The Problem with Rider Training

The MSF BRC is good at getting people on bikes. But, is that enough?
The MSF BRC is good at getting people on bikes. But, is that enough?

I recently wrote a blog post asking whether rider training is effective or not. In that post, I talk about the limits of basic rider training and discuss reasons why current training programs aren’t able to reduce fatalities.
In this post, I’ll talk about the problems with current MSF curriculum and how it can inadvertently give false confidence to new riders.

Case Study

This past weekend, I taught a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse (BRC). Within the group of 10,  two students in particular were of concern. One person could barely achieve enough speed for stability, which is not unusual for the first few exercises, but this went on for the entire weekend. The other student of concern was an older man who struggled with basic coordination that hindered his ability to use the brakes and throttle and to shift without virtually pulverizing the transmission into dust. He also did not improve as expected.
None of this is terribly unusual early in the curriculum. After all, the course is designed for absolute newbies.  As time goes on, most riders improve, but some do not. Unless a student is either posing a danger or is hindering the progress of the other students, the coaches are able to let them continue.
What is also not terribly unusual is for really weak riders to actually “pass” the course by wobbling through the final evaluation, performing just good enough to be within a minimum standard. In the case of these two students my fellow coach and I never imagined that either one would meet the standards of the evaluation, but they both did. What does that say about the course and the evaluation in particular?

The Basic Course is just that...Basic.
The Basic Course is just that…Basic.

Just the Beginning, No Really!

Overall, I think the MSF Basic RiderCourse does a good job at introducing people to motorcycling. The problem is that by issuing a completion card (that often leads to a motorcycle license endorsement), the students are at risk of thinking they have been given the blessing of certified instructors to go forth and ride like the wind. Hang on, there Bucco.

If you read the objectives of the MSF curriculum you’ll see a statement exclaiming that the Basic course is just the beginning and that it is important for students to practice on their own motorcycle after completion of the course. As long as Rider Coaches convey this information with conviction and the students actually listen to their Coaches, then perhaps the students will perceive their abilities as what they are: BASIC. Unless this concept is driven home, then the Basic Course will likely be the beginning and end of many riders’ training.

Most new riders need much more parking lot practice, preferably on a small bike.
Most new riders need much more parking lot practice, preferably on a small bike.

Next Steps

Telling new riders that they must practice in a parking lot is all fine and well. But, is it enough? The two students I encountered last weekend need more than seat time. They need professional help. Private lessons would do each of them a world of good. But, will they do it? And is it even available?

And what about the average rider who passes the course with a decent score? They need more than just a two day class to become proficient. Any exclamation to students that they must continue their education has no credibility unless there is actually an accessible and affordable “next step” in rider training.
The MSF offers the BRC 2 (the old Experienced Ridercourse) and the Advanced RiderCourse, as well as the Street RiderCourse. Unfortunately, many training sites don’t offer or promote these programs, because they aren’t popular and are often cancelled from the schedule due to lack of interest. Some private options are available, including the Riding in the Zone Personal training program for more experienced riders.
Even if training is available, when already-licensed riders are approached with the idea of taking an advanced riding course, reading a skills book or article, or attending a track school, many scoff and turn away. Why? It seems that there is a belief that once a person learns the fundamental control skills, then they are all set; thank you very much.
There are emotional reasons as well. Many adults dislike being in the role of student, because they risk feeling incompetent, which is a real possibility when learning new and potentially difficult skills.

Evaluation Standards

Emphasizing that the BRC is a baby step toward proficiency and providing enticing opportunities for continuing education is important, but there are other problems, especially the fact that the evaluation standards are too easy and not realistic. An easy evaluation is popular with students who want to pass the course, as well as dealerships and manufacturers who want new customers, and even instructors who dislike having to fail students. But, a too-easy evaluation does a serious disservice to all involved.

The fact is that many, if not most graduates of the Basic course are not yet ready to ride on the road. Sure, they have learned basic operations, but not to any level of proficiency that can be considered sufficient for managing a “real life-sized” motorcycle among distracted drivers.
In many other professional training environments, the trainer has the final word on whether a student meets standards for not, even if they “pass” a test. Many motorcycle safety courses are also used for meeting the state licensing requirements, so standardized testing is the most practical way to go. It would be risky to allow instructors with below average judgment to have the power to fail one person and not another based on subjective criteria.
Unfortunately, without this ability to overrule the evaluation score sheet, weak riders who manage to somehow meet standard will continue to receive completion cards. Because of this, most coaches I know routinely have a heart to heart talk with riders who fall under this category after the evaluation is complete.
I’ve done it many times before. In extreme cases, I may say something like: “You met standard and passed the course, Chuck. BUT, if it were up to me you would not be receiving this completion card. In my professional opinion, you have a long way to go before you should consider riding on the street. If you decide to continue as a motorcycle rider, promise me you that you will buy a small used bike and practice, practice, practice in a parking lot and please consider coming back for private lessons and the BRC2 when you have a few miles under your belt.” I may have pooped on his parade, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell him the truth.

Is it time to regulate continuing education to help reduce fatalities?
Is it time to regulate continuing education to help reduce fatalities?

Force Change?

So, what’s the answer? In the UK and Europe mandatory rider training is a multi-level process that takes many months and a rather high price tag to receive a full license. But, it would be nearly impossible at this time to pass a regulation that would force new riders into a multistage training process before they can obtain their full “I’ll take that new ‘Busa” license.
So in the meantime I’ll continue to tell it like it is…because not everyone is cut out to ride a motorcycle.
How about this license test used in Japan? How do you think you’d do?

