smoother in my cornering transitions. All of my coaches were way faster than me, but making me fast was never one of my goals and, therefore, it wasn’t one of theirs. For the last several years, "smoother" has been the thing I've been concentrating on and if faster ever results from that it will be a happy accident. If you look at the “contributing factors” in the chart at right, I hope you’ll see a whole lot of situations where better general handling skills would have saved a few dozen lives. In fact, some of the "contributing factors" attributed to the motorcyclists are downright embarrassing.
I would be willing to bet my own money that if a group of older riders on large, slow, poorly handling motorcycles signed up for a ZARS class and were intelligent enough to accept their limitations and work hard at being good students that group would learn more in one afternoon with Jessica's great group of coaches than they have in a lifetime of riding. I have seen Goldwings and Harley Super Glides whip through this course as fast as most sportbike riders can travel, proving that technique is everything. There are damn few riders who are able to push their motorcycle anywhere near it’s maximum capabilities. I’ve seen that demonstrated at DCTC, too. The real point in obtaining advance training is to stay out of charts like those in this article.
If what you want to learn how to do is “go slower and stay out of the way more effectively,” learning how to manipulate the space between the lines in curves is a huge part of that skill. We work on all of that, some, in the MSF “Seasoned Rider” course, but the difference between low speed exercises on a parking lot and road speed exercises on a closed course is massive. I’m not putting the MSF course down. One of the regular ZARS riders reminded me that there is a whole different set of skills exercised in the MSF course and said he tries to do one of the experienced rider courses every year or two. I need to do a closed course corning seminar, like the ZARS program, every year for the same reason. You probably do, too. Real world motorcycle training involves speed, exposure to risk, and pushing your skills near the limits. The best place to do all of that is on a closed course under the direction of a skilled instructor, not on public roads--rural or urban.