Twenty year drop in standards: licensing as a puzzle piece

As I was verifying the information on where the driver’s license-waiver began, I looked through several other old issues of Safe Cycling. In those days MSF published something on licensing in every issue—and I thought there were some things that were pertinent to the discussion about licensing as an effective part of the motorcycle safety puzzle.

An article, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets” by Kenard McPherson in the Fall 1987 issue of Safe Cycling begins by stating that (some) states had been issuing motorcycle licenses since the early 1900s but it wasn’t until “research published in 1968 identified motorcycle operator testing and licensing as the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”  This, then, was the genesis of this piece of the puzzle solution.

That same year Wisconsin began requiring a motorcycle license that required riders to take the “test on a bike similar in size to the one they would actually ride on the street.”[i]

To address that belief, the National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) contracted with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to develop licensing tests—two of which emerged—the Motorcycle Operator Skill Test (MOST), an off-street examination that was in use in many states by 1987, and the on-street Motorcyclist In Traffic test.

These tests were considerably dumbed down from what NHTSA wanted in the first place—but that’s another entry entirely.

We’ll return to the article on MIT soon, but what struck me was this sentence: “Increasingly, officials are taking a hard look at a pertinent issue: Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?” It’s a question we’re still asking 22 years later.

What I found most interesting is how articles spread out over several years reveal how we ended up with the kind of testing we have today—and what it could’ve been:

In February 1983 Safe Cycling issue an article, “Licensing Improves Despite Recession”, describes MOST as “and off-street test proven effective in reducing accidents….” MOST tested 8 skills in 8 exercises.

Alternate MOST (Alt-MOST) was developed in 1980 and the article goes on to say it “tests some of the same skills as the MOST but requires less space.”  The large range (125 by 50 feet) was sometimes cited by MSF as a reason why more states didn’t adopt MOST. The Alt-MOST is given on a range that’s 125 feet by 30 feet.

Alt-MOST also didn’t require the timing signals that made MOST so difficult to pass.

For perspective, MSF’s newest licensing test, the Rider Skill Test, requires a range of 75 feet by 30 feet—and it tests three-wheelers as well.

Note the phrase “some of the same”—iow, MSF said not all the skills tested in the MOST were tested in the Alt-MOST.  The February 1984 issue “Launching New Initiatives” states that at least one of the skills that was dropped in the Alt-MOST was the Quick Stop in a Curve and that research done on MOST revealed that “a large percentage of riders don’t have this skill.”

Iow, MSF knew that a large percentage of riders didn’t have a critical skill—and so would fail that part of the test—and dropped it from the test. The explanation MSF gave is that the range was too narrow—and yet today riders practice that skill in the same amount of space during the Basic RiderCourse—but the skill is still not tested in either the end-of-course evaluation or in the Alt-MOST.

It appears, then that a skill that was critical for motorcycle safety was dropped not because of space but dropping it would lead to a higher pass rate for the licensing test.

The article also emphasized that MOST cost about $2,000 for each site while Alt-MOST cost between $30 to $100 for each site.

Even so, according to the article many states were using MOST—the one that included Quick Stop in a Curve—and Alt-MOST was used in Indiana and at three sites in Montana and was being field-tested at two sites in California (which decided not to go with Alt-MOST because the study found that riders who passed Alt-MOST had worse safety records on the road). Today almost all states use Alt-MOST—and Quick Stop in a Curve still isn’t tested.

In the May 1984 issue the “A Look at Licensing” column was entitled, “MOST Versus MIT Which is Better?” and discussed a study that Wisconsin did on the two MSF licensing products in use in the state—MOST and MIT—and it’s own cone test.

Bud Beaverson of the DMV said that there was from one to several “minor” crashes in the MOST test but at that point only one that required medical attention and that crashes were a “problem” in the Quick Stop in the Curve.

He also said that “overall the MOST is favored.” But he went on to say, “What concerns us about this, however, is do the examiners feel it’s best due to less judgment required on their part, or is it easier to say “the timer says you failed?” Interestingly, he said there was “strong examiner opinion that an on-street test is best. Many examiners are recommending adjustments in the MIT scoring system to increase the level of difficulty.”

