Motorcycle Rider Training May Not Be Effective. What Should You Do?

Current research suggests that basic rider training does little more than give you a slight edge during your first few months of riding (and perhaps keep unsuitable would-be riders off of motorcycles). So should you skip school? From the February 2005 issu

For more than a decade, the primary thrust of American motorcycle-safety efforts has been getting riders to take rider training courses. Some states require them for young riders before they can be licensed. Federal transportation agencies recommend them. Many bikers' rights groups have advocated them as an accident-reducing alternative to helmet laws. Some insurers offer a discount if policy buyers have recently completed one. The motorcycle industry has backed the concept and spent big bucks to create the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) to support rider training with curricula, instructor training and even management. Harley-Davidson has created the Rider's Edge training program to train riders at facilities operated by its dealers. Motorcyclists have supported rider training by paying fees to support state programs with their license renewals.

There is one little problem no one has talked about, however. Research shows those basic rider training courses don't have much effect. The only measured difference between training course graduates and those who start riding without any formal training shows up during the first six months, when those who take the course suffer somewhat fewer lapses—events such as crashes and tickets—than unschooled riders.

Skip School?

So should you pass on taking rider training if you have the option? For new riders, the answer is absolutely not. Besides improving your chances during those first few months, the controlled environment and structured curriculum of a training course is a much safer and less stressful learning environment than the alley behind the dealer where I had my first exciting rides and the information you are getting is based on hard facts, not what your buddy tells you.

One likely benefit of rider training for beginning riders—and one that wouldn't necessarily show up in a study of trained versus untrained riders—is its filter effect. The MSF Basic RiderCourse is a great way to find out that you and motorcycling aren't meant for each other without actually buying a bike or risking a friend's ride. As far as I know, this effect hasn't been studied, and it varies by the instructor and the facility. There are some facilities and instructors that send a significant percentage of would-be riders home before the course is over, and there are always some course participants who say "this isn't for me," even if they successfully complete the course. Those dropouts seem to be people who are likely to turn up as statistics, and the main lesson they learned from rider training ("Don't do it!") at least kept them out of the motorcycling column.

As an aside, let me comment on an issue relevant to a debate raging in the rider training realm. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has begun managing some states' rider training programs and appears to be positioning itself to take over others. I have one big concern about this trend. Because the MSF is funded by motorcycle makers, one of the organization's unspoken missions is to bring more people into motorcycling to create motorcycle buyers. That aim conflicts with the filter effect of rider training and makes me uneasy.

But new riders shouldn't believe that a rider training certificate brings immediate mastery of motorcycling. Basic rider training teaches you how to operate a motorcycle and a little about what you might encounter. But it does not teach you about what it's like to constantly be overlooked by other drivers, how to see events down the road that might bite you, handling the excitement of rounding a corner to find a deer or oncoming driver in your lane, or a hundred other possibilities that you learn to see and anticipate with experience. You learn basic motorcycle operation in controlled conditions. That's it.

To Train Or Not?

So I believe that new riders should take a training course. How about other potential students, such as the many riders returning to motorcycling after a lengthy hiatus? If you have forgotten where the clutch is or last rode a hand-shift sidecar, then yes, a basic rider course will return you to confident basic motorcycle operation in a safe environment and remind you of some of the realities of riding. For those who want to refresh their skills before buying a motorcycle, the basic courses are also the way to go because the bike is normally supplied (though it will probably be smaller than the motorcycle you will buy). If you still feel confident in your ability to operate a motorcycle without significant stress and you already have a motorcycle, then take an MSF Experienced RiderCourse or other advanced course.

We also advise new riders to follow up on their basic course with an experienced rider course, usually about six months after they start riding regularly or in the spring after a winter layoff. The experienced-level courses, which aren't available everywhere, will reinforce the lessons learned in basic training with the added perspective of street experience, discourage bad habits you might have developed and expand on your skills and strategies. A good experienced-rider course helps you grow and develop confidence as a motorcyclist. In talking to relatively new riders who have taken both classes, riders who have recently started riding get more out of an experienced-level course taken during the first year than they do from the basic course.

For no-longer-new riders, I think training continues to be valuable. If you have never taken an advanced skills course, I heartily recommend it. I always get something out of it. I know lots of riders who were anxious before they took it, fearing their skills were inadequate or that other riders would be much better. But I have only talked to one rider who didn't enjoy it, and that sounded more like an issue with the instructor than with the course itself. It is worth taking every couple of years.

If you are willing to stretch yourself a bit, try a racetrack school. These will allow you to explore your motorcycle's lean limits and gain confidence in cornering and braking without dodging curbs, cars and construction zones. You can find a listing in the "Back to School" story in the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Back To School?

The subject of recurrent training was raised by MSF president Tim Buche at the Fifth International Motorcycle Conference in Germany last September. After addressing the disappointing results of research on basic rider course graduates, Buche proposed "safety renewal," which would involve continuing training beyond the initial motorcycle course. (See the complete paper at the MSF web site.) He also wants to study the real-world success of riders who have extended their training beyond the basic course. He announced a research project in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that would study and compare three groups of riders. One group would have no training, one would have taken the basic course and the third would have taken additional training beyond the basic course. He wants to look at more parameters than previous research.

I do believe training that reinforces the lessons you learn in the basic course and on the street is valuable, and I also think advanced courses have helped me. Other riders who have taken them have told me the same thing. However, I have reservations about the proposed research format because riders who voluntarily seek out recurrent training have demonstrated a greater interest in safety than riders who don't. Riders who go voluntarily out and get more training would seem to be more inclined to ride safely. I also wonder about the credibility of any training study sponsored by an organization with a stake in the training business.

I suggest that you do your own research. Take one of those advanced MSF courses or a racetrack course and see if you learn something that helps you in traffic, in turns or simply in confidence. Be sure to tell us and your riding friends what you find out.

When he's not attending the School of Hard Knocks, Friedman answers e-mail at art.friedman@primedia.com or ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com.

_For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the _ Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Illustration by John Breakey