Does MSF’s curriculum reduce crashes on the road?

In the last entry, MSF was revealed to be a front group for the motorcycle industry in all ways. This one examines the efficacy of MSF curricular and licensing products.

The preliminary report by 16 state Attorney Generals as well as the District of Columbia’s Corporation Council, What’s In a Nonprofit’s Name? Public Trust, Profit and the Potential for Public Deception (1999) decided, “As the United States Supreme Court has noted [about partnerships between commercial entities and charities]…The institution’s purpose must not be so at odds with the common community conscience as to undermine any public benefit that might otherwise be conferred.”

The question, then, is whether MSF’s deep, pervasive self-aggrandizing use by the motorcycle manufacturers at such odds with the public benefit they claim? Or does the public benefit outweigh the ulterior motives of the motorcycle manufacturers?

MSF’s first president, Charlie Hartman, repeatedly said that MSF’s goal was to reduce crashes and deaths on America’s roads and the key ways MSF intended to do that was through licensing tests and a rider training curriculum. Under contract to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, MSF developed both curriculum standards, a curriculum and motorcycle licensing tests. In the first decade, several motorcycle tests emerged from an on-road test to the one that we are most familiar with, the Alternate Motorcycle Operator Skill Test (Alt-MOST). And over the years, there’s been three iterations of the same curriculum—though the last has a very different instructional strategy.

MSF’s position as the authority when it came to rider safety and the key to motorcyclists’ and rider educators’ loyalty rested solely on that claim—that their sole purpose to exist was to reduce crashes and improve rider safety. And, for many riders and rider educators, although they aren’t happy that MSF is really a trade group, it’s acceptable because, they believe—and have been led to believe—that trained riders are safer than untrained or friend/family trained riders. So let’s see if that is true:

Monash University, the preeminent traffic safety research centre in the world, has studied rider training extensively. “Evaluation of Rider Training in Victoria” (Haworth, et. al.) describes and discusses nine of the studies that have been done on MSF curriculum from 1980-1995. None of them found that, adjusting for miles traveled and frequency of riding, gender and general risk-taking behavior in other activities, that the MSF course reduced crashes. At best, untrained riders had 10% more crashes in the first six months of riding. At worst, several studies found that riders trained with MSF curriculum were more likely to have crashes, some found they were more likely to have traffic offenses.

Over the past three decades, there’s been many other studies—some of which were never written up in journals such as one in Colorado and another in Wisconsin. Other studies that examined rider training in other contexts also confirmed these findings—there was no true or lasting safety effect for trained riders. Rather, one of the greatest benefits Billheimer’s study found was to discourage riders who failed to pass the course from riding—even if they could have passed the Department of Motor Vehicle motorcycle test.

The most recent study that has considered the effect of training, “Effectiveness of motorcycle training and motorcyclists’ risk-taking behavior”, published in 2007 found the same thing that so many had discovered: “those individuals who took beginning rider training courses were more likely to be involved in an accident than those who did not and that those who took the beginning course more than once were much more likely to be involved in an accident.”

Less studies have been done on motorcycle licensing tests. The few that were done, however, found the same results: those who pass a version of MSF’s MOST with flying scores, do not, when experience and miles traveled are accounted for, do better than those who barely pass or fail. And, once again, those who took MSF training tended to do worse in terms of crash involvement (as well as skill levels in the test) than those who did not. One study found that passing the skills test was less effective as a motorcycle license requirement than almost every other requirement in a state in lowering the fatality rate.

Given the body of research, then, MSF’s sole claim to be for the public benefit does not measure up. It is at the very best, good for those who choose not to ride again as a result of the training, or females who rarely ride small bikes short distances. For the most part, if Billheimer’s effect still holds true, there’s a very slight benefit for the first six months.

But after that six months, there is, at best, a neutral—no benefit lost or gained. At worst, a significant number of studies found that trained riders are actually less-skilled, more accident prone and more likely to have traffic tickets. And that’s not consistent with the public’s interest, nor safety and education for two-wheeled vehicle operators.

It greatly upset many rider educators and many students who have graduated from the course when it was revealed that MSF curriculum and licensing is ineffective at best and puts riders at more risk at worst. They find it hard to accept and harder to believe.

Rider educators who use MSF curriculum claim their own experience with the course proves that it is effective in producing safe riders. Instructors are very generous with their time and sincerely believe they are doing a good work—and they are.

However, because of the nature of the course, rider educators can speak authoritatively as to whether students learn to operate the controls and perform a minimal amount of tasks on a parking lot at speeds far lower than they will on the street. They have little to no idea how the students do as they ride in the real world—and that’s what the studies address. Rider educators, as good-hearted and skillful as they are at teaching someone to ride a motorcycle, then, are not in the position to address whether the curriculum is, in fact, effective in keeping students safer. A great number of studies through three decades say no.

I’m terribly sorry, but the only thing rider educators can really say is that MSF curriculum teach students to operate the controls and do basic maneuvers. All the evidence points to minimal if not negative benefits to taking the MSF course.

Yet in the very latest MSF publication, the MSF Rider Skill Test (that MSF intends to replace the Alt-MOST), MSF still claims its mission is to “reduce crashes, rider injuries and fatalities”. As we know, it’s mission, according to its bylaws is to promote and foster the motorcycle industry. This is however a false claim—it isn’t the mission of the MSF, which is to exclusively promote the interests of the motorcycle manufacturer members.

But is the Basic RiderCourse safe and effective? And what about the new motorcycle licensing test that MSF is just introducing? That’s the subject of the next two entries.

Explore posts in the same categories: Instructors, Motorcycle Industry, Motorcycle Safety, Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Motorcycle Training

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