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11 Replies to “The Problem with Rider Training”

  1. The video at the end is interesting and certainly different than what we do but what we don’t know would be the criteria used to determine pass/fail NOR whether that is effective. But, as I did in the discussion, I certainly agree that the MSF curricula is in introduction to motorcycling and that we ALL need more practice!

  2. If it takes multiple stages to acquire a D class motor vehicle license, why should an M endorsement be any different? Multiple levels and multiple hours should be mandatory when getting your motorcycle endorsement.
    Also, what about states that allow riders to get their endorsements on a Can-Am Spyder? In my opinion, this also provides a false sense of security to those who go this route and think that are ready to also ride a 2-wheeled vehicle. These two are night and day.
    Does the system need to be looked at? Absolutely. The UK has a great model and may serve as a good example.

  3. Great post Ken, As a Ridercoach I also see this issue. I try to set a tone for life long training and perfecting, and motorcycles is not for everyone. It is a BIG commitment that takes lots of skills and practice. I always let them know that I am not an expert and I always keep taking classes and a new step in rider training. Even”expert riders keep up the practice” I know not everyone can be reached or persuaded to make the right choices to seek further training or may deside they do not have what is takes. I love being a ridercoach for the challenge of trying to find the right path and methord to try and help reach each student. Would never trade the feeling of sincerity and enthusiasm that I have seen in some classes in the classroom and on the range. I always thank them for making the decision to sign up and take some basic training. I know that I do make a difference in some lives and hope they do keep learning and perfecting. I do keep in touch with some students and have seen some come back for the next step. May it be 1 on 1 lessons, a refresher class, ERC, dirtbike classes, or some other lessons. I know the curriculum has some places to improve, and some issues and shortfalls, but I hope the 1 on 1 chats set into those that really have trouble or need to make big decisions if motorcycling should be something for them. The big issue I also see is those that never take any training or will not. How do we reach those that ride dangerously and take chances? How do we get them to see the light and stop their actions and become better safer riders?

  4. The video is very revealing about how “trained” I am to the U.S. right side of road driving. I found it very disconcerting, seriously doubt I could pass that test flawlessly. I loved the trained pidgeon! I hear the UK is in the midst of changing their motorcycle rider training requirements making it quite tougher.

  5. Hi Ken, I’m in NW Florida and took my MSF class last May 14.Here they do the class, get endorsement…take to DMV. My coach layed out options which he later agreed with me doing a private class. I have anxiety attacks and he was excellent working around that issue, I also have Hepatitis C and he worked around that…I actually wrecked in class, I got up and he said ride or walk? I said ride as I crawled back on! The day he did my test
    ..I thought it was a regular day with new tasks to learn…it was actually my test and I Passed! He talked to me along time the last day, he told me my biggest enemy was myself, my self doubt was holding me back. He also told me to start out with a small bike (I bought the one I always wanted..a 12 HD Slim), he told me I needed sooooooo much practice, he asked me not to ride in public until….
    I’m so grateful for his teaching abilities, he was a wonderful coach and helped me so much. But as with everything we learn it doesn’t happen overnight, I now understand where I’m at…I have NOT been able to find a mentor, I ride my bike in my hood…I have an L shaped street w/ a small round about at one end and a ra in the middle, I can’t get out of 2nd and most is slow maneuvering, the front end feels heavy and combersome to turn,but the bike in General is a great fit for me, it feels balanced, feet are flat & solid. I wish you would write a book for us newbies for practice and
    I wanted to let you know, It may take me the rest of my life (56) to get on the road, but I won’t go unless I know I’m ready…
    Thx, for all you do to help us newblies!

    1. Laura,
      Riding a motorcycle for the first time is quite challenging for many people. Congrats on your achievement. I suggest you get yourself to a large, open parking lot where you can get your bike up to a bit highers speed. I’m glad your bike feels balanced at slow maneuvers, but it will way better once you get above 30 mph or so.
      As far as drills go, the Riding in the Zone book and video has parking lot drills (described in text and demonstrated in the video). These drills are good for both beginner and intermediate-advanced riders. Good luck.

  6. I just completed my MSF basic course.
    Out of 10 students, 10 passed.
    At least half would be directly dangerous on the road.
    I’m in VA, it’s absolutely insane that you get an M2 license after passing the MSF basic course.
    I don’t care that the instructors say “You should all practice”, “This course is just to introduce you to motorcycles” etc.. WHATEVER, it’s just words, because in the end… if you pass you get your M2 endorsement.
    The MSF course doesn’t even take you onto the road.. You know, that place where you’ll actually be driving.. With other vehicles.
    It’s dangerous for beginner riders, it’s dangerous for people around them.

  7. I had less than an hour of riding time on their bike and was disqualified, i had been up close to two days straight, i work 3rd shift, i was fatigued,i stalled out a couple times, i did not wreck or hurt anyone, the course is a joke,i told them i payed you to teach me, so teach me, they did not, they are there to make a buck and move on,it should not be a pas or fail, but training, i feel i was ripped off, i have learned more from my friends that are experienced than the fly by night course instructors, not to mention you don’t get road time, just alot of stop and go in a run down parking lot, what a waste of time, and money, i would not recommend the safety course to anyone

    1. Sorry to hear about your experience, Monte. It’s important to know that not all sites and training companies are the same. Some simply suck. But, most do not suck.
      I agree that they should have done their job and trained you. They did you a disservice and failed to deliver. I taught in Massachusetts for 25 years and we would have fired any instructor who would give up on a student so readily.

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