Monday, March 20, 2006

Giving back.

There's a song out by Randy Travis called "Four Wooden Crosses". One of the lines in the chorus has to do with when a person's life here ends. The message is that it's not what you have, but what you leave behind that's important.

This is the other side of the rant about cage drivers. Gramp always taught me not to be critical unless I could do better. I was also taught not to complain unless I could offer a solution. Wherever you are, Gramp, I'm sincerely trying to follow the example you set for me.

At one point in my life I could do something about cagers. I had the power to issue citations. Even this wasn't really an effective tactic. There's just too much to overcome with drivers as a massive herd. Long ago I pondered how to best approach doing something meaningful with my life.

I've ridden two wheels since I was able to handle the controls. Motorcycling has undeniably given me spiritual treasures. I wanted to give back to something that has given so much to me. At the same time whatever I did needed to tip the scales in my favor in the final balance. Would I truly be able to say on my death bed that I was leaving something of value behind? Katie and I raised four fine kids who I hope will do good things in their lives. That would be a good legacy. On the other hand, it didn't seem to be enough.

In 1987 I was the Road Captain for a motorcycle club. I planned the rides for our group. A man came to our breakfast meeting one morning. His name was Stan and he was a representative of the state's motorcycle safety program. Stan explained that they were now offering an Experienced Rider Course and we were encouraged to enroll. You can imagine the slight disdain his suggestion was met with. Here we were, a bunch of macho law enforcement guys who had been riding for years. "We don't need no stinkin' training!"

Well, Larry and I ended up taking the class together. Larry was a Lieutenant for a county Sheriff's department. He had a Suzuki XS850 with a sissy bar. Coming to class, we found the parking lot to be cordoned off with flag banners strung between trees and light poles. Since we were going to be using our own bikes for the training Larry decided to ride under a string of flags. He ducked and his head cleared the banners but they caught on the sissy bar. Larry fell down while entering the class. Perhaps it was a good thing we were there!

Talk about an eye-opening experience! I didn't know what I didn't know. There were also things I thought I knew but was totally wrong about. Like the old, but never dying, fallacy about not using the front brake hard or you would throw yourself over the handlebars. I found out how much of a friend that front brake could be to me if used properly. The notion of using good head turns to get directional control over the bike was new to me. By golly, it works big time. The first time I realized that my newfound skills had probably saved my sorry hide I had my proverbial epithany.

I became a devotee of motorcycle safety training.

Here's how I still see it. It would take more effort than I am capable of to change the behaviour of the majority of cagers. They are pretty much a fixed hazard. In other words, they're a major hazard that I don't see going away anytime soon. On the other hand, could I help a group to avoid becoming victims of the hazard? Cagers hit other cagers all the time. Fine, let them feed on one another. Cagers hit bikes and the consequences are a lot worse. If I could help riders learn how to take care of themselves and avoid becoming victims of cagers and of their own ignorance I could fulfill both goals. Give back to motorcycling and leave my own treasure behind.

So that's what I've done. For years I just taught classes. I average about 25 to 30 classes a year. With each class having 12 students I could reach 300 to 360 students a year. Multiply that by many years of teaching and I have literally touched thousands. While it's true that we only give them a foundation and they have to construct their own buildings from there, it's also true that formally trained riders are under-represented in accident statistics. There is also the side benefit of the discovery process. Some people discover that they should not be on a bike in the first place. We give them a safe place to find out. Better than getting a bike and crashing in an intersection. It's meant giving up countless good riding weekends but the return has been well worth it to me.

A few years ago the invitation was extended to me to become an instructor trainer. For a while I suffered a sort of withdrawal. I really love the dynamics and synergism I experience with a class. Now I found myself stepping back and watching a new instructor enjoy this pleasure. It was especially hard when it seemed like the students could have had a little better class with me at the helm. I felt like I was missing out but slowly my perspective changed.

Over the years I've seen new instructors mature to become masters of the art in their own right. I now have a special connection with so many of them I've helped train. There's also the leverage factor. Personally I could reach a limited number of riders in a year. By training fine instructors and passing along my values I can indirectly reach so many more riders. It has become very satisfying. This last weekend I helped start another 11 down the road to becoming instructors. Two long twelve hour days. Not all stay with it but the ones who do are fine people.

Recently I've had a distinctive honor. It may well also make me a target. Until recently the only way to become someone recognized as being able to certify new instructors was to go through the MSF. ( Motorcycle Safety Foundation ) It's not news that our program, TEAM OREGON, chose not to follow the MSF. The MSF came out with a new program and told all the providers of training that it was either adopt the new curriculum or no longer be recognized by the MSF. Many states had no choice. The MSF wouldn't support the old program which meant no materials would be available. They also claimed copyright so the materials couldn't be copied. With no program of their own, the states went along rather than be unable to offer training.

TEAM OREGON went our own way. A task force was set up to evaluate the new program. I had the privilege of serving as the chairperson of that task force. We served for almost two years. Extensive field testing was done. Evaluations were done to see how well students who went through either program could take the skills and apply them to new situations. The final result was that we felt the new program seemed to be made easier. It looked like the goal of the program was more to produce new bike customers and not so much well trained riders. We just didn't feel like it really served the needs of Oregon's riders. The Oregon Department of Transportation, which administers Oregon's rider training agreed with our recommendation not to adopt.

So here we were. By not adopting the new MSF program we were left with no curriculum of our own. With some advance planning we were able to come up with one before the MSF ultimatum expired. Much research and consultation with experts went into the finished product. ODOT has certified that it meets their standards for the license exam waiver. I am very pleased with the course. We spend a lot of time training students on skills lacking in riders who have died on the road. Swerving, braking, and cornering skills. When a rider leaves our class I feel I did them justice. Interestingly, NHTSA ( National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ) just completed a study. They commissioned an independent organization to study rider training in 47 states. Oregon and their new program were rated number one in the nation for best practices. I am very proud to be a part of it.

Anyway, with the background established, I have had the honor of being the first person in the nation to be signed off by an organization other than the MSF. I am what the MSF called a "Chief Instructor". What will this mean? Will there be others? Only time will tell. There are other states that are not happy with the MSF. Quite a number have looked at our program. It looks like several will part company with the MSF when they have a replacement.

I look at it like the recent Olympic winter games. For the first time an athlete was awarded a gold medal in snowboardcross. There will be others but the first one will always be remembered in a groundbreaking way.

Only time will tell how long I will be able to stay actively involved in teaching motorcycling classes. I am totally pleased and grateful to be have been blessed with the chance to give back to the two-wheeled lifestyle that has meant so much to me. I feel good about the legacy I leave behind.

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