DeKALB – Free motorcycle rider training classes are offered throughout the state. The Northern Illinois University Motorcycle Safety Project is one of four state headquarters, and oversees 12 training locations in northern Illinois.
Scott Haas assumed his duties as the coordinator of the project earlier this month. Haas was a motorcycle safety instructor at Southern Illinois University from 1992 to 2004, when he came to NIU as a mechanic. Two years ago, he became assistant coordinator.
He spent some time last week discussing motorcycle safety with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
MidWeek: What exactly does this program do?
Steve Haas: Basically, we teach people how to ride a motorcycle. We offer four different courses. There's an entry-level course, which we call the Basic Rider Course. It's a 20-hour course which takes a student who basically has no knowledge of motorcycles and teaches them the basic physical skills and mental aspects of operating a motorcycle.
There's also an intermediate rider course, kind of an abbreviated basic rider course, for people who do have some motorcycle knowledge; perhaps they rode when they were younger and then started a family and gave up the motorcycle, which is a very common scenario. They now have an empty nest and some income and they want to get back into motorcycles, or their friends are. They don't have to take the full course; it's just sort of getting out the cobwebs. It's also good for people who have been riding without a license for a number of years.
We also offer Basic Rider Course II, a one-day course – you have to have your own motorcycle – a skill development or skill improvement course. And there's an advanced rider course. It deals with a lot of turning exercises. It's also one day. In the classroom, it focuses heavily on rider perception and getting students to understand why they make the decisions they make. It's a good course. It's a lot of fun to teach that one. We just started it this year.
MW: Do a lot of people ride without a license?
SH: There are a significant proportion of motorcycle riders out there who don't have proper motorcycle classification on their driver's license.
MW: For the first two courses, do you need a motorcycle?
SH: No. We provide the motorcycles for the basic and intermediate courses. We have a fleet of about 400 motorcycles, of five different types. The largest is a 250cc. Our operating fleet any given weekend is in the neighborhood of about 275.
MW: Are these taught over a semester?
SH: Our courses run typically Friday nights, four hours of classroom, and then all day Saturday and Sunday.
MW: So it's basically a weekend course?
MW: Do you do this all year or just during the school year?
SH: We shut down for winter, of course, but our training season this year runs from the last weekend in March to the last weekend in October.
MW: Roughly how many students do you get in a year?
SH: We'll train 6,000 students a year. Statewide totals last year were just over 20,000.
MW: What ages are we talking about?
SH: From 16 to 80-something. I don't know the age of our oldest student this year or last year, but I've had students who were in their 80s. A student has to be at least 16 with a valid driver's license or permit. There's a misconception about that; you don't need a valid motorcycle permit to take our class. We don't do anything out on the street. All our driving is in a parking lot.
MW: Is there a typical student?
SH: There's no one particular type of person who takes our course. Our students run the gamut of the general population.
MW: Do you get more men than women?
SH: There are more men, but in the 21 years I've been involved in rider education, I've seen a definite shift in the gender demographics. When I first started in '92, it was very rare. You had one or two women in the class in any given month. Now we have classes where the majority are women. Motorcycling isn't gender specific.
I think you see that overall shift in society in a lot of areas. How long ago was it that in space astronauts were all male?
MW: Do you get someone who wants to learn to drive a specific motorcycle?
SH: You get a lot of people coming in because their spouse or significant other bought them a motorcycle and that runs through all the manufacturers. We probably have more people come in because they've bought a Harley Davidson versus a Kawasaki. We have a lot of people come in because they've bought a motorcycle and don't know how to ride it.
MW: Is there a big difference between handling a two-wheeler and a three-wheeler?
SH: A motorcycle handles the same way as a bicycle. A two-wheeler is inherently going to be unstable versus anything with more points of contact on the ground.
Personally, I don't foresee myself ever having more than two wheels because part of the fun of riding a motorcycle is leaning it into curves and turns. But there are a lot of people now who are older motorcyclists and they don't necessarily have the strength or the desire to hold the motorcycle up, they want something more stable. So there is a growing market for three-wheel motorcycles.
MW: What do you drive?
SH: I have a Honda ST-1100.
MW: If someone completes the basic course, what do they get?
SH: If they take the basic or intermediate course and pass it, they will get a certificate that will be mailed out to them. That certificate should waive both the state's tests at the Secretary of State's Office. There may be certain situations where they don't accept it as a waiver; what those situations are, I couldn't tell you.
I believe it costs $15 to get (the classification) added to their driver's license. They'll take down some information, stamp it down and you can go out the door.
MW: Then they can legally buy a motorcycle?
MW: Isn't that the basic reason for the course?
SH: That's what we hope. But we do have a fair number of students who take the course who never intend to get the license. They are doing it for their own knowledge or because a friend or spouse rides and they just want to know about a bike. Or they get into the course and find it's a lot more challenging than they thought it was going to be. Riding a motorcycle takes a lot of coordination, using both hands and both feet all the time versus driving in your car, where you have to use just one foot, maybe two, depending on how you drive. I have a manual transmission so I'm using two feet. Most people put it in drive, step on the gas pedal and aim their car where they want to go.
On a motorcycle, you really have to take defensive road use to a higher level than most people do in a car simply because you are more vulnerable on a motorcycle. The rider has to take a lot more responsibility for their own safety. You can't trust that the other people on the road are going to do what they're supposed to do.
MW: There seems to be a big campaign to promote motorcycle safety.
SH: Oh, absolutely. "Start seeing motorcycles" all over the place. IDOT basically provides our funding. The way our program works, we are funded by a grant from IDOT, division of traffic safety. They have been pushing the "start seeing motorcycles" for several years. Basically, it's driven by the rise in fatalities. Their task is to make traffic safer. They are big promoters of that message.
MW: I'm sure that 99 percent of motorcyclists drive safely, but when you see that one guy driving recklessly, it changes your perception of all of them.
SH: That is one area where we really struggle. We're doing pretty well with getting the novice student trained, but getting the experienced motorcyclist to understand the impact they have on the rest of the traffic mix is more of a challenge. A lot of people who take that basic riding safety course, they don't come back for further training. I am assuming they have the attitude that they know how to ride a motorcycle so they don't need any further training. It's one of the reasons we started doing the advanced starter course as well.
It's like that with students. You remember the really good ones and the really bad ones. It's that whole group in the middle that performs adequately; you've seen them so many times you don't remember them. It's the extremes you notice.
MW: How big a staff do you have?
SH: We have about 170 rider-coaches, including four full-time. We are actually understaffed right now.
MW: Any last thoughts?
SH: For the car driver, look twice. You know, it doesn't take long to look twice to make sure you're not pulling out in front of another vehicle. Motorcycles are harder to see in mixed traffic. They are harder to judge the speed. That extra second to take a second look might mean the difference between the rider going home that night or going to the hospital. For the motorcyclist, I would have to say ride smart. Be respectful of other traffic, don't do us any favors by riding like an idiot.