The Motorcycle Safety Foundation - Rider Safety and Skill Course

by James H. Lui

I've been riding now for some 15 years and over 33,000 miles and have had my share of accidents and undesired encounters with four-wheel vehicles.  I started my riding days on a 1983 Yamaha Riva 180 scooter with a basically automatic transmission and 75 m.p.h. freeway-legal capability.  Naturally that made passing the California DMV rider skills test quite simple (3 passes around a 30-foot enscribed path circle in both directions, two passes on a 50-foot cone weave test, turning and stopping, and straight-line stopping with a how-to-use controls test thrown in) being that the Riva weighs around 200 lbs. and has 10-inch wheels.Now that I'm riding a Virago 1100, I felt that a reality-check of sorts was in order to make sure that my riding skills were up to par for the higher demands of the new bike.  After trying out the new wheels on a parking lot using the DMV rider skills tests, and feeling not quite as confident as I thought I should, I decided to enroll in the MSF-endorsed Rider Safety course.  There were two levels, one for absolute beginners through novice riders (RSC), and one for Experienced Riders (ERC).  For insurance-discount purposes, either will generally do, but some prefer the RSC.  Under-18 motorcyclists in California now need to obtain the RSC certificate in order to get an M1-class drivers license. Possessing the RSC certificate will also allow you to waive the skills test for obtaining an M1 (but you still need to take the written portion).

Since this was a sanity-check, and to possibly remedy any bad habits I had picked up through the self-taught riding years, I decided to task myself with both of the courses and see if I could still pass a "learning to read" class before I took "Advanced Literature 101."  Sign-up was pretty simple through the MSF's 1-800-CCRIDER line, which referred me to a touch-tone class location system number, which in turn gave me the local organizer's number.  You have to pay up-front for reservations, and there are no refunds regardless of whether you decide halfway through, the course is not for your tastes, or you get sent home by the instructor for inability to meet the course safety standards.    Some courses are two 9-hour days in succession, but mine was split into four 4-/5-hour sessions on successive weekends.

Day 1 - classroom.  The class felt a lot like sitting in one of those Traffic School classes you can take if you get a moving violation citation.  Our instructor for the first half of the day was an instructor-in-training, knew the factual material, but hadn't faced a real class like us yet.  The regular instructor was on-hand to make written comments and coach during the breaks.  We received a 50-page booklet, half of which deals with basic procedural information about operating a motorcycle and safety tips, and the other half is vaguely reminiscent of the DMV Motorcycle Driver Supplement book - how to change lanes, S-I-P-D-E (Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute), etc.  We talked a little about why we were riding these inherently more dangerous machines which are difficult  to be clearly seen by other drivers and fall over when not moving if not properly supported. Out of our class of 23 (one no-show), I was probably one of six who had prior riding experience.  Ages were lumped decidedly into the 18 to 25 category. 

 We watched a few videos which again were reminiscent of Drivers Ed. days, minus the classic "Red Asphalt" one.  There was the "Joy of Motorcycling," one with a talking motorcycle which told us all about controls, and one on the basic how-to-start and begin riding topic. I think the best element of this session was something they call "intellectual riding exercises" which basically means make-believe riding while sitting in your chair.  Since this was a beginner-course, most students had never ridden anything before with as many alien controls and things for your hands and feet to do while driving.  Having us go through the physical actions of how to gently roll-on throttle power, feel for the friction zone, and the intricate process of shifting and braking properly helped many of us appreciate the difference between motorcycling and operating a car.  We tied things up by reviewing protective clothing and helmets.  There happened to be one person who had visited a local swap meet and picked up a quite-DOT illegal "beanie" helmet with about a half-inch of foam padding, complete with a fake DOT sticker on the back.  This was great for comparison with someone else's "beanie" of the legal, but still limited protection variety. The point was made simple - why would anyone want to stop themselves on pavement with their face?

Day 2 - we hit the pavement (one literally).  Eleven of us stand on a 150' x 200' parking lot facing a dozen well-scratched Honda CR125T's, a Kawasaki 250 standard, and a Suzuki 250 cruiser for the taller riders.  We learn to feel brake sensitivity by walking the bikes over to the line-up area and feathering the front brake to stop while walking.  We spend a half hour buddy-pushing the bikes back and forth across the lot to gain our balance and basic braking control. 

We lose our first student sent homeward because she wasn't quite able to keep the bike from falling over each time she stopped (she tried three times though, a courageous sort).  Then we learn to safely start and turn-off the little 125cc wonders.  We follow with an exercise acquainting ourselves with the "friction zone" by straddling the bike and easing on and off the clutch while rocking back and forth.  Our first straight line ride in first gear goes by quickly - we learn to brake smoothly and use both brakes consistently. 

