Opinion: Back to school

These are the best of times and the worst of times for new riders. They’re the best because there’s more choice than before for decent motorcycles that look good, perform well, don’t cost too much and are easy to ride. They’re the worst because our insurance system sucks and discourages newbies by overcharging for most machines and riders.

(They’re also the worst because of the polar vortex, but we’re pretty much all screwed by that. Although I saw a guy leaving Bat Out Of Hell – the Musical this week all dressed up with somewhere to go, when it was minus-18C in downtown Toronto. His girlfriend, in a regular winter coat and clutching a helmet, didn’t look quite so keen. Hope he lived close by. But I digress…)

It helps, though, that we have a wide variety of training schools for new riders, all of which were selling their services this past weekend at the enormous Motorcycle Supershow near Toronto airport. There’s a training school now available at pretty much every community in Canada that’s medium-sized-and-up, so potential riders don’t have to travel too far to learn the ropes. The structure is generally the same, wherever you are: there’s a Friday evening theory course, followed by a weekend of riding in a parking lot, and they usually cost around $500.

The rules for passing your test vary from province to province, as Zac told us about last year, but the training doesn’t vary much. Nor should it. A rider should be as prepared in Edmonton as in Edmundston.

Mark, back in the good old days of 1982 as a safety instructor, riding around the course and trying to distract students to make them crash.

I used to teach at a private motorcycle safety school in Toronto, which I’ve always thought of as a cowboy outfit. It went out of business after a couple of years when its owner went bankrupt for mismanagement. (The owner, Steve, was an enigmatic, Svengali kind-of-guy to us young instructors. He disappeared after the bankruptcy and was later found selling colonic irrigations in Las Vegas. But I digress again…) We could always tell in the first hour which students would be the ones who’d drop the bike, and who would dominate all our time, and who would pass the test at the end and who would fail.

I say we were a cowboy outfit because we’d set up a giant road course in our parking lot at Victoria Park Avenue and the 401 and then, on the Sunday afternoon, try to get the students to crash. I’d ride around on one of the Honda 125s and pull alongside and chat to a student, then swerve across his path or cut her off around a curve. Steve would pull out in a car into the students’ path to teach them to stay alert and to always be prepared for an emergency brake. It was very effective, but he stopped doing this when a student hit the side of the car at speed and was thrown right over the hood. Did I mention the school went bankrupt?

Student down! Well, let’s hope that taught them a lesson. Probably no need for additional colonic irrigation, either.

That school was not licenced to test riders for their provincial licences – people who passed our testing would be met at a provincial test facility and provided with a motorcycle for the test. These days, however, any school that’s recognized by the province and permitted to conduct testing for a motorcycle licence can be considered reputable.

If you’re new to riding, or you’re getting back after a few years out of the saddle, you must recognize that getting your licence is only the official part of the process. The most important part is the training, which comes with both education and experience. Sign up for a course (and don’t delay, because they book quickly at this time of year), pay your money and get ahead of the game. Spend the rest of this winter looking forward to it, and then turn up on the day with the right equipment and the right attitude.

Then, when you do get out on the road, enjoy yourself but always be looking out for Steve in that car, pulling out from a driveway. I heard the colonic irrigation business dried up and he might be back in Canada.

Best not to sign up for this Toronto-area motorcycle safety school, though it was fun for some while it lasted.



  1. If any of them are still telling students to keep their fingers off the brake, they are still rubbish and endangering lives.

  2. “We could always tell in the first hour which students would be the ones who’d drop the bike, and who would dominate all our time, and who would pass the test at the end and who would fail.”

    This attitude is not the mark of a good instructor. It shows self-fulfilling prophesy from a poor instructor who holds contempt for the less-talented students who need the most help.

  3. Here on “The Rock”, the Canada Safety Council affiliate is the ONLY M/C Training program that follows an established and recognized curriculum taught by trained and Certified Instructors. The competition’s Instructors are non-Certified and in some cases are only recent graduates of their respective programs.
    The local Insurance Industry, strangely has been silent of the discrepancy in quality of Rider Training being offered, only recognizing that a new Rider has completed a Training Course by giving a slight break on the cost of Insurance. As for the lower price, well these outfits offer less actual hours of Training and are reputedly paying their “Instructors” a lower wage too as well as engaging in the practise of under-cutting the competition …

    • You can’t put a value on quality training, but too many people do and just go with the cheapest school. It’s the same principle as getting a degree from the U of T (or MUN) compared to some place on the back of a matchbook. I hope my terrible example from 35 years ago of uncertified instructors trying to make students crash will steer potential students to reputable schools, licensed and certified by the province.

      • I am not sure what your context is. For a new rider the most important thing is control. If you are driving your bike with your fingers out covering the brake leavers and not actively applying the brakes you have less inherent control. Hitting a pothole or having to make an aggressive steering input can be seriously detrimental if full control is not available. “Keep your fingers off the brakes” This is all about context.

