There is an old proverb that says, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” When it comes to riding, nothing could be further from the truth. Not knowing can definitely hurt you. A few decades ago, rider errors seemed inevitable because no one seemed to know why they happened. It wasn’t even an open discussion because everyone just knew riding was dangerous. Case closed.
There was a problem with that attitude and it affected the industry in a big way. Starting in the late ‘70s, film crews were dispatched to favored weekend canyon riding spots and posted in corners where riders routinely crashed. This footage made its way onto the evening news. Heart wrenching interviews with friends and family of injured or dead riders made national news.
When the U.S. Grand Prix returned to Laguna Seca in 1988, local and national newspapers ran stories of how this “violent sport” would warp young minds. This negative public relations campaign went on for nearly 10 years, and there’s little question it influenced motorcycle sales.
No doubt from watching the news and wanting to justify their jobs, federal agencies began saber rattling about limiting horsepower on imported bikes. States were more or less blackmailed with the threat of loss of federal highway funding by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) into accepting mandatory helmet laws. Anti-helmet-rights groups were on the march, adding fuel to the fire. In retrospect, the anti-helmet groups did more harm than good—whether or not you sympathized with the personal choice argument—by keeping the dangers of riding in the public eye.
Which brings me around to rider training. Helmet or no, drug and alcohol impairment notwithstanding, a knowledgeable and thoroughly trained rider is as “safe” as it gets. Compared to the dark ages I’ve mentioned above, things have changed.
A key element of that change is simple: Riding techniques and technology are now openly discussed. Today, riders can and should know to rely mainly on the front brake and not the rear, and have enough training to use the brakes properly. Riders should know that an accident can be avoided if counter-steering is understood, practiced, and used. More evidence is available on how far we can lean the bike and how much traction the tires can offer; more is known about rider ergonomics and body positioning than ever before. A wealth of knowledge exists about visual skills and how they help the rider.
In 2006, I was asked to develop a rider-training program for the U.S. Marine Corps. More Marines had been lost on American soil in riding mishaps than in the Iraq war during the same time period. My coaching staff and I developed an intense, two-day training program comprised of 25 individual exercises, each designed to bring the rider to a solid understanding of the basics involved and a hands-on familiarization with the limits of the most critical skills of riding. Eleven hundred “high risk” riders participated in that two-day program. Subsequent to their training, to date, only one of its graduates has had a fatal accident and two others sustained broken bones. Out of 1100.
In light of that, the often-repeated piece of good advice, “ride within your limits,” actually becomes destructive if taken literally. Indeed, reducing a rider’s desire to experiment, to find his own and the bike’s limits, is committing him to riding on a knife’s edge of uncertainty.
What other avenues are available for you to find “the limits”? Have track days produced safer riders? I’m willing to bet yes; it is easier to approach the limits on the track and beat the limits-demons. In fact, a common comment from track day enthusiasts is that they quit riding for sport on the street. The ultra-concentrated injection they get from track riding satisfies the urge. It also helps keep our sport out of the news.