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Review of MSF's Basic Rider Course
We emailed the MSF (the Motorcycle Safety Foundation) and asked to audit a Basic Rider Course (BRC). They put me in touch with Vickye Cunningham of Cyclesafety.net, in Memphis, TN, who invited me to visit with them.
As the Basic Rider Course is the most popular motorcycle training course, with roughly 400,000 riders trained every year, we're going to go into some detail here.
The course was lightly attended. The two ranges at the Macon Road campus of Southwest Tennessee Community College can accommodate up to 22 students, but there were only six this Labor Day weekend.
This page is an overview of the weekend course. Here's a list of contents for the subsidiary pages, which have a lot of detail.
- The classroom sessions
- Range Exercises
- The Rider Coaches and cyclesafety.net personnel
- Test format and scoring
- A critical note
The course was run by Kevin Kelley and Debbie Trimmer, with Vickye Cunningham in attendance all weekend. Vickye did not do any direct training, but occasionally intervened when she saw something like a student with his visor up, and she was consulted by the rider coaches from time to time, usually on arcane matters of procedure.
The six students that weekend included a 24-year old man who had some previous dirt bike experience, a guy in his late 30s who had used a bike as a commute vehicle in his youth, and an older man who is a keen rider and was interested in regularizing his license situation. There were also three women in their 30s and 40s, two of whom had ridden dirt bikes and one of whom had never ridden.
The course began at 6 PM that Friday and, after some preliminaries, launched into the first classroom session, presented by Kevin. It is described here.
On Saturday, 7:30 AM, on a warm September morning, the six met, with Debbie and Kevin presiding, for the morning range session. This is described in detail here. The six took to the range variously, depending on their experience level. The less experienced riders struggled initially, but by the end of the morning session, everyone was riding, turning and stopping fairly well, and most riders seemed confident.
After lunch Saturday, the second classroom session introduced additional strategic topics.
The Sunday session started at 7:30 AM, with the final range session. By this point, all six riders were weaving, u-turning, swerving, braking and performing the decreasing-radius turns and s-turns pretty well. This was followed by the on-bike assessment, lunch, and the classroom test. A final sponsor acknowledgement and wrap-up finished the weekend, and everyone headed home around 3 PM, with their certificates in their hands.
I spoke to all the participants at various points, and after the course. Everyone had fun, felt that they had accomplished something significant, and felt ready to venture out on some local roads and put their new skills to the test. Even the one experienced rider felt that he had improved his skills and picked up some useful safety pointers. The new riders were excited about getting their first bike. Overall, it was a very positive experience for all, including me as the fly on the wall. It didn't do me any harm to brush up on my riding strategies.
I was impressed by the attention to safety displayed by the rider coaches, and their enforcement of the safety rules. On quizzing Vickye about their safety record, it turned out that there had been one slight accident, with no injury, around 2001. A concrete light pole in the run-off area had been clipped by one student. The range is very large, 220 feet by 120 feet for the primary range. The only obstacles are four light poles, and there is at least 50 feet of otherwise clear space around the business area of the range. The course areas had been carefully routed away from the light poles. The second range is 200 by 80 feet. Both ranges are moderately flat, with a slight convexity to manage run-off.
I can say from my own experience that I had put a bike down, lowsiding during emergency braking in a BRC about four years ago, no injury. All the bikes had been fitted with crash bars, and the mirrors had been removed, but otherwise everything looked in good shape and road-legal. Several of the bikes were a bit scratched up.
One student died, more than ten years ago, during a course, but not on the range. The man who died had had open-heart surgery three weeks prior to the course, and had omitted to reveal this information in the health questions on the registration paperwork. He went into the main building during a break, and was found dead in the restroom. Paramedics could not revive him, and a subsequent coroners inquiry cleared the course organizers from any responsibility for the outcome.
All course personnel are trained in first aid and CPR.
Vickye is aware of one former student who died in a fatal bike crash, in 2009. The rider had completed the course in March 2009 and had passed with no problems. She was taking the course after moving from another state, where she was a licensed rider. She died while riding a sport bike at over 100 MPH after a local bike night. Another rider, not a known MSF graduate, died in that incident. There was no way to predict that this rider would ride in this manner from her performance or attitude during training.
If we take Billheimer's study of California's pre-training rider deaths as about 1.1 deaths per thousand registered riders, per year, in 1986, the 2600 graduates of the Memphis classes since 2005 might have died at the rate of about 2.9 per year in recent years, or a total of about seven. I hate to base any conclusions on this type of research, but it looks like the program is working, Lives are probably being saved here, and in significant numbers.
Since the start of 2005, Cyclesafety.net failed to graduate 100 out of the 2700 course starters. They either failed the test or dropped out voluntarily. Some analysts suggest that the students who don't make the grade really don't need to be riding, and the trainer role in weeding out this portion of their students is a major contribution to safety.
I did notice several points in relation to the training with which I would take issue. I made some notes here.
The rider training system has a lot of inadequacies, especially when compared to the graduated rider training and testing programs in Europe. The MSF and its local groups would be strengthened by a tougher statutory environment. As the training is voluntary, the training providers are making a trade-off between course efficacy and the aim of getting to as many bikers as possible. This has to be a tough judgment call.
The course material might be a little dated in places, but, considering the poor information situation documented on this site, it seems to me that the material presented, given the time constraints and the varied education levels of the students, is reasonable in content and quantity. MSF claims to be an information-driven organization, and they do research their offerings, but they don't have the budget for a study of the scope of Hurt or Maids. They are improvising like the rest of us. I do have a few criticisms, but I have no doubt that, for the majority of new riders, this is the best training available, and that lives are being saved.
Harry and Vickye Cunningham, and their rider coaches, working with the constraints imposed by the State Department of Safety and the MSF content provider, work very hard in all weather and on a tough schedule. They give generously of their time, and accept modest compensation for their efforts. To them, helping their students stay alive is a labor of love. They have no way of knowing how their work is succeeding, as they only hear about the negative outcomes. But they persist, and they could not operate without the training materials provided by MSF.
Although I did not allow MSF or Vickye to censor this article, I gave them an advanced viewing opportunity, as a courtesy. Vickye responded with a long list of factual errors and some additional information, which I used to make the article more accurate. Vickye asked me to redact one item of confidential information which was not safety related, and I did so as a courtesy. Any remaining errors in this piece are the responsbility of Bikesafer.com and the site owners, and we have done our best to ensure accuracy. I wish to thank the MSF and the Cunninghams for the access they provided, for their time, and for the help they provided with this article. ET and all others connected with Bikesafer.com have no relationship whatever with MSF or any of its affiliates, other than having taken training courses from them in the past, and various communications relating to our mutual interest in motorcycle safety.
If you are thinking about riding a motorcycle, check out our Basic Training page to find a training provider near you. Tell them ET and Vickye Cunningham sent you.
Ride safer. Training helps.