“What happened when you increased speed?” instructor Elisabeth Purcell asked nearly a dozen students after they completed an exercise during a motorcycle safety course at Modesto Junior College on Saturday morning.
The answer she was looking for was that wobbliness disappeared. But student Mike Wegener quickly interjected a reply that drew laughs and smiles from classmates and the instructors. “Smile got bigger.”
It was a light moment – one of several – during instruction on a serious topic: motorcycle safety. Based on a variety of factors, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that riding a motorcycle is 33 times more dangerous than driving a car, said Jim Jenkins, program director for the California Motorcycle Safety Program class offered at MJC.
A lot of that risk is from the reduced visibility of motorcyclists to other drivers, he said. And a lot is from insufficient safety precautions by cyclists – riding in shorts, tank tops, flipflops and what he called “novelty” helmets that are not legal for motorcyclists in California.
In 2013, 4,668 motorcyclists were killed – a 6-percent decrease from the 4,986 motorcyclists killed in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We start with being protected, wearing all the safety gear,” Jenkins said as students slowly circled in the parking lot at Tully Road and Stoddard Avenue, where class began at 6 a.m. “A full-face helmet is huge,” he said, because in most motorcycle accidents, head injuries are to the face – often the nose and chin.
All the students also were wearing closed-toe leather footwear – no canvas shoes allowed – long-sleeve shirts, jeans and gloves. The course, provided under the umbrella of the California Highway Patrol, provides the motorcycles, plus helmets and gloves for students who don’t have their own.
Among those students was Modesto resident Sal Palacios, 21, who works in the auto industry in Fremont. “I figured I wanted to know a little of everything,” he said of why he was taking the course. “I know how to drive a big rig ... and you never know when it will be helpful to know how to ride a motorcycle. I commute all the way to Fremont, so it could be helpful that way.”
He “absolutely hates” being stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the highway, he said, and sees the appeal in being able to lane split and cruise among the slow-moving cars and trucks.
Lots of students ask about lane splitting – riding a motorcycle between roadway lanes of vehicles driving in the same – Jenkins said. When done properly, he tells them, it’s much safer than not doing it. The right conditions are when traffic is moving at 30 mph or slower, and the cyclist goes no more than 10 mph faster.
Why is it safer? “As you stop behind a car, the car behind you doesn’t really see the cyclist, they see the car. You become the crumple zone,” Jenkins said. Motorcyclists never can count on other motorists being observant, he said. “It’s amazing how many people I see texting. I’m a little higher (sitting on a motorcycle), so I see them all.”
Per vehicle mile traveled, motorcyclist fatalities occurred 26 times more frequently than passenger car occupant fatalities in traffic crashes, the NHTSA reports.
Another young cyclist taking the course was Elizabeth Hudson, an 18-year-old MJC student. She said she was “super excited” to be learning to ride a motorcycle and envisions using one to get around town. “It would be so much more fun to ride around on a motorcycle than in my car,” she said. “And it saves money on gas.”
Until taking the three-day course, Hudson said, she’d never driven a motorcycle, only ridden as a passenger on her father’s and uncle’s bikes. “I know nothing. Everything’s so new to me,” she said. “I’m learning you really have to be observant. ... It’s pretty obvious that being a motorcycle rider can be dangerous.”
But her parents were all for her learning, she said. Her dad has suggested that perhaps a moped or scooter would serve her needs, and while she admits they’re “cute,” Hudson thinks she’d prefer a true motorcycle. “I’m young, I live for danger,” she joked during a class break.
Another reason she was taking the class: It’s the law.
Under California Assembly Bill 1952, which took effect in 2011, people under age 21 must complete a motorcycle safety training course before they can obtain a license. Called “Jarrad’s Law,” it’s named after 18-year-old Jarrad Cole, a Fair Oaks resident who was killed in 2007 less than an hour after purchasing his first motorcycle. While he had passed a DMV written test and obtained his permit, Cole had not completed any motorcycle training.
The under-21s who must take the class make up only about 20 percent of the students who come through the MJC program, Jenkins said. “We get a lot of bucket listers ... in their 50s. Some are returning riders who last were on a motorcycle a long time ago and need a refresher. We get ages 151/2 to 89.”
The NHTSA estimates that helmets saved 1,630 motorcyclists’ lives in 2013, and that 715 more could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.
He’s had students who’ve ridden for 30 years without a license and figure it’s time to go straight before getting caught. “The fines are huge,” Jenkins said. He also had one student who for 15 years had simply renewed his permit annually before finally getting a full license.
The 16-hour course, its curriculum provided by Total Control Training, includes 10 hours on a motorcycle, six hours in the classroom. The first day, Palacios said, they learned mostly about the components of a motorcycle and proper safety gear.
At Saturday’s riding portion, some of the basics being taught included keeping the right posture – heads up, eyes up – and how to correctly corner – downshifting into a curve without having to brake, upshifting coming out of the turn.
Each student gets a skills evaluation at the course’s conclusion, Jenkins said, and about 10 percent fail. But in most cases, they can repeat the 10 hours of road work free of charge. Failure usually boils down to a balance issue. If you can’t ride a bike, you’re not going to do well on a motorcycle, Jenkins said.
Occasionally, students drop out early on, having a change of heart about riding. “To me, that’s a success,” Jenkins said. “Riding a motorcycle isn’t for everyone. You have both hands busy and both feet busy.” It’s a lot more work than driving a car.
There are three big areas the course focuses on, Jenkins said: cornering, emergency braking and impairment.
In motorcycle crashes that don’t involve another vehicle, improper cornering usually is the problem – “people just run off the road,” he said, if they haven’t learned good technique.
Braking in an emergency also is a must, he said. Going 15 mph, for example, students must be able to stop within 13 feet. Acceptable distances increase with speed, but if a rider can’t stop during a test, he doesn’t belong on the roads, Jenkins said.
Finally, alcohol impairment. “Behind the wheel of a car, the legal limit is below 0.08 percent,” Jenkins said, “but on a motorcycle, we consider anything above 0.02 to be impaired. It’s hard to balance. It takes a lot of coordination to drive a motorcycle. You can make a small mistake in a car and it may not be a big deal. Make that mistake on a motorcycle and you’re on the ground.”
The California Motorcycle Safety Program class isa offered at MJC about 46 or 47 weeks a year. The cost for people 21 and older is $258; for under-21s, it’s $180. To learn more, visit mjc4life.org.