Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"Safety" vs. "Fulfillment"

As you've probably noticed, I've written a fair amount in this blog about motorcycle safety. As you've also likely noticed, I've shared some of my feelings about risk. I'm one of those people who despises the thought of stagnation. For me it's all about the next step.

"If this step has proven possible, then is the next step now possible?"

This isn't true of everything I do, of course. It's definitely true to some extent in the few vocations I've engaged in. When it comes to my two wheeled avocation it's "take it to the bank" true!

What I find fascinating, yet puzzling, is the two distinct callings I'm drawn to. The calling I hear isn't just an interest. It's a sick and morbid compulsion to excel at two contrasting endeavours.

One calling is as an instructor. My burning desire was to give students the most effective learning experience possible. Most of these riders are going to have very limited contact with a professional instructor. With that in mind, the goal is to make that time have the most impact possible. I've studied learning styles, taken courses in communication skills, participated in verbal judo instruction, engaged in leadership training, and anything else I thought would help me reach my student's minds and hearts.

As if that obsession wasn't enough, I became a trainer of new instructors. My reasoning is that if I can make good instructors then even more riders will be able to benefit. My passion to share drives me ever forward in this calling.

The other calling is as a hard core rider. That means taking risks a lot of people consider crazy. Riding to work faithfully unless there is snow and ice. Sometimes I ride despite these things. My dear wife is sometimes a little upset by some of the weather I ride in. Like a true friend, though, she hangs up my wet gloves to dry when I get home! I do things on a bike that even some experienced riders consider impossible. Ever seen this police training exercise? An officer on a bike is parked perpendicular to a concrete wall. The bike's front wheel is resting within a couple of feet from this wall. The objective is to start from a dead stop and ride off without ever putting a foot down. Or hitting the wall, of course. The exercise has to be repeated in both directions. I can do this. Fortunately I didn't have to practice on my own bike. It's just one example of a skill that comes after a series of small steps. Why do I try these things? I don't know for sure. All I do know is that I have this sick craving for new challenges. Only by conquering do I find fulfillment. It's very satisfying. It's also become addictive.

The line to recklessness is never crossed. I do not have a death wish. I'm following another passion. It's an overwhelming need to experience life. I'm the guy doing back flips off a dock in a swimming hole with my boys. While the other fathers are sitting on lawn chairs with beer cans balanced on their pot bellies. I'm the guy grinning both cheerfully and wickedly as I dance to my own music. Most folks won't understand that part of me. I'm okay with that.

"Those who dance are considered insane by those who can't hear the music."

You can see the source of my puzzlement. Usually a person would be one thing or the other. Cop or outlaw. Master computer programmer or hacker. Motorcycle safety instructor or rogue rider. It might be staggering to discover that the line between them is often razor edge thin. Sometimes the best education comes from one who's "seen the other side".

Whatever the case, both callings came to a point in time where they nearly crashed into each other. I had to decide which calling would take point. The situation was caused by a student in a recent class I taught.

It was in one of our Basic Rider Training courses targeted to new riders. A man appeared in class. He had just purchased a used 750 cc cruiser. A little younger than me, this guy expressed a desire to ride to work as circumstances permitted. Riding experience was minimal to virtually none. Under normal conditions I would gladly take a rider like this under my wing and help them find the fun and fulfillment they seek. Conditions were not normal. Physical defects were evident that I felt would seriously compromise the ability to ride safely. In the interests of privacy, I won't go into more detail.

Little warning bells were going off in my head. I could think of numerous scenarios where these defects would cause problems. Since I hadn't seen the man ride, yet, I had no choice but to keep an open mind. One of the things I stress to new instructors is that our new rider training isn't about pass or fail. It's about providing a safe environment for the students to explore. It's about the discovery. If a student finds out that riding really isn't for them during our course I consider it to be a "win". I would have to live by my own words despite my misgivings.

