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What They Didn't Teach During The MSF Class
And a couple of things they shouldn't

By: James R. Davis

The MSF classes must teach an enormous number of facts and skills to people who must be assumed to have no experience whatever with motorcycles. As such, they do not have time to teach the kinds of things that are found in these various Tips & Techniques articles, or they have insufficient time to emphasize these various ideas to the extent that I do. [Lest anybody gets the wrong idea, this Tip is not meant to be antagonistic towards the MSF nor of its teachings - I am one of the strongest advocates of MSF training to be found anywhere.]

  • The MSF teaches their students how to get and maintain control of their motorcycles. What they fail, utterly, to do is teach their students how to REGAIN control if it is lost. Students should be told that if they ever lose control of their bikes (pop a clutch, for example), they are to SQUEEZE BOTH LEVERS! Fast! No thinking! React!

  • When riding alone or in the lead of a group, as you approach the crest of a hill, move away from the center line. By the time oncoming traffic is visible it can be too late to move should you find someone coming at you in your lane if you have not already bought some air-space. (Actually, this one IS taught in the MSF class - I include it for emphasis.)

  • When riding in a group it is far more important to put your most qualified/experienced/prepared rider in the drag position than it is to put that person in the lead. This person is, after all, the first person who will need to deal with an accident, is in the best position to observe the riding skills of the others and recommend changes to accommodate them if need be, and is the person that most often obtains that new lane for the group. That's plenty of activity and responsibility, and merits the best, not the worst of the group.

  • When riding as a group, lane changes into a lane that is moving slower than you are should be done just as you do when passing a car - one at a time, first bike to last. The drag bike being the last bike to make the lane change. Observe that so long as the lead bike takes over the slower lane and maintains speed, the hole in the target lane gets larger and everybody can move over (one by one) with minimal time consumed. Only after the drag bike has made the lane change should speeds for the group be changed (lowered) to insure that everyone can get into the new lane. Note, please, that this assumes that there is sufficient opening ahead of the car being passed. If not, then a last-to-front maneuver is called for (the lead bike will slow the group down upon hearing that the drag bike has obtained the lane.) The choice is made by the lead bike.

  • When riding as a group, lane changes into a lane that is moving faster than you are should be done back to front - the drag bike obtaining the lane, and the others coming over only after the bike behind them has moved, and only if they individually confirm it is safe to do so. Pretty standard stuff, I'll grant you, other than the last to first moves. This is done because with the drag bike in position and maintaining his original speed, the 'hole' in the target lane gets larger in front of him. If you wait until everyone can move into it at once, that hole is awfully inviting to impatient automobile drivers too.

  • One lesson that the MSF class teaches that I think needs to be clarified better is their admonition to always stop with one foot on the ground. Fine, if it is a small bike, but a touring bike should be stopped placing both feet on the ground at the same time, in my opinion. A slick spot is unforgiving, and very dangerous. Your rear brake can be released if your front brake is holding at 2 MPH with no concerns whatever. (Obviously, you do not put feet down until the bike is fully stopped.) I believe that the MSF used to teach that you stop with your RIGHT foot on the ground and the other on the peg. That was changed to LEFT foot down so that you could keep your right foot on the brake. [I cannot confirm that about the MSF - it may be myth.] In either case, by definition, your bike is not vertical with only one foot on the ground. If you must make a fast departure (to get out of somebody's way, for example), it takes more time to do so with one foot down rather than two. This, because you must straighten the bike as you depart, you have a more erratic start, and you must first take your right foot OFF the brake - all time consuming. Finally, you can probably rather easily handle a smaller bike with one leg, but a large touring bike is another case entirely. [There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. If you are stopped at a light on a severe incline, your right foot belongs on the brake pedal. Similarly, in a panic stop situation you want to stop with your foot still on the rear brake.]

  • Another lesson that is not quite emphasized enough in MSF class is that your mirrors only say NO. That is, if you see a problem in your mirrors, they are telling you NOT to move into that problem. If they do not show you a problem that is not the same as them saying YES, make your move. Head checks every time (MSF does teach this!)

