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Rider Education ala MSF...
... is NOT About Safety!

By: James R. Davis

To be sure, the MSF's BRC curriculum used in almost all state sponsored motorcycle training classes and Harley-Davidson's Rider's Edge classes contains some safety information. But it would be a mistake to think that the purpose of that training or even the passing of the class by students results in safer motorcycle riding by those students.

It has been shown that graduates of the class do have a better safety record for a short period of time following the class, but no study has ever concluded that graduates of the MSF curriculum are safer riders other than in the short-term. Still, any improvement in the accident statistics is generally worth having, but then again, I wonder if that is true at any price? Here we will discuss the seamier side of Rider Education in an effort to understand that price.

Many of you are aware that over the years I have become increasingly antagonistic towards the MSF and their riding curriculum. It's time that you understood why that has been happening and what the fundamental issues are that I have with the MSF.

First, let me repeat what I have often said about the MSF: it is a WORLD-CLASS organization that provides a WORLD-CLASS fundamental training curriculum for motorcyclists.

That said, it's time to dispel some myths and focus your attention on priorities.

The current MSF basic rider curriculum (BRC) is NOT a course that can be called a motorcycle SAFETY oriented class. It's purpose is to teach you the fundamentals about how to ride a motorcycle, not how to do it safely. Even that 'purpose' is not exactly top priority for the MSF. Instead, the primary objective of providing a fundamental 'how to ride' curriculum is to provide an increasingly large set of motorcycle buyers and, not incidentally, to insulate the motorcycle manufacturers from legal claims by riders who are injured or killed while riding their motorcycles.

From 1973 until 2012 the MSF has been providing motorcycle training curriculum there have been slightly more than 6.5 million students attend those classes. One would think that if safety was the paramount objective of that training, deaths and injuries would have fallen during that time. Some statistics show that to have been the case, not on an absolute basis, but on a relative basis. Kudos are in order for that accomplishment and it would not be fair to suggest it was the result of anything other than that training. But one would also assume that deaths and severe injuries that occurred DURING motorcycle training would also have fallen either absolutely or relatively. NOT TRUE!

Not until 1998 did anybody die during training. The first one (that I can get anybody to admit to) occurred in 1998. Approximately 2 million students had taken a beginner rider course before that first death. Then the MSF changed its curriculum and renamed it the BRC (Basic Riding Course); they dumbed it down, made it easier and more fun, so they say. Since that change (until 12/07) no fewer than EIGHT students and ONE instructor were killed or suffered a near fatal accident using the new and 'improved' curriculum. That means the new curriculum is no less than EIGHT TIMES more dangerous than the older MRC:RSS curriculum. That is NOT supportive of a belief that the MSF is focused on teaching motorcycle safety.

But there is more. Not only was the curriculum changed, so was the acceptable size of the motorcycles that could be used in the BRC training. With the adoption of the BRC curriculum training providers could use 500 cc motorcycles for their rank beginner students to learn on. Oh, and they also changed the requirements for the size of the training range upon which training could occur. They can now occur on 'compact' ranges that, not coincidentally, happen to be readily available on adjacent motorcycle dealership properties. Oh, and let's not forget that one of those motorcycle manufacturers, Harley-Davidson, happens to have rejoined the ranks of MSF sponsoring (owner) manufacturers, designed, just by chance, an entry level motorcycle called the Buell Blast (500 cc's, of course), and created a sub organization within itself that teaches a class called the Rider's Edge on ranges adjacent to their dealerships, using the new MSF BRC curriculum. (Let me add that up for you, while the BRC is 8 times more dangerous than the original RSS, the Rider's Edge classes, using the BRC, have been shown to be THIRTY-FIVE TIMES MORE DANGEROUS than state sponsored BRC classes! The Rider's Edge classes have graduated 100,000 students and 'only a few' of the other students died or nearly did. Indeed, 5 (possibly 6) of the 9 deaths or near-fatalities occurred during a Rider's Edge class. In other words, 1 in 20,000 Rider's Edge students die or nearly do while 3 or 4 students have died in state sponsored MSF BRC classes which is close to 1 in 700,000 students!

One begins to wonder if safety is, after all, what motivates the MSF. Indeed, with the intimate relationship between MSF and the motorcycle manufacturers (they are, like Harley-Davidson, the stockholders of the MSF), it seems clear that profit is more likely to be higher on their priority list than is safety. But you know that the MSF is a 'non-profit' organization. (I will speak directly to that bit of misdirection of fact later.) Still, if the MSF could, by providing motorcycle training result in lowering of motorcycle manufacturer liabilities, that would be a 'good thing' from their stockholder's point of view. Even better, if they could cause an increase in sales of motorcycles, 'everybody' would be happier, no?

A lawsuit against, for example, Harley-Davidson, which claims that "they sold or allowed to be sold a motorcycle to a person who they knew or should have known was not capable of handling that machine without serious risk of injury or death" falls on judicial deaf ears when it can be shown that the buyer of that motorcycle SUCCESSFULLY completed a BRC class (whether state sponsored or Rider's Edge.) The liability has been shifted away from the manufacturer to either the training provider or the rider himself.