Riding proved to be something of a struggle. One manifestation of the physical limits is that the clutch was either all the way in or all the way out. Anything in between was nearly impossible. Overall balance and smoothness was lacking. And so the weekend went. The man barely passed our skills evaluation, but pass he did. I held no prejudice one way or the other. The skills evaluation is a set of exercises with clearly defined and objectively measured criteria. At times a rider passes who should not have. Conversely, a rider who should have passed doesn't. A professional training organization defines the exercises, the scoring criteria, and the passing score. All parties involved have to live by the same rules. It's called credibility.

I now find myself obliged to give the man his completion card. Which means he can go the next day and add the endorsement to his license with no further testing. Our training bikes are small bikes with displacements less than 300 cc. While the principles the students learn directly translate to bigger bikes, the physicality required does not. My feeling is that if everything goes perfectly this guy can ride his cruiser. If anything out of the ordinary happens he could soon find himself in trouble. As you know, the chance of experiencing surprises on a bike is really high.

As I am handing him the card I am faced with the direct clash of my two callings. Dan the Safety Instructor knows the guy has a high chance of getting hurt or killed. Dan the Rogue Rider totally understands and supports the concept of risk versus fulfillment. One of us had to talk to this student. Which would it be?

Ethics win out. It is our duty as professionals to be honest with a student. This may be their only contact with a professional trainer. If a rider's not ready for the street we are obliged to tell them so. After all, if an instructor just pats a rider on the back and sends this student on their way, what is the student to think?

"I must be just fine since the instructor congratulated me and sent me on my way."

We might not be able to do anything about their getting the endorsement but we can surely send them away with a kind, but honest assessment. This doesn't mean just telling them they aren't ready for the street. We also offer helpful suggestions on what steps to take next. Everyone's responsible for themselves but we now have clear consciences.

In the end, both of my passions had a part in what I said to this man. I'm not going to share exactly what I said to him here. It's a pretty sure bet that some of you have a good idea of what I told my student. I'll reveal my advice later in the comments section.

What would you have told this student?

Miles and smiles,



ps said...

"Buy a scooter." (by which I mean the modern automatic transmission type)

Or a Hondamatic.

Nice post. I just took the beginner motorcycle class after a year of riding. Helped more than I would like to admit on turns. They use the Oregon course here in Illinois, which was a pleasant surprise.


Steve Williams said...

Before I make my prediction of your comments to the student I wanted to take issue with some of your characterization of the duality you ascribe yourself to --- the safety instructor and teacher by day, rogue rider by night night sort of thing.

I'll suggest that there is no division where one turns on and the other turns off. The both exist at the same time in the same places. You are not an example of those who can't do teach. You do and you teach. Perhaps labelling yourself as a rogue or warrior at times is a self-effacing way of diverting attention from the tremendous passion and love you have for this part of your life.

Your actions as a teacher and as a rider speak volumes.

END OF ANALYSIS. (Remember what they say about opinions....)

I don't know the student so I am only guessing at what I would say without any direct impression of the fellow. Here goes:

"Congratulations on passing the course. You displayed sufficient abilities to manage the small motorcycle through the course and riding exercises. Good job.

Before you leave today I wanted to offer some additional feedback that may be helpful as you consider continuing to ride. It appears as if you have some physical limitations that are being challenged with a motorcycle this size. These also are apparent in your ability to carefully manipulate the clutch lever. Unless you think you will be able to increase your physical abilities in these areas I think you might want to reconsider your choice of a 750 cruiser bike for commuting. While you will likely be fine for nromal riding you may find it difficult if not impossible to manage the bike in abnormal situations that do come up routinely in the course of riding.

I would suggest you consider a smaller motorcycle or motorscooter with an automatic transmission. Something like a 400 Suzuki Burgman, Piaggio X9, or Vespa GTS250ie. These will provide more than adequate power to commute and will bridge some of the gaps you face physically.

When you get home tonight take some time to think about your experience in the course, the demands of your new motorcycle, and the physical limitations you are familar with. The sign of a good rider is in his or her ability to be honest about skill, experience, and limitations.

