My-Turn-thumb

By John Fleming

Nine years ago I watched in horror as my wife nearly failed to negotiate a tight curve on her motorcycle. She drifted to the outside of her lane to within inches of the gravel shoulder at 70 mile per hour. Miraculously, she kept it together. That episode convinced me that she and I both needed better riding skills, and a few weeks later I was enrolled in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s instructor training course, and became a state-certified RiderCoach.

Shortly thereafter, I began a two-year stint as a RiderCoach for the U.S. Marine Corps. The Corps was losing more young Marines to motorcycle fatalities than in combat, and needed to address the problem.

As has already been cited in the Methow Valley News over the past couple of issues, the leading cause of single-vehicle motorcycle fatalities is “entering a curve too fast.”

Any experienced motorcyclist knows that when that happens, a rider’s options are very limited. Applying the brakes, especially in a tight, high-speed curve, can result in complete loss of traction. It’s a formula for disaster.

The most effective crash-avoidance technique in this circumstance is known as counter-steering. Unlike turning the steering wheel of a four-wheeled vehicle, counter-steering deflects the front tire in the opposite direction of the curve, and causes the motorcycle to lean in the direction of the curve. In a high-stress circumstance — and entering a curve too fast certainly qualifies — a motorcyclist who has not had adequate training in counter-steering will revert to trying to “steer” a motorcycle through a curve. It cannot be done at high speed.

The antidote for panic is training.

The Marine Corps has leverage in regard to motorcycle safety training. Marines who want to ride motorcycles are required to complete multiple rider training courses that cover advanced braking and cornering techniques, situational awareness and crash prevention. The ongoing training pays off. The Corps has significantly reduced rider fatalities.

Unfortunately, civilian rider training in Washington and most other states is pretty rudimentary. The Basic Rider Course is designed to give new riders enough information to pass a motorcycle license endorsement exam. Granted, it’s a good start for new riders.

But after getting an endorsement, most motorcyclists — at least those with some common sense — develop more confidence and skill through experience, not further training.

So, the question remains: Would mandatory ongoing training for civilian motorcyclists reduce the fatality rate? Probably. But let’s face reality. Motorcycling is a risky endeavor. Those who ignore the risk are asking for trouble.

John Fleming lives in Twisp and is a member of the Town Council.