By the lapse of three hours we have gained the confidence and skill to ride around a big oval course marked by little 3-inch cones varying speed and following distance.  Then follows the 30-foot circle which enforces the look-where-your-bike-goes rule and the basics of leaning during a turn.  "Look down, and your bike goes down.  Press left, lean left, go left."  The second acid-test comes in the form of clutch-controlled cornering wherein you must navigate the 90-degree corners of  the course using a brake-clutch-look-roll out form of turning.  The instructors tell us that if we can't demonstrate an ability to judge proper braking power to safely conduct our machines through the turns, we can't proceed any further. 

Thanks to the guidance and great teaching skills of our instructors,everyone made the cut this time, even with the grabby brakes and surging throttles of these chain saws on wheels they call training bikes.  The final hour is spent on learning how to shift from first to second and back (and how to avoid neutral) and integrating that with the cornering exercises performed earlier.   The 30-foot circle is augmented by a smaller set of 20-foot and 10-foot circles used as U-turn courses including the down and up-shift exercises.  After five solid hours of this exhausting physical training process, I definitely would not care for the ten-hour one-day version of the same.  Getting these twitchy and purposefully over-sensitive training bikes to do what we want them to do has been quite an education in itself.  As we depart, we toss parting shots at the incoming second dozen students coming in, letting them know they are in for quite an entertaining experience.  We are told of some anecdotes regarding students who have not quite remembered to brake at the end of the driving range, or those that never seemed to possess a sense of balance as they rode smoothly to a stop, only to tip straight over and proceed to a parallel position to the pavement.

Day 3 - back in the classroom.  This session is probably best entitled "Street Survival Skills" as now that we have figured out the basics of mechanically controlling the various functions of the bikes, we now proceed to deal with riding situations in the real world.  We cover how to do the basics of standard braking on a curve, maximum braking, managing speed and distance, handling locked rear wheel skids, fast braking on curves, swerves to avoid hazards, the physical properties of the S-I-P-D-E process, proper lane changes and lane positioning and the use of turn signals and indicators, and finally the DMV required section on "don't drink and drive." A couple more videos illustrate what our bikes should look like during correct executions of the exercises.  The day ends with a 50 question written multiple-choice test on all of the topics covered.  Some of the intellectual riding in this session dealt with how to relax your riding posture, noting that a tense rider can't make smooth changes to controls and definitely will feel the results after a long ride.  Holding the tank tighter with the knees forces a relaxation in the upper torso which helps a lot.

Day 4 - putting it all together on pavement.  Today's session managed to put all of the basic riding techniques together in a combination of exercises and a final riding evaluation that seemed twice as strenuous as Day 2.  We started by acquainting ourselves with the bikes again by passing through sets of weave pattern cones, at both slow speed and wider/higher speed, learning to guide the motorcycle's path by looking where we want to go. There's a "gap management" exercise which looks something like a figure-8 formation drill team pattern wherein you gain experience in judging speed when crossing between traffic gaps, towards a later transition to lane changes which incorporate the signal-mirrors-look-execute process. 

We perform some stop sign intersection-type turns which include how to take-off with the front wheel turned to complete lock to perform tight turns from a standstill. A few wide U-turns are included so that we understand how acceleration and lean angle affects riding stability in when turning, later combined with some roll-on canyon-ride style turns to demonstrate proper braking before and acceleration through a curve.  The rear-wheel brake lock exercise provides excellent feedback about handling skids without panicking.  Now that we've been brainwashed into really stomping on the rear brake to get it to lock up and stay there, the maximum braking exercise snaps us back into reality of how not to rely on it for fastest braking performance.  Finally, we are performing brake-less swerves to avoid hazards leading to the last panic session of the class - the final ride evaluation. 

This portion, while designed to be less strenuous than the actual exercises themselves, tends to have the most stress on the part of the riders, perhaps even if just psychologically related.  It is designed to verify that the rider meets the basic riding capability requirements for the DMV skills test as well as demonstrate knowledge of the basic operation principles covered during the day.  After weaving through some more cones, slow turns without showing signs of braking inside the turn, but using proper look-ahead, a 15 m.p.h. maximum stop and a final tighter forced hazard swerve, we are done.  And for what  it's worth, thanks to the excellent instruction of the Motorcycle Training Course staff, we all made it (sans our one lady who has to find a bike with even shorter ride height before she tries again.  You are allowed to use your own bike, provided it's less than 350cc's and you're willing to indemnify the Course against liability for damages to your bike.)

Epilogue - Yes, I'm signed up for the next ERC - there was too much good stuff in this one to not take the opportunity to learn even more.  While I can admit that I knew about the operational controls topics and the basics of stopping and turning, what I really found out in this class was techniques to substantially improve the way I drive to become more proficient in just about every situation - and frankly that includes both driving a motorcycle AND driving a car.  I've always practiced SIPDE and the head look stuff, but I found I had developed a too-sloppy braking technique which lagged into turns and wasn't really prepared for instinctual hazard avoidance required of emergency panic situations.

The more you know, the better it gets (tm).