Whatever choice you make I want to wish you the best of luck."

Geez.... that comment is as long as your post. Sorry for filling up your space.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

acmepost said...

If I were your student, I would appreciate a summary at the end of class. It would have to be short, phrases I could remember.

Same things as Steve said, just in shorter sentences. Easier to remember for a stressed guy. If he's a goal-oriented guy, he needs your help making some intermediate goals towards his big goal "ride my bike daily to work", like 15 hours of practice, or 100 miles before driving to work everyday. Or other progressive goals.

Or, if you have a Socratic style, ask him what he thought, what value practice will be, how much he thinks he should practice before driving to work, how he thinks he can learn to ride his larger bike, what kinds of practice he thinks he needs.

My question is how are solo riders supposed to figure this stuff out? We need pointed in the right direction. And sometimes we need to be reminded that all riders started somewhere and only improved through practice.

You probably handled it well. Your mixed emotions are understandable. There is a long way between the rider course and being a rider. Maybe riders need help developing their personal training plan for after they pass the course.

Bryce Lee said...

"Those who dance are considered insane by those who can't hear the music."

Your phrasing could be the crux of
the solution.

Your "graduate" may in fact be willing to accept your comments,
however in this particular case,
I believe a "written note" would have a far more lasting affect
on the person's future.

Often we "hear" only that which we want to listen to; the person in this particular situation I suspect
only heard he passed, not that should not have passed given his lack of co-ordinated abilities.

As an instructor of any course it is often extremely difficult to tell a
student "no, you have passed however
my advice to you would be to rethink why you wish to ride given
your physical problems; as your instructor I would advise you to
not ride or look at a
lesser machine more suited to
your inability to ride a larger machine."

Dan you can only tell and maybe given the person a short note
explaining your reasons.

Suspect notes from the creature
are not common in your weekend
instruction courses however if this
time I think such a note would
be appropriate.

Krysta in Milwaukee said...

Wow, Steve, that's well-written. I especially like, "The sign of a good rider is in his or her ability to be honest about skill, experience, and limitations."

[As it applies to me, I'd add: _holding_ to your limits when riding w/ a more experienced companion! With Karl it can be a problem, more from the point of him nagging than of me pushing myself too hard.]

I, too, (after congratulating the marginal student who passed) would have suggested a) some face time with the mirror, b) time on empty roads & open parking lots, & c) a smaller bike.

Now that the automatic scooters are getting a bit more powerful that might be a good compromise. The balance & response are quite different, too. [This past Sun. I went from a 6 hour road trip on the R1150 to riding home on my little 125cc scooter. Wheee!]

I agree that having at least a short written bullet list of "things to consider / things to improve" would be a good idea. Something he can take home & it won't change, unlike memory.

Dan, out of curiosity, how would that 2-feet-from-the-wall-with-no-feet skill be useful? When would someone going that slow not be able to put a foot down? Parade? I see how the balance & control are Very Good Things to Have in general.

irondad said...

You all are pretty much on the same track as I am.

In classroom sessions I discuss the idea of rider responsibility fairly frequently. This concept is woven into the different units we cover. As in, "It's our responsibility to take care of ourselves and here's some ways to do that".

I also stress pretty heavily on the first night the issue of knowing our personal limits, the limits of the bike, and of the environment. Once a rider knows those limits it is critical they stay within them.

They are told that this class will help them to find some of those limits.

So I don't really go back over that when I debrief a student. Remember, I have 12 students to debrief and the longer I spend with each one the longer the rest of the group has to hang around waiting before they can go home. I have to cut to the chase but be kind about it.

With this rider I reminded him of the rapport we had over the weekend. Particularly of how hard both instructors worked to help him achieve success. The reason being that we truly care about him as a person and a rider.

Next I pointed out that he had discovered some physical limitations that needed to be given serious consideration.

