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Moving from Scooters to Motorcycles
Gaining a new safety feature!

By: James R. Davis

Look around you and you will find that there are a lot more scooters on the road than there used to be. And if you look closely you will see that many of those scooters are no longer small, underpowered, fit-only-for-a-short-commute machines. There are maxi-scooters out there that can easily handle a 400 mile freeway trip, safely and with comfort.

And where do you think the owners of those maxi-scooters will go when they outgrow them? To motorcycles, of course. And many scooter owners are doing just that.

I have recently been involved in training an experienced scooter rider how to handle the Buell Blast that she just purchased. She had already attended a Harley-Davidson Rider's Edge class and passed it, so she certainly knew all the fundamentals. With several thousand miles of riding experience on her scooter, the idea of riding her new motorcycle in traffic was not a serious issue for her. But she was NOT confident - indeed, she was almost paralyzed with fear, that she might make a mistake with the clutch while shifting. Like virtually all scooters, her's had been an automatic.

I bring that to your attention because it is my experience that people who have scooter experience seem invariably to look upon having to deal with a clutch and standard transmission as the principal issue holding them back from buying a motorcycle, even if they have experience driving a standard transmission car.

For some reason none of these people seem to think of having a clutch as being a safety advantage. I do, but then again I tend to look at everything about riding motorcycles in safety terms.

Here are a few things to think about for anybody who is considering a move up from a scooter to a motorcycle or who are entirely new to motorcycles.

  • The two controls on a motorcycle which tend to save lives are the clutch lever and the front brake.
  • The two controls on a motorcycle which tend to cost lives are the throttle and the rear brake.
  • You should MASTER the ones that tend to save lives before learning the subtleties and limits of the two that tend to cost lives.
  • In order to REGAIN control of a motorcycle that is out of control (because of a popped clutch, for example), you must SQUEEZE BOTH LEVERS - immediately, instinctively, without any lost time thinking about it!
  • With an automatic transmission you CAN apply max throttle and max braking at the same time - you CANNOT disconnect the engine from the rear wheel.
  • with a motorcycle you can also apply both full throttle and full brakes, but you can ALSO totally disconnect the engine from the rear wheel via the clutch lever.

CONTROL of your motorcycle is your principal obligation as a rider, no matter what conditions you find yourself in, no matter the weather, no matter what condition the bike is in, indeed, no matter what condition *YOU* are in. But in the real world things happen and on rare occasions you can lose control. You can pop a clutch (release the clutch lever too quickly). You can roll on a fistful of throttle without realizing how powerful a new bike is. And, as a result, your obligation as a rider is to REGAIN CONTROL of that bike.

Unfortunately, the MSF curriculum for motorcycle training only teaches you how to get and maintain control. They lack, utterly, even a mention of how to REGAIN control if control is lost. The result of that is that motorcyclists tend to FREEZE at their controls and merely hang on - and sometimes die as a result.

Since 2001 there have been SEVEN deaths and three near-fatal accidents during MSF or Rider's Edge classes because of this (as of 12/07). In all cases the student popped his/her clutch and grabbed a handful of throttle, then FROZE as their motorcycles raced with a wide open throttle into a building, a fence, a curb or once into an instructor (killing him instead of the student). In fact, though not part of a motorcycle training class, an experienced Harley-Davidson dealership employee in Houston, Texas, took a customer's Hayabusa super-bike out onto that dealership's Rider's Edge range and did the exact same thing - he popped the clutch, grabbed a handful of throttle, and FROZE at the controls as the bike raced OUT OF CONTROL into a wooden stage just off the range, and died as a result.

In EVERY ONE OF THOSE ELEVEN SITUATIONS the motorcycle had a functional clutch lever that was ignored. By simply squeezing both the clutch lever and the front brake lever they could have REGAINED CONTROL of their out of control motorcycles - and lived as a result.

People freeze in a panic situation because they have not been taught, and therefore don't know, what else to do. Sure sounds like an addition to the MSF's curriculum is called for - a How To REGAIN Control module, at the very least.

The clutch lever is, without any question in my mind, a SAFETY FEATURE on a motorcycle, not a problem that will have to be dealt with. Mastering the use of that lever can save your life. Scooters don't have that feature. But, on the other hand, they are easier to ride and have lots more cargo carrying capacity and space than do most motorcycles.

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

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