Learning On the Go with On-Street Motorcycle Training

Apr 21, 2011 View Comments by

Motorcycle training can help riders learn new life-saving skills. The courses offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and other organizations can help us become proficient riders and perhaps lessen the risk involved with riding motorcycles.

As an MSF-certified RiderCoach, I can often be heard on closed parking lot ranges asking students to “Imagine this corner, obstacle or other situation being on the road in traffic.” Little orange cones are strategically placed to simulate different scenarios. It requires a bit of imagination to directly apply what is being taught to realize how it would be utilized on the street. Parking lot exercises certainly have their place. I believe in them enough to teach them.

The weakness of parking lot instruction, however, is putting it to use when riders are actually on the road. How valuable would it be to have an experienced rider in your ear reminding you to check for hazards in the ever-changing environments that you ride in? After taking the on-street training course developed by Chris Johnson of Washington Motorcycle Safety Training and David Wendell of Pacific Northwest Motorcycle Training, I can tell you, the value can’t be calculated.

The motorcycle On-Street Riding Experience course begins with advisor-lead discussion on risk awareness and identification. The most basic of concepts is paramount in minimizing risk on the road – awareness. Environments constantly change on the road. That is why motorcyclists need to be able to quickly see situations in order to identify risk. By identifying each risk, we are able to develop a strategy to minimize the situation and continue riding.

How many things can you see, process and strategize for at once? This may differ for each rider. All riders can improve their abilities to do these things with training.

In this course, each of us gets an opportunity to take a virtual ride while watching a video. We’re asked to call out in rapid succession the potential hazards, such as “cars turning left and right at intersection ahead,” and how we’re dealing with them, “staying in the middle of the lane for best visibility.” There are mixed results as to our abilities to keep up with the pace of the video.

It was a great segue to discuss the street strategies that are available to motorcyclists such as stopping, swerving, changing lane position or sometimes doing nothing at all.

Next up is an exercise where we’re asked to count the number of times an object moves, when it moves beyond a certain point, and to identify other things going on around us using sound and peripheral vision — similar to being on the road. This was very challenging. It amazed me how much information was missed at first, but with several rounds of training our abilities to process the different inputs improved dramatically. It was one of many “a-ha” moments during the one-day on-street class.

The goal of the exercise was to show how motorcyclists can train themselves to better see, identify and process the available information on the road in order to develop a proper strategy to minimize risk.

Armed with new mental capabilities and available strategies we retake our virtual rides. Situations and solutions are fired off with much greater success this time around. All of us were able to improve on our earlier performances. It really is surprising how fast things move through the screen when the rider in the video is likely only going 35 mph.

Feeling confident with our improving mental capacities, we take the imagination out of the lessons and gear up for the riding part of the day.

The riding begins with an insurance-required parking lot test of basic motorcycle operating skills. We prove our abilities to corner, brake and swerve.

With all of us passing the tests it is time to get kitted up to begin the on-street riding portion of the program. The kit includes a radio and helmet speakers for each of us so we can hear the riding advisors while on the street.

The advisors bookend the small group of up to four student riders. At first the lead advisor takes us through low-traffic urban areas. The speakers chime with announcements of upcoming hazards to show the students in real time what to notice. Next up are possible strategies to safely maneuver each situation. This rapid-fire communication is almost constant early in the day and less frequent as the day progresses.

This process was profound to me. Actually experiencing the constant barrage of threats is something that all riders must endure. This exercise shows how far ahead riders should see and how relatively minor speed, lane and other adjustments reduce potential risks.

“Coming up on a T-intersection with traffic,” the leader points out. “Sliding over toward the centerline.” The cars remain at the stop sign, while our group, in the lane without a stop sign, proceeds to move on. The advisor continues, “this provides important space if needed.” As we pass through the intersection the in-helmet speakers are informing us that the road conditions change ahead. “Upcoming corner has gravel on the road from a driveway on the right. Keep left.” Yet another obstacle has been safely passed.

After several miles of this instruction, the group pulls over into an empty parking lot to discuss the experiences we had just encountered. The tail advisor adds comments from observations on the road. He points out something about my riding posture that I subconsciously knew about, but hadn’t processed the importance of correcting. “We have a nickname for you, Sean,” he says. “Duck.” Apparently, the arches of my feet are on the pegs instead of the balls of my feet. This makes my feet splay out like duck feet and sometimes my non-webbed toes slide along the pavement in corners. “These are my corner feelers,” I reply. He then explains how proper posture would improve my ability to corner. Doh! I’ve been busted.

With the balls of my feet firmly planted on the motorcycle pegs, we continue riding city streets, freeways and backcountry scenic roads. Every environment brings similar and new hazards that are called out on the radio. Each section has a pull out or parking lot debrief session with informative and fun discussion.

At an early stop, the lead advisor asks us what we can and can’t see, and what could happen in those situations. Most of us can see the upcoming intersections, but can’t see beyond the blind of trees to the left or right, and could imagine drivers having a hard time seeing the narrow profile of our motorcycles. Each of us changed lane position for better visibility and at times, slowed down if needed. We’re reminded to continually ask these three questions to process our surroundings and strategize. What can we see? What can’t we see? What could happen?

After a full day of learning, the group pulls into a Starbucks parking lot. With side stands down and gear removed, we chat about the day, lessons learned and how we’ll use what we learned to continue improving our skills.

This class is incredible for beginners and well-seasoned riders. It is interesting to experience the constant adjustment of lane positioning while riding in urban and rural environments. The advisor made lane position changes a couple times a minute or more. In my parking lot exercises, we explain that riders should look 12 seconds down the road for hazards. This class showed that 12 seconds ahead can be pushed to 20 seconds or more in some situations.

This new course currently costs $265. It is worth every cent. Ask if the motorcycle safety instruction site near you offers the On-Street Course. If they don’t offer it, ask them to consider adding it to their curriculum.

By Sean McDermott

Tags: Categories: On The Road, Touring & Safety Tips