Three months after the article on Wisconsin’s research, the August 1984 issue printed an article describing Florida’s new licensing program. In it, MSF is portrayed as being heavily involved in what that program would be and the legislation behind it. It also says that “Florida officials consistently expressed their desire to adopt not just a motorcycle operator licensing program, but the finest program available” [emphasis in text] and chose MOST at sites that tested the most riders most often and Alt-MOST at smaller sites.

It also included something that would change motorcycle licensing dramatically: It was in Florida in 1964 that the driver’s license-waiver began. It was part of the deal MSF and the Florida dealer’s association worked out with the licensing authority—though since it had never been tried nor tested there was no evidence the course evaluations and the MOST test were equivalent.

Even so, “Florida’s new program also allows graduates of a quality rider education-program to have the licensing skill test waived….”There’s great optimism that this waiver will create an incentive for new riders to take the Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC).”

But there was no proof that the course itself was effective in producing safer riders (and already studies had shown MSF’s curriculum to be ineffective). The Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC), though, did test the student’s ability to shift and stop in a circle in the end-of-course evaluation.

In the May 1986 issue John Bodeker—who was then a Chief Instructor in the Illinois program—presented the results of a survey done on students who either passed or failed the course. The survey found that 81% of those who failed the course took it to “learn to ride” and none of those who failed the course had a motorcycle license previously and 56% of those who failed the course went on to get their motorcycle license at the DMV.[ii],[iii]

Now we return to that compelling question—is a rider who passes a simple skill test ready for traffic—that was asking in the Fall 1987 article devoted to MIT, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets”.

The author, Kenard McPherson was manager of research programs for MSF in the first years of the foundation’s work and went on to the National Public Research Institute. He had been deeply involved in the In-Traffic test and was the author of Development of an in-traffic test for motorcyclists, 1978 published by NHTSA. Yet, unlike other articles on licensing Safe Cycling gave no credentials to McPherson in the by-line.

The article describes the test in more detail and points out the many benefits. The In Traffic test offered several advantages over off-street testing. Among those benefits were: “It focuses exclusively on behaviors of critical importance to safe riding” [emphasis in text]…which produces a more accurate and uniform assessment of rider performance….”

MIT, he writes, is a “straightforward test that gives a clear and true reading of the most important aspects of motorcyclist performance…Furthermore, programming the route where riders respond to real traffic situations enables examiners to spot flaws in riding strategies. In this way the test provide a learning experience for riders while serving as an effective evaluation device for licensing officials.”

Additionally, McPherson wrote, “since public streets are used, motorcycle applicants like the test because they feel they are responding to real-world situations. Examiners like the test for the same reason; they also realize it is far more challenging than tests that check only minimum riding skills (how to start, turn and stop).”

Iow, McPherson is recommending that riders do what drivers have to do—take it to the streets under trained observation to prove competency.

At the end of the article is a small box that states, “Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.”  In all the years that Safe Cycling has been published this is the only article I’ve found that has that statement. And this is the only article that states that the content is the author’s opinion rather than fact.

Yet this article was published three years after the only state-run evaluation of MSF licensing products had been done and summarized in Safe Cycling with the finding that MIT was “best” and that it needed to be even harder.

Iow, when the most challenging of all the motorcyclist tests is held up as the most accurate and best test to evaluate motorcycle safety, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation quickly distances itself from its own licensing product.

Instead of MIT or even MOST, MSF pushed Alt-MOST, the easiest of all MSF’s tests. (That is until the new MSF Rider Skill Test Motorcycles & 3-Wheel Vehicles came out last year.)  In a very short span of time, Alt-MOST is now endemic across the country.

As is the driver’s license-waiver granted by successfully passing the training course.

And when the MRC gave way to the MRC: RSS, shifting and stopping in a circle/curve had also disappeared from the end-of course evaluations.

Iow, even though there was a demonstrated drop in fatalities when MOST and MIT were used as the licensing tests, they were replaced by Alt-MOST that was, by MSF’s own admission, less comprehensive and lacked a critical skill that was known to be deficient in riders.

MSF then pushed for the driver’s license-waiver and pushed it for all states afterwards and then dropped a large number of skills from the then-new MRC: RSS including testing the critical skill that they knew was deficient in motorcyclists. And this all occurred before the 1990s.

