Skills Column: What’s Wrong With Riding?

LeeParksWhen Editor Steve Lita asked me to do some “motorcycle safety” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) articles for the new Motorcycle magazine, I was intrigued but didn’t want to commit to doing just another safety column. After all, there are plenty of them around these days. If I were going to put fingers to  keyboard on a regular basis, I wanted to have the freedom to talk about the dark underbelly of motorcycle safety, not just the shiny parts. What I have to say in this issue is both controversial and imperative to our future as a sport.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman best summed up the issue recently when she exclaimed, “The state of motorcycle safety is in crisis!” What she was referring to was the dismal fatality rates of motorcycle riders compared to passenger vehicle drivers, as well as licensed riders versus unlicensed riders. The data was prepared by the National Motorcycle Training Institute (NMTI) and obtained from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which is maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

For example, comparing the span of years from 1999 to 2010, motorcycle fatalities went from 2,181 to 3,965, an increase of 82 percent. At the same time, passenger vehicle fatalities went from 21,971 to 15,921, a decrease of 38 percent. That means that motorcycles made up 9 percent of the traffic fatalities in 1999 and a whopping 19.9 percent of the fatalities in
2010. The numbers look much worse when you factor in miles driven versus miles ridden to get an accurate idea of how much more dangerous motorcycle riding is than driving a passenger vehicle.

According to the NMTI, “It must be emphasized that motorcyclists are excessively overrepresented in the fatality data. Motorcycle vehicle miles traveled (about 12 billion miles per year) represent a very small fraction, less than 1 percent, of passenger vehicle miles traveled (about 3 trillion). If driving motorcycles had a similar danger as driving passenger vehicles, then it is reasonable to expect motorcycle drivers to represent less than 1 percent of the fatalities. Motorcycle drivers killed represent an incredible 20 percent of drivers killed!”

That means riding a motorcycle is 3,300 percent (33 times) more dangerous than driving a passenger vehicle per mile ridden versus per mile driven. That statistic shocked me,
and it should shock you, too. Before you put all your bikes on craigslist, however, the risk factor looks much better if you make a few different choices. For instance, if you choose
to 1) not to drink and ride, 2) wear a DOT-certified helmet and full protective gear, and 3) participate in advanced training, your chances of a fatal motorcycle accident go down significantly.

So what about training and education? Isn’t that always the best solution? Yes and no. When it comes to licensed versus unlicensed riders, the picture is similarly bleak.
From 1991 to 2010 unlicensed riders have died at approximately the same rate, whereas licensed riders are being killed at a much higher rate. This is perhaps the most discouraging
information. The data doesn’t prove anything specifically by itself, with one exception: what we’re doing in motorcycle safety isn’t working. You’ve probably heard Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So let’s look at seven areas that I think could be responsible for the huge increases in fatalities for licensed riders.


Problem #1: How we market to new riders

Think about the ads designed to attract new riders. It started with the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign in 1963. That ad was for a super lightweight 50cc motorcycle. Since then, bikes have continued to grow in size, weight, and power. Unfortunately, we lie to prospective riders by saying that riding a bike is easy and safe. It is, in
fact, neither safe nor easy. What this does is attract people who traditionally would never have considered a motorcycle, many of whom have no business riding one on public roads.
We actually make it easy to learn to ride by providing bikes and helmets. Some states like Illinois even provide free tuition. On the surface, this sounds great, but it creates an additional problem by attracting some unserious students who are just looking for a cheap thing to do for the weekend.

Problem #2: Conflict of interest of training providers

In a competitive business environment, the more students you train, the more money you make. Even educational institutions like community colleges get more federal funding with higher student enrollment. This forces the training provider to balance the need for more students (read profit) with the desire for better quality students. All of us in rider education have to perform this balancing act. For instance, a one-on-one private lesson provides the best training, but not enough people can afford that. Putting a hundred students in a classroom at a time would be highly profitable, but the quality of education would suffer.

Problem #3: Using trainer bikes and issuing unrestricted licenses

The current 15 hp “student” motorcycles that weigh 260 pounds are not equivalent to real motorcycles that people buy. A 180 hp sportbike that can go 188 mph or an 850-pound cruiser both require specialized skills to operate safely. The days of the 50cc Honda bike are long gone. This is analogous to teaching a pilot to fly a Cessna 172 then handing him the keys to an F18 Hornet. That would be unthinkable in aviation, but it’s commonplace in the motorcycle industry.

Training bikes are fine as a first step, but there needs to be more than one step to getting an unrestricted license as in Europe. Providing an unrestricted license at this point gives riders a false sense of confidence. This is echoed by the tiny percentage of riders who go on to take additional training.