Serious as in "these limitations could delay your reactions in such a way as to get you seriously hurt or killed. Not to scare you, but picture some of the risks we've discussed. Now put yourself in a situation of having to react quickly in order to avoid the risks. Add to that the stress that comes with it. Did you notice how the stress of the skill evaluation caused you to do some strange things? Think about how much more stress there will be when a large pickup is running a red light and coming right for you."

I encouraged him to look at the bigger picture past this class, in other words.

I explained that I was totally in tune with what he was hoping to accomplish on two wheels. It was just that he was going to have to modify the approach slightly in order to make it happen successfully.

I did suggest a scooter. Being an "Official Instructor" it would be unethical for me to suggest a specific brand. Then I told him he should limit his exposure in the beginning. In other words, ride where there is as little multi-tasking required as possible. This would give him a chance to blend the scooter's handling with his physical abilities.

I don't encourage students to stay in a parking lot for a long time. Learning in a realistic environment while limiting exposure is a sound practice.

This was not the entire conversation. I saved this man for last to be able to spend a little more time. Reading his body language, I feel like he won't take my suggestions. I think the reason he bought the cruiser is more of a "group" thing. Practical considerations are probably way down the line. I wish him luck. I've done what I can do.

I have nothing but respect for riders who will come in to take training. Putting egos aside yields great benefits. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rated our program number one in the nation. We're kind of proud of that! Several states are looking at it as an alternate to their current programs.

You're right. It's one passion that expresses itself in two ways. Thanks for the compliment.

It's totally fine that you share long comments. I love your suggested approach. There is a level of understanding of humanity you show that I can only strive for. You would make an awesome instructor. A potential instructor doesn't need high skills. Guess what business I'm in? I can teach more riding skills. I can't impart personality. You've got that part well covered on your own!

You are, indeed, wise.

The Socratic style must be what I use. My goal is to get the student to express themself so I can evaluate their understanding and where they are right now. Things they come up with through self-discovery last much longer than what I just tell them. It's all about ownership.

Isn't it strange how several people can hear the exact same words and get different pictures? A great deal of filtering does go on. Everyone has different backgrounds, experiences, and prejudices. That's what makes it so tricky to get accurate information about what our eyes see as we ride. Is it actuality or our "filtered" version?

Hadn't thought of notes. Have to consider it. They would need to be carefully worded, I think.

Ride your own ride. Your limits will expand with time. Simple statements with booming power behind them. I know you are dong that, I just feel better saying it!

The low speed drills have a couple of things behind them.

One aspect is practicality. A rider interfacing with traffic and strange situations will find themselves in equally weird predicaments. This is especially true of motor officers. It's good to have the skills to maneuver in tight spots.

A lot of these exercises were developed and practiced by cops on the KZ1000 Kawasaki's which have floorboards. Keeping the feet on top of the floor boards prevents serious injuries to lower legs and feet should the bike fall. When trying to maneuver a heavy bike at slow speeds and tight handlebar lock, there's a greater chance the bike will fall over. I've seen a number of training accidents where the officer followed their natural instincts to put feet down.

Several have ended up with a foot or lower leg trapped under the floorboard and suffered broken bones. The training reinforces the habit of keeping the feet out of harm's way. This, of course, isn't an issue as much on newer bikes like the BMW and Honda. The exercises just sort of stayed in the line-up.

The other reasoning is to make handling skills second nature. While most riders have the luxury of devoting most of their attention to riding, an officer often has their attention riveted on the subject of a chase, observing some activity on the side, or looking for subtle but significant clues from the driver they are about to stop.

Riding skills, which include low speed handling, need to be so deeply ingrained that they can take a background role in how much attention they require. In other words, the officer needs to be able to use these skills without having to think about them too much.

Hope that answers the question.

American Scooterist Blog said...

This is a hard one to reply to because someone very close to me is exibiting similar characteristics. I've asked him to consider a rider safety course. He's considering it but I have my doubts.


Brittnee said...

Well said.