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Selling Motorcycles: Managing Danger vs. Making Money

by David L. Hough

In his editorial about “Who’s Riding in the Pacific Northwest?” Tom Mehren noted that If you talk with key players in the rider training circles, you’ll soon find out the m.o. is to train those who want to be trained, but not to coax someone into training who may otherwise be hesitant. Probably good thinking, but on the other hand, don’t expect a growth spurt in the market anytime soon with this train of thought.”

As a journalist, I’d like more riders around to buy more of my books, but as a veteran motorcyclist I’d like to see fewer riders exposing themselves to danger. To put this another way, is the priority to manage danger, or make money? It’s an uncomfortable position.

As it happens, I’m one of those old codgers who was working hard to convince Washington lawmakers to establish the Washington Motorcycle Safety Program way back when. The bureaucrats in Olympia were thinking that mandatory protective equipment laws might stem the tide of motorcycle fatalities. People like me helped convince them that rider training would be a better approach. At the time, training courses for new riders were just being made available, and instructors were being trained and certified. The feeling was, “Training has to be a good thing.” The Superintendent of Public Instruction leaned toward anti-motorcycle, so the Department of Licensing accepted responsibility for the WMSP.

Legislators were skittish about creating another state program without a source of funding, so part of the deal was that the WMSP would be self-funding through surcharges on motorcycle drivers licenses. Experienced riders would be subsidizing newbies, but that was OK, since we believed that training would help reduce the danger. What we didn’t consider back then was that subsidized rider training would attract more people to take up motorcycling.

About 10 years later, around 1995, the motorcycle industry figured out a surefire way for rider training to help increase motorcycle sales. They convinced lawmakers in most states that the course instructor would know more about motorcycle skills than a state license examiner, so the skills test at the end of the training course could serve as a licensing test. The course completion card would be recognized as a waiver for the DOL skills test. In Washington, the Department of Licensing liked that deal, since it offloaded the majority of license testing to the training sites. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the test (written by the industry) was intentionally made easy enough that few newbies would not pass. Thousands of new motorcyclists hit the streets after a weekend course that was just complex enough to seem serious, and just simple enough that 99% of students would pass the test. Instructors could feel proud of their involvement in making newbies “safer.”

The Numbers Game

Historically, about two percent of the population will swing a leg over a bike. That’s not just Washington, but all other states. We decide to take up riding, and we’re going to do it regardless of the trouble, the expense, the effort, the bureaucratic BS, or the pleading of our mothers to not do something so dumb and dangerous. Of course motorcycling is dangerous. Serious motorcyclists take great pride in being able to beat the odds through skill and knowledge. Yes, there are more than a few riders who die from testosterone poisoning or the plague of stupidity. But if motorcyclists are only two percent of the population, the occasional fatality isn’t a big deal for society.

Now, let’s suppose you are trying to make a living off of motorcycling. Would you turn down a chance to increase profits 50%? You can do that simply by attracting an additional one percent of the population. Three percent of the population is 50% bigger than two percent.

Here’s where the ride gets a bit bumpy. Today, the average person is right around 33 times more likely to die driving a motorcycle as when driving a car, mile for mile. If we increase the number of motorcyclists, we also increase the number of morbid crashes and fatalities. What’s more, fatalities are more likely if the people we attract aren’t serious about motorcycling.

17-year-old Peter Pimpleface sees a magazine cover depicting a sport bike shootout, and his head starts spinning with the idea of looking just like one of the macho test riders on the cover. He goes to the big bike show, takes a spin on a bike on rollers, and he’s hooked. He needs a big, noisy, vibrating V-twin. No one tells Peter how dangerous it is, or how expensive, or how much effort it will take to become skilled and traffic smart. But Peter finds out he can take a cheap, easy, fun course that leads instantly to a full license to ride anything. Peter is not really serious about becoming a lifelong motorcyclist; he’s just momentarily hooked by the biker image. It should be no surprise that Peter—and thousands of other newbies and return riders--don’t last long on the street.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

When we were lobbying for a motorcycle safety program in Washington, I suspect that no one really realized how subsidized training courses would increase the fatality numbers. I don’t think we really understood how dangerous motorcycling is compared to other motor vehicles. As the years rolled by and the numbers became more apparent, Washington DOL periodically scratched their collective heads looking for a way to bring the fatality numbers down.

One tactic was to remove the skills test waiver at the end of a course. Now, the course graduate must go to a third party testing site. When that system was set up, I thought it would be an improvement, until I found out that the industry had been invited to help write the skills test. We in the industry just can’t help ourselves from helping ourselves. The “third party” test is just as simple and easy as the old version at the end of a course. You have to be a real doofus to fail. Motorcycle driver fatalities are way up compared to 1997. That’s probably not a coincidence. I’m not aware of any significant changes being proposed by WA DOL, but they may still not fully understand their responsibility to protect the public from serious dangers.

Alternative Systems

I’ve been studying the licensing/training system in the UK*, and I think they have the priorities straight. The government writes the rules, and the industry has to work within those rules. In the UK, the knowledge and skills tests are given by the government, not a training site. The intermediate-level practical test includes observed riding in traffic. Training is offered at private driving schools, to help newbies learn enough to pass the government test. Most importantly, a younger rider is limited to a 125cc for a couple of years, so knowledge can be gained on a low performance machine. And the licensing is tiered, so a young newbie must step up through a mid-sized machine, and only later test on a full sized bike.

*United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland

Is the UK system better than ours? Define “better.” If “better” means increased industry profits, our system is better. If “better” means a lower fatality rate, the UK system is better than ours. (rate: motorcyclist fatalities per million population):

USA 12.8 and increasing

UK 5.0 and decreasing


The Good Rider- by David HoughDavid L. Hough ("huff”) is a veteran motorcyclist and journalist, with more than a million miles of riding experience over 48 years. Dave was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2009 in recognition of his efforts toward improving motorcyclist skills and knowledge. He is the author of several highly respected skills books, including Proficient Motorcycling and The Good Rider, available from store.SoundRider.com


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