By the late 1980s, the regular licensing column disappeared from Safe Cycling—that’s because motorcycle licensing (and the spread of MSF licensing tests) were in all but four states by the end of the 1980s. MSF had accomplished its task and was firmly ensconced in DMVs across the country.

Then in the spring 1990 issue, “1990’s: Licensing the Un-Rider” appeared. The by-line tells us that it was written by Terryn O’Reilly, Manager, MSF Licensing Dept.

It begins, “For years this country has had a high number of unskilled, unlicensed, uninsured and unhelmeted cyclists. We hear that these riders feel that licensing tests are scary, a bother, or just not worth the effort. Ditto for rider education. Registration and insurance are a burden. Helmets are a hindrance.”[iv]

In fact, at that time, according to the 1989 version of the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) “more than 40 percent” of fatalities were not properly licensed and  “in some states” up to 80% were not properly licensed. Today that’s fallen to roughly 25 percent.

O’Reilly then says that society was in such a hurry nowadays that the licensing process had to be “streamlined for an impatient public.” Iow, the cantankerous ones that find the process a burden are forcing the entire system to accommodate them.

The article goes on to summarize the discussion to update to the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) such as tightening standards. She implies that the blue-ribbon committee dismisses concerns about bigger bikes as just being a “gut feeling” and then dismisses graduated or tiered licensing claiming that studies don’t support it and that it would make going to the DMV just that much more of a hassle.

Then she presents Provisional Licensing [emphasis in text] as superior to graduated or tiered licensing which was to be “a system to monitor the traffic violation records and crash involvement of newly licensed riders. Restrictions promote safety and provide incentive to attain full privileges. Appropriate licensing sanctions are imposed on first-time licensees if they exceed a pre-determined threshold or violation convictions.”

That system never materialized—and doesn’t even appear in MOLS when it was published.

Instead, MOLS sums up the difference between on-street and off-street testing in a way that’s very reminiscent of McPherson’s article: Off-street testing evaluates vehicle-handling skill while on-street testing “assesses applicant’s traffic sense and their ability to put safe riding principles and procedures into practice on the road.”[v] Iow, it’s that pertinent question McPherson said traffic safety experts were already asking—“Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?”  Off-street testing cannot evaluate that.

O’Reilly went on to say, “Extravagant education requirements, sluggish licensing systems, citations never issued or tickets not upheld will only slow us down. “  Notice that this MSF employee was lobbying for less-demanding education standards and criticizes the licensing system—something that was created by MSF and supported by MSF until it convinced states to allow the driver’s license-waiver for passing the course.

And now some twenty years later up to 66 percent of riders get their license through taking a MSF curriculum training course and receiving a driver’s license-waiver.

Today, the new MSF license test, the Rider Skills Test is exactly what is advertised—it tests a very few skills at below street speed in an off-street environment. In many ways it’s a dumbed-down version of Alt-MOST that was a dumbed-down version of MOST which was a dumbed-down version of what NHTSA wanted in a motorcycle license test that would “offer the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”

In the intervening years, as noted, the percentage of not-validly licensed fatalities dropped from over 40 percent to 25% and the percentage of validly-licensed fatalities has grown to 75 percent.

If you read the current MOLS, it worries about the same things and recommends many of the same things as it did in 1989—and I would bet worried about and recommended in the three earlier versions as well. This time, though, it talks about graduated licensing and it’s so enthusiastic about rider education. My guess is that the next update to MOLS will be no different.

As far as the puzzle of motorcycle safety goes, a key piece would seem to be what the minimum standards are—and it may be that the motorcycle licensing tests—both at the DMV and in the course—may have sunk too low to be a meaningful gauge.

It’s no puzzle, then, that so many licensed riders are dying when the tests that are supposed to prove competency are weakened over and over. It’s a mystery, though, why we allow it.


[i] “A Look at Licensing: Leadership, Innovation and Diversity Highlight Wisconsin’s Licensing Program.” Safe Cycling. November 1983.

[ii] Bodeker, John. A View From Illinois, p. 15. Safe Cycling. May 1986.

[iii] However, interestingly enough, those who failed were, by double the percentage of those who passed,  were for mandatory helmet laws.

[iv] O’Reilly, Terry. 1990’s: Licensing the Un-Rider. Spring issue, 1990.