        • Fingers-on-the-brake is an advanced skill. A novice should be taught to use all four fingers because most motorcycles don’t have the braking power of sport bikes and it’s the muscles and tendons in your arm that provide the only power. After a rider has gained experience, then they can learn where and when it’s appropriate to cover the brake. In my opinion, the “where” is crowded city streets and the “when” is while you’re going less than 50 kmph/30 mph.

          • I disagree with both of you. Teach control AND braking. As for limiting it to 50 km/h, having fingers on the brakes has saved me at well over 100 km/h from swerving idiots who didn’t signal. At 100 km/h, a half second of clenched finger reaction time translates into about 14 metres of distance with no slowing input. That’s almost the entire length of a semi-trailer.

            • This reminds me of the constant debate about the safest way to carry an axe. Ask eight people and you’ll probably get the same number of opinions.

              Anyways, I see your point and I recognize that on the highway, we are more likely to encounter a driver who swerves in front of us than to encounter a drop-anchor moment (a truck losing its load or a deer running across). Our response to the former is swerve-then-brake, and our response to the latter is brake-then-swerve, but you cannot always count on room for swerving. Therefore, in both cases, we have to be ready to apply full, straight-line braking, and you simply cannot achieve 100% braking performance without four fingers.

              You mentioned the time it takes to move your fingers. The simple answer is that you can give yourself all the time you need by managing your safety margins better, including making certain that you almost always have at least one place to swerve. The complex answer is that, in the former situation, you have the time to move your fingers as you’re coming out of the swerve, and in the latter, you have a slightly better chance of stopping in time by applying 100% brakes. I don’t have the time at the moment to gather my data on this, but either way, and whether you cover the brake with three fingers or two, you still have to move those fingers you have wrapped around the throttle over to the brake. Your best option is to use cruise control as much as possible! Then all four fingers can rest over the lever. And keep in mind that what you usually do with your right hand when traffic is normal is how you’re going to begin your emergency response. If you’re going to cover the brake, you can practice getting the rest of your fingers into the act.

              • I could lock the brake (or activate the ABS) on dry pavement on my current bike and the last two with two fingers, so 4 are not needed for full braking power. Once it’s locked it doesn’t get any more locked. And even if four were needed to get full braking power, at least with two fingers on you’ve STARTED to slow down earlier, and the other two fingers can assist in a very short time.

                I use a throttle rocker, which means I don’t need to grip the throttle as tightly to keep it open; barely need to grip at all in fact, which means the fingers are loose and mobile for braking reactions. I suppose for most people who don’t use one of those they may need more than the outer two fingers to properly control the throttle. I know what I’m going to continue to do.

                • Of course you can lock the brake with two fingers; any novice can do that since there is no skill involved in locking a tire (or tyre?).

                  But can you, in this order: begin braking, have the front end dive down, and establish a level of traction at the front contact patch that wouldn’t skid even if your tires were bald? Sure you can, by squeezing the brake lever as far back as it can possibly go.

                  Are there any stopping techniques more effective than going to the threshold of a stoppie? I don’t think so.

                • Well Don, what can I say other than “Yes, I can”. If you can lock it, you can go to the stoppie threshold; I really don’t understand the logic behind four finger near lock being somehow more effective than two finger near lock. The brake lever does not care how many fingers you are using, it squeezes the piston based on force, and two fingers can go as far as four. If you have some explanation I’m all for hearing it.

  4. As an instructor with safety NL I take pride in myself and all the other instructors. We struggle with being undercut by the other courses with as shown in the article an inferior product. Not all the instructors are trained to meet national certification. And not as much saddle time occurs. Organization cost are set at the beginning of the year. With full governmental regulation graduated licencing and a few other tweaks we should be able to bring our province in line with the rest of the world.

  5. AFAIAK, motorcycle training for new Riders should be mandatory all across the country and the minimum base-line for training standards should be the equivalent of the Canada Safety Council’s “Gearing Up” program.
    Trying to make Student Riders crash is not only irresponsible and dangerous but highly unprofessional. Here on “The Rock” the very credible, and certified Canada Safety Council affiliate, which has been conducting the G.U. program for 30+ years, have in recent years, been under-cut by competition from private up-start M/C Training outfits, offering second-rate Courses at cut-rate prices. Proper Government legislation would put a stop to this practise, which only serves to compromise the safety of new Riders and the public at large.

    • Seeing as this “crash incident” happened decades ago, I think we’re all OK now.

      I hear a lot by the established schools in various provinces saying the new schools are no good. Why? Is there definitive proof that the instructors are less safe? Can anyone show accident statistics proving graduates of the private start-ups are more likely to crash? What’s the insurance industry’s take on it? How come they are able to offer instruction at a lower price?

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