  • If it's shiny or black, ride a different track. Just because you are in staggered formation does NOT mean that you have to stay in your track. There is a whole lane at your disposal without encroaching on the traffic rights of other motorists. You ride staggered to give you maneuvering room in case you need it. Rather than ride over a patch of shiny or unusually black surface, assume you need it.
Freeway riding invites some obvious survival rules that for some reason or other seem to be ignored by most. For example,

  • Assuming you are in the slow or second slowest lane and you approach an on-ramp, do a head check to the right. Equally as important, if you are approaching an off-ramp, do a head check to the LEFT (and catch that guy who is about to cut in front of you to make his exit).

  • If you have a choice of lanes to ride in, the second fastest lane is a compelling choice. This allows a way for the hot dogs to pass you (more or less legally), and is, not incidentally, where the least lane changing takes place (unless it is a three-lane road, of course.)

  • There is nothing magic or sacred about avoiding the center track of your lane. Debris usually ends up not in the center track, but on the lines on a freeway. Since there is so little stopping on a freeway, the center track is usually not significantly more greasy than to either side of it. So, in high wind situations, favor the center track. Passing between a pair of 18-wheelers, use the center track. Riding in the fast lane with a guard rail or retaining wall near by, use the center track.

What they should NOT be teaching (because it is WRONG):

  • You must not cover your front brake while moving
    (This is ONLY true while you are in their class, new to motorcycling, and riding at slow speeds and likely to dump the bike if you apply the brake while in a turn)

  • Your front brake provides 70% of your stopping power
    (In fact, if your bike can do a Stoppie it can provide 100% of the stopping power, and in almost all cases more than 90% of it.)

  • Braking in a curve will widen that turn
    (Usually, but certainly not always. But what is certainly true is that regardless of which brake you use, if you are moving faster than about 10 mph when you apply your brake(s) in a curve, your bike will tend to 'fall up' instead of down - that is, it will tend to stand taller with a lessened lean angle.)

  • Having the students lock their rear brake at 20 MPH
    (This is insane! The lesson being taught is that using both brakes is far more effective than using just the rear, and certainly more effective than using just the front, but that lesson could be taught having the students use only the FRONT brake then both for comparison. IT IS NEVER, EVER - NOT ONCE IN YOUR LIFETIME - APPROPRIATE TO AGGRESSIVELY USE YOUR REAR BRAKE. If asked to do this in an MSF class you are well advised to refuse - it is NOT mandatory. Implying to a new rider that he can control a rear brake skid and that it is not particularly dangerous is virtually criminal to my mind.)

  • The heavier the bike, the greater the stopping distance and time to stop that bike
    (Nonsense! This is pure myth. A heavier bike takes more energy to stop than a lighter bike, but it gives you the added traction to use that energy - i.e., just apply more braking effort and the time and distance will be the same.)

  • Downshift while braking
    (Their logic is that this insures that you are always in first gear when you come to a stop so that you could, if necessary, quickly start moving again without having to first 'find' first gear. This is a distraction that takes your attention away from a potentially life saving effort (an emergency stop) when ALL of your attention should be spent on controlling your motorcycle in that situation. Further, studies have shown that in order to achieve the shortest distance, fastest, stop while braking you need to totally disengage your clutch when you start that braking effort. Downshift AFTER you have come to a complete stop - ALWAYS.)

In general, the MSF has dumbed down its curriculum and even worse, has dumbed down its instructor curriculum so that those Instructors/Rider Coaches can no longer answer questions that start with 'why?'.

I am getting some feedback that the MSF beginner class has changed again:

Having just completed the MSF BRC in CA (at Two Wheel SafetyTraining), I'd like to point out that a few of the things you mention in that article have changed.

  1. We were told to ALWAYS use both feet on the pavement when stopped.

  2. We were not told about lane-position at all, aside from what is in the basic handbook (i.e. there are three sublanes, use as needed).

  3. NEVER brake and turn simultaneously. Only brake when handles are straight, or very gradually (i.e. if you don't have space to straighten-then-brake in a forced brake during turn).

  4. Did not do any rear-brake-locking exercise.

  5. No mention of vehicle weight vs stopping distance.

I am pleased with most of that but would argue that you can almost always do some braking while in a turn, regardless of speed. If you are going to stop, straighten the bike before you actually stop, but if your bike is not leaned over more than about 30 degrees while in that turn you have more braking ability left than you can probably bring yourself to use.

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(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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