Problem #4: The duration of beginner training

It’s much harder to ride a motorcycle because it requires constant balancing and significantly more hand/foot/eye coordination to manually shift gears, etc. How much training
do most automotive driving schools require in terms of classroom and actual driving? Compare that to the two and a half days of your typical basic rider training, which is all that is required to get your endorsement. It doesn’t make sense that something that is harder to do should require less training.

Most new riders get their motorcycle endorsement as a result of successfully completing a new rider course on a training bike, as opposed to taking a test at the DMV on their own motorcycle. I don’t believe many new riders could pass the DMV test on their own full-sized bikes after only two and a half days of basic rider training.

Problem #5: Inadequacy of current curricula and lack of rider training choices

One size does not fit all. This holds true for rider training curricula as much as in clothing. As previously mentioned, there’s no way to learn everything you need to be safe on the street in two and a half days, no matter what course is being taught. What is equally important is where you’re located. For instance, where I live in the California desert, learning how to deal with wet leaves on the road is not a big deal, but dehydration while riding is a very big deal.

In passenger vehicle training, most schools have their own curriculum that meets state and federal standards. There could be 20 or more choices in any given state. Automobile driving students therefore have a choice of which curriculum will best meet their needs based on quality, price, reputation, etc. In motorcycle training, there is no such choice. There is only one accepted curriculum for a license waiver in every state but two, and students have no choice in their education. Can you imagine if everyone was forced to go to the same college and use the same curriculum?

Fortunately, NHTSA has just released a national standard for beginner rider training, so more curricula should be popping up over the next few years. Organizations like the State Motorcycle Safety Administrators (SMSA) is currently working to make more choices available to states that put a value on giving its constituents options.

Problem #6: Lack of proper protective gear

It amazes me how few people wear helmets and motorcycle-specific jackets, pants, and gloves, regardless of the law. Having had many crashes over the years on the dirt and track and a few on the street in the 250,000-plus miles I’ve ridden, I’ve experienced the negative results firsthand. I’m only alive today because of the gear choices I’ve made over the years. Current beginning riding curricula (other than my own Total Control classes) do not require protective jackets, pants, or motorcycle-specific gloves for students and instructors. This sets a terrible example that teaches students when they are most impressionable that it’s okay not to wear proper protective gear. It’s incredibly hypocritical
for instructors to tell students that gear is important but not to wear it themselves, and the industry should be ashamed of itself for continuing this practice. I, for one, do not consider a long-sleeved T-shirt and gardening gloves to offer much protection in a crash. Anyone who has ever gone down will concur.

Problem #7: Unscrupulous retailers selling inappropriate motorcycles

Every time I see this happen, I cringe at the thought of another statistic. First-time riders seem to be pushed into bikes that are way beyond their skill level by the sensationalized media and greedy salespeople. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a new bike to get damaged while leaving the dealership’s parking lot. Until there is a mandatory code of
ethics for retailers, the most profitable bikes will continue to be the ones salespeople try to sell because that’s where they make the most money. M

Story by Lee Parks

About the author

Lee Parks began riding motorcycles in 1982 and racing in 1984. Starting on the frozen lakes of the midwest, he turned to motocross and finally switched to road racing. Lee won
the 2001 WERA national Endurance Series in the Lightweight class and was an editor for various motorcycle magazines. Lee created what are now known as the Total Control Advanced Riding Clinics based on years of research and development working with the top educators in the business and utilizing proven training methodologies. These clinics led to the publication of his two best-selling books, Total Control and Race Tech’s Motorcycle Suspension Bible. Additionally, Lee also owns Lee Parks Design, which is best known for American-made deerskin gloves.



  1. This is a very interesting article and I agree with what you said about new rider training, beginner bikes and unrestricted licenses. I can’t count how many times I’ve been at my local dealership and watched a new rider, usually a member of the armed services just back from deployment (not stereotyping, just observing) drooling all over the brand new $8000-20,000 Harley he just signed his life away for…until he straddles it for the first time (most don’t do test rides) and fires it up. Then the reality of what he just did sinks in. Had they ridden a smaller displacement bike for a while (or been forced to by having a restricted license), they would have gained confidence and, more importantly, experience.

  2. I agree with all your points here Lee but would add that driver education should include motorcycle safety. Maybe then drivers (especially teens) would have a better understanding of the potential dangers of motorcycling. As a kid, growing up in NC, we had to take the boater safety course and hunter safety course in middle school. Many kids didn’t have an interest in either but it gave us a better understanding of boating and hunting.