[v] Guidelines for Motor Vehicle Administrators: Motorcycle Operator Licensing System, p. 14. U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, MSF and AAMVA. 1989

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In the May 1986 issue John Bodeker—who was then a Chief Instructor in the Illinois program—presented the results of a survey done on students who either passed or failed the course. The survey found that 81% of those who failed the course took it to “learn to ride” and none of those who failed the course had a motorcycle license previously and 56% of those who failed the course went on to get their motorcycle license at the DMV.[i],[ii]


[i] Bodeker, John. A View From Illinois, p. 15. Safe Cycling. May 1986.

[ii] However, interestingly enough, those who failed were, by double the percentage of those who passed,  were for mandatory helmet laws. Twenty year droop in standards: licensing as a puzzle piece

As I was verifying the information on where the driver’s license-waiver began, I looked through several other old issues of Safe Cycling. In those days MSF published something on licensing in every issue—and I thought there were some things that were pertinent to the discussion about licensing as an effective part of the motorcycle safety puzzle.

An article, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets” by Kenard McPherson in the Fall 1987 issue of Safe Cycling begins by stating that (some) states had been issuing motorcycle licenses since the early 1900s but it wasn’t until “research published in 1968 identified motorcycle operator testing and licensing as the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”  This, then, was the genesis of this piece of the puzzle solution.

That same year Wisconsin began requiring a motorcycle license that required riders to take the “test on a bike similar in size to the one they would actually ride on the street.”[ii]

To address that belief, the National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) contracted with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to develop licensing tests—two of which emerged—the Motorcycle Operator Skill Test (MOST), an off-street examination that was in use in many states by 1987, and the on-street Motorcyclist In Traffic test.

These tests were considerably dumbed down from what NHTSA wanted in the first place—but that’s another entry entirely.

We’ll return to the article on MIT soon, but what struck me was this sentence: “Increasingly, officials are taking a hard look at a pertinent issue: Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?” It’s a question we’re still asking 22 years later.

What I found most interesting is how articles spread out over several years reveal how we ended up with the kind of testing we have today—and what it could’ve been:

In February 1983 Safe Cycling issue an article, “Licensing Improves Despite Recession”, describes MOST as “and off-street test proven effective in reducing accidents….” MOST tested 8 skills in 8 exercises.

Alternate MOST (Alt-MOST) was developed in 1980 and the article goes on to say it “tests some of the same skills as the MOST but requires less space.”  The large range (125 by 50 feet) was sometimes cited by MSF as a reason why more states didn’t adopt MOST. The Alt-MOST is given on a range that’s 125 feet by 30 feet—or longer and just as wide as a compact range today upon which stopping in a curve is taught.

Alt-MOST also didn’t require the timing signals that made MOST so difficult to pass.

For perspective, MSF’s newest licensing test, the Rider Skill Test, requires a range of 75 feet by 30 feet—and it tests three-wheelers as well.

Note the phrase “some of the same”—iow, MSF said not all the skills tested in the MOST were tested in the Alt-MOST.  The February 1984 issue “Launching New Initiatives” states that at least one of the skills that was dropped in the Alt-MOST was the Quick Stop in a Curve and that research done on MOST revealed that “a large percentage of riders don’t have this skill.”

Iow, MSF knew that a large percentage of riders didn’t have a critical skill—and so would fail that part of the test—and dropped it from the test. The explanation MSF gave is that the range was too narrow—and yet today riders practice that skill in the same amount of space during the Basic RiderCourse—but the skill is still not tested in either the end-of-course evaluation or in the Alt-MOST.

It appears, then that a skill that was critical for motorcycle safety was dropped not because of space but dropping it would lead to a higher pass rate for the licensing test.

The article also emphasized that MOST cost about $2,000 for each site while Alt-MOST cost between $30 to $100 for each site.

Even so, according to the article many states were using MOST—the one that included Quick Stop in a Curve—and Alt-MOST was used in Indiana and at three sites in Montana and was being field-tested at two sites in California (which decided not to go with Alt-MOST because the study found that riders who passed Alt-MOST had worse safety records on the road). Today almost all states use Alt-MOST—and Quick Stop in a Curve still isn’t tested.

In the May 1984 issue the “A Look at Licensing” column was entitled, “MOST Versus MIT Which is Better?” and discussed a study that Wisconsin did on the two MSF licensing products in use in