But to go even farther, a lawsuit against, either Harley-Davidson or the MSF itself which claims that "they provided insufficient training to assure that the rider would have been able to handle their motorcycle without serious risk of injury or death" also falls on judicial deaf ears when the state has provided a motorcycle endorsement on that rider's license which, in effect, says that the state agrees that the rider has sufficient knowledge and skills to safely ride a motorcycle.

Then there is the little matter of the MSF suing Team Oregon because they (the MSF) allege, Team Oregon's curriculum (BRT, not BRC) includes material for which the MSF holds copyrights on. Little known is that they (MSF) offered to drop that suit if the state would agree to provide motorcycle license test waivers to graduates of the BRC classes, whether state sponsored or not. In other words, if the state would provide graduates of the Harley-Davidson Rider's Edge class those waivers.

You see, that motorcycle endorsement puts another layer of liability insulation between the manufacturer and the rider. In essence, if you get a motorcycle operator endorsement on your drivers license, as a result of passing your states' sponsored MSF BRC class, liability then falls on YOUR shoulders. Kiss good bye your ability to sue Harley-Davidson, or Honda, or any other of the STOCKHOLDERS of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. (Yes, that non-profit organization is a CORPORATION (501 (c)) OWNED by the manufacturers of motorcycles.) And lest you forget an economic fundamental, corporations are REQUIRED to do those things that enhance their bottom line (either currently or in the future) and they CANNOT do those things that damage their bottom line, such as public services, safety training, save-the-earth from global warming campaigns, or anything else.

Let's get that straight immediately. Motorcycle manufactures CANNOT, for example, DONATE MONEY OR INVEST IN an organization such as the MSF in order to promote safety. They may ONLY do so if, as a result, they can enhance the performance of their corporation's bottom line.

Then there is the issue of why the MSF's BRC curriculum has been dumbed down. THEY claim it was in order to make the course EASIER and more FUN. In fact, it was to result in more student who PASS the course and, thus, insulate the manufacturers from that liability we talked about earlier. The same can be said of why they now encourage their Rider Coaches to IGNORE minor errors early in the class. And, not incidentally, they shifted liability from the MSF to the Rider Coaches!!!!

So, in summary, taking the MSF is profoundly important for the new or returning rider as it DOES teach them the fundamentals of HOW TO RIDE. It is a mistake to believe that taking the MSF course teaches how to ride SAFELY or that being an MSF graduate reduces your odds of having an accident except in the short term.

No less an authority than Harry Hurt (author of the famous Hurt study) agrees with this point of view. In a recent article published in MCN (Motorcycle Consumer News) by Wendy Moon (a member of this board), he is quoted extensively on the subject. You may read an extract of Mr. Hurt's comments on Wendy Moon's blog here. (Scroll down to the May 24, 2007 posting at 9:53 AM.)

So if the MSF is in business to promote motorcycle sales and to reduce liabilities for those motorcycle manufactures, does that mean that they have assumed some of those liabilities? Not hardly. Indeed, the MSF has essentially insulated itself absolutely from liabilities and shifted them almost entirely onto the backs of the students. Almost? Well, they also have shifted some liabilities onto the backs of motorcycle Instructors/Rider Coaches. During the last few years the MSF created a new 'liability waiver document' which not only specifies the words DEATH and SEVERE INJURY (in boldface) as expected outcomes of the classes, it does so twice! And it removes MSF altogether from any accountability or responsibility for the course and, thus, puts all that liability on the course provider and instructors.

Rider Coaches are NOT MSF employees. They are contractors of the class provider (possibly employees of the dealership that provides Rider's Edge classes), but NEVER MSF employees.

When an accident happens during a class, the instructor must fill out a report of the incident. Among other questions they must answer is one that asks if this was the first incident that student experienced during the class and, if not, a description of prior incidents. Now, please, who do you think is self incriminating by answering 'No' to the first question and who do you think then has liability should they explain why it is that they allowed that student to continue in the class? MSF? Certainly not. The provider? Possibly, if that provider has written instructions to the instructor that MANDATES that he/she allow minor errors or incidents to be ignored. And, oh yeah, that is exactly what the BRC does have their INSTRUCTORS do - ignore minor errors. Once an error becomes an accident, however, there certainly is a lot of room to argue about the judgment of the instructor for deciding that earlier 'incidents' were minor enough to allow the student to continue. No?

[Speaking of liabilities ... I am NOT an attorney and the above is in no way legal advice. It is my opinion. I will add, however, that if I was required to answer that question after an accident in one of my classes I would seek the opinion of an attorney before I did so!]

In summary,
  • The MSF BRC is not as safe as the curriculum that it replaced.
  • Students are dying at an INCREASED rate during training.
  • The classes are designed, in particular the H-D Rider's Edge class, to sell more motorcycles, not increase safety.
  • Liability has been removed from motorcycle manufactures and the MSF and transferred onto the backs of students and instructors.
It appears to me that motorcycle rider training is about something entirely different than safety.

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

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