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Rider Education DEATHS on the Rise!
(Two easy 'fixes')

By: James R. Davis

Here are 14 'incidents' that occurred between 1998 and 2010 that should take your breath away:

  1. 1998: Valley Forge, PA. Pennsylvania MSP.. Student fails to make turn. Runs off the range, slices open chest and aorta on the Armco barrier off the range. Death.

  2. 2002: Festus, MO: May 18. Rider's Edge (RSS). Student fails to make a turn. Runs off the range, hits building. Death.

  3. 2002: Laconia, NH: June 6. Rider's Edge (RSS). Student fails to make a turn. Runs off the range, hits building. Death.

  4. 2003: Colorado Springs, CO: Mother's Day. Independent provider through Colorado MSP. Student fails to make a turn. Runs off the range, hits curb, lands on her head. Death.

  5. 2004: WV: Rider's Edge: Student fails to make a turn. Runs off the range, hits building. Near-fatal.

  6. 2005: FL: Rider's Edge: Student fails to make a turn. Hits fence. Multiple AIS 4+ injuries. Near-fatal.

  7. 2006: CA: Independent site through California MSP. Instructor is hit by out-of-control student. Falls backwards and hits head on curb. Death.

  8. 2006: Kenosha, WI: Rider's Edge.: Student fails to make a turn. Runs off the range, hits building. Death.

  9. 2007: Honesdale, PA: Death.

  10. 2007: Sugar Notch, PA: Woman MSF student loses control, rides up and over berm which becomes a launch ramp, she falls 44 feet over cliff and becomes a paraplegic.Near-fatal.

  11. 2008: Unknown: MSF reported without details. death

  12. 2008: Unknown: MSF reported without details. death

  13. 2008: Unknown: MSF reported without details. death

  14. 2010: Florence, SC: The man, 55-year-old James Smith, lost control and was thrown to the ground. It is not clear, yet, whether Mr. Smith was taking an entry level (BRC) class or an intermediate level class.

It's certainly possible that there were more of these 'incidents' in the time frame shown.

Notice that the accident in 1998 stands out as if it was not related to the others that clumped into a pattern between 2002 and 2010.

What is breath-taking about these numbers is that, by contrast, in the preceding 20+ years, there were no known incidents of death or near-fatal accidents during rider training classes.

Might there be some factors in these incidents to raise caution-warning-danger flags? Well, how about these observations concerning those that preceded 2008 (a year for which the MSF mysteriously released information about three more deaths, without any details whatsoever):

In 100% of these accidents, the student had lost control of his/her motorcycle. In fact, in 100% of these accidents the student had a wide open throttle (full roll-on, in other words).

In 75% of the cases, the students, failed to negotiate a turn -- not at 60 MPH, but at something like 20 MPH.

And in over 60% of the cases, the student was riding a Buell Blast. Which means that they were in a Rider's Edge (RE) instead of an MSF class.

All but three of the incidents involved the MSF's BRC (Basic Rider Course) curriculum.

At least one credible estimate of the number of deaths/near-fatal incidents for MSF classes during that time frame is 1 in something like 250,000 students. A similar estimate for H-D's Rider's Edge classes is closer to 1 death/near-fatality for every 20,000 students. That's an order of magnitude over-representation of Rider's Edge class incidents.

Makes you wonder, no?

Given these facts, there is reason to believe that something about the BRC curriculum is failing. Either it has been 'dumbed down' (it has, believe me) as compared to its predecessor, the RSS - Riding and Street Strategies curriculum. Or it is being taught in some different way (or on a redesigned range), or both. The result has been this spate of fatalities.

In Houston, TX, in April 2007, a Harley-Davidson dealers employee, without authorization, decided to take a customer's Hayabusa for a 'test ride' on their Rider's Edge range. He, like the students described above, lost control of the bike and froze at its controls. He died as a result of running into a permanent wooden stage fixture adjacent to the lot. Though he was not engaged in a Rider's Edge class, all the symptoms leading up to his death were the same. One has to wonder whether range design is at least partially responsible for these deaths.

Some people, particularly those associated in some way with the MSF, such as RiderCoaches, deny that these statistics are meaningful. They claim that with more students enrolling over the years, and with an increasingly older set of students, it was inevitable that sooner or later deaths would occur. Maybe they have a point, but it seems to me that 13 deaths or near-fatal accidents, ignoring the 1988 incident, over an eight-year time frame is far more than an unfortunate string of coincidences. Statistically, this is not an 'aberration.'

So what is it that the MSF's BRC curriculum is doing, or not doing, that can reasonably be shown as causative? Is there anything that can be done, immediately, to reverse this trend and make these courses safer for those who attend these classes?

I don't have an answer to the first question that satisfies all of my readers, but it satisfies me. The MSF curriculum is designed to teach the fundamental skills and knowledge required to obtain and maintain control of a motorcycle. That design misses one extremely important component: it fails to teach students how to regain control if they lose it.

Specifically, one additional instruction needs to be conveyed to students on their first day on the range, and it needs to be done at a specific time -- when those students first put their bikes in gear with their engines running.

Not only should it be added for all students to hear, but it should be provided to each student, one at a time.

With the students mounted on their bikes, engine running, the Instructor/RiderCoach should walk to the left side of each student, grasp the student's left hand in such a manner as to prevent the clutch lever from being released, and then have that student 'put it into first gear'. There will be a CLUNK sound as that happens. The student will feel and hear the bike's transmission engaging. It is perfectly normal and expected. The Instructor is then to say:

"Wait! Do nothing but listen to what I'm saying. Notice that you are in complete control of your motorcycle now. Because you are squeezing both the clutch and brake levers, it doesn't matter how fast the engine turns, or how loud it gets. You are in control. And if you ever lose control of this motorcycle, for any reason at all, you can regain control of it by immediately squeezing both levers. Do you understand why?"

The instructor reacts to whatever the student's response is appropriately, then has that student put the bike into neutral and wait as he moves on to the next student to repeat that life-saving instruction.

Following this simple, but essential, addition to the BRC curriculum, the class should continue as it was originally designed. The BRC will have just addressed the issue of regaining control in a meaningful way.

I have two additional issues with the changes the MSF brought forward with the BRC as they left the RSS: 'Instructors' have been retitled 'RiderCoaches', and the method of teaching has become 'learner-based'.

'Instructors' teach fundamentals to students who are new to an activity while 'coaches' teach experienced students how to improve their performance. Newbies should be taught by Instructors! Shortly after the retitling, some RiderCoaches began to think of and talk about the instructors who taught the RSS as 'dinosaurs' with disdain. Those dinosaurs (and I am one of them) had a virtually unblemished safety record while teaching millions of students.

The 'learner-based' method of teaching is also suspect in that it emphasizes that students should be allowed to "learn from their mistakes." The RiderCoaches are not to be critical unless the mistakes are serious. Students drop their motorcycles during training, often more than once, without negative feedback. One has to wonder why mistakes should be ignored, since it is not possible to know in advance whether those mistakes will be minor or serious, until they happen. Dropping a bike during training can result in nothing more than a bruised ego, but it can also result in broken bones, or worse. (Imagine, if you can, a military Drill Instructor ignoring a recruits dropping his rifle on a target range, unless that rifle happens to fire a bullet.) The current method also sets up rules that are appropriate on the range, for complete novices, but which are not best practices on the street--without making that distinction.

For example, obviously the RiderCoaches know that you can swerve and brake at the same time, and that at times it is the right thing to do. The BRC and RE, in this regard, leave the student misinformed. Just like their refusal to allow the students to cover their front brake lever. The RiderCoaches announce this rule, but they typically do not explain that their rule is not a blanket challenge of the practice of covering your brake in traffic, but instead it's observed only while the students are on the training range.

In a similar fashion, the BRC and RE curriculum advises riders that they must not swerve and brake at the same time. This blanket prohibition is an exaggeration of concern that misinforms those students. Why would a training program tell that to students who will never be given an exercise where they could possibly exceed traction by using normal (non-aggressive) braking and swerving at the same time?

Not only does this curriculum provide a grossly misleading concept of the 'traction pie', it also uses loss of traction as a misdirecting justification for not simultaneously braking and swerving/turning. What they are really concerned about during basic rider training is that simultaneous braking and swerving is simply too complicated for a newbie to assimilate. Further, the basic classes in too many ways suggest to the student rider that swerving and turning are essentially the same activities. They are not. Swerving is a decidedly more complex behavior than turning, because it usually involves three turns, not just one or two.

Withholding information from new riders 'for their own good' is anything but educating them. Misdirecting them into believing that they are not to turn and brake at the same time because of limited traction, instead of saying don't try it on the range, because it's a complex maneuver, results in students coming to regard much of what they're taught in basic rider training as suspect, when they find out the truth.

Contrary to a policy of 'playing it safe' by withholding information about simultaneous braking and turning, my belief is the MSF should be very proactive in providing quality, factual information, and perspectives that a new rider cannot have yet.

Covering the front brake lever to save time and distance, and knowing that you can simultaneously turn and brake, are two practices that can save your life; but not if you believe in error that they cannot, or should not, ever be done.

Nevertheless, RiderCoaches have been led to believe that they are 'professional educators.' They are not. They deliver a lock-step curriculum that teaches the fundamentals, usually with concern and accuracy; but most cannot answer a student's question, "Why?" about motorcycle dynamics and will refuse to discuss any nuances of their rules on the range.

Now let's deal with the over-representation of deaths and near-fatal accidents in the Rider's Edge classes.

I believe that using a 500cc motorcycle in a BRC or RE class (designed for beginners, after all) is inappropriate to begin with. No 500cc bikes were allowed in MSF classes prior to Harley-Davidsons lobbying the MSF (after they returned as a sponsor of the program) to change their requirements to permit the use of such powerful bikes by complete novices. Perhaps coincidentally, no deaths or near-fatal accidents occurred prior to this change, either. But despite my belief that these are simply too much machine for a newbie to be expected to deal with, the fact remains that 500cc motorcycles are allowed to be used in RE classes now. Indeed, until 2010 the Buell Blast, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, has been the only motorcycle used in the Rider's Edge classes. (As of 2010, the Buell Blast is no longer being made but it is still being used in the Riders Edge classes. I don't believe they have announced what their formal replacement for that class is, yet.)

Engine power is not the only issue regarding the use of these machines in an MSF class. Some Buell Blast's are unnecessarily loud. A significant difference between an MSF BRC class and a Rider's Edge BRC class can be the level of noise the students must deal with while learning to control their motorcycles. It is my opinion that excessive noise levels lead to some students becoming 'saturated,' 'overwhelmed,' or 'shut down,' to the point that they cannot mentally deal with the demands of controlling a motorcycle. They freeze, instead of reacting to threats. For example, an engine race or popping of a clutch lever causes the student to immediately become confused (even panicked); and instead of reacting appropriately, they simply 'hang on'--and as a result, some of them die.

Realistically, the dealerships that offer the Rider's Edge classes cannot be expected to change what make of motorcycles they use in their classes. Harley-Davidson is in business to sell Harley-Davidson motorcycles, after all.

So what can you do should noise levels be high in your class? I suggest that at minimum, students should be encouraged to wear ear plugs when on the course range, especially if they take the RE. That is good practice in general (if you value your hearing), and it may be the difference between having an accident in rider training class, or completing it without injury.

Copyright 1992 - 2024 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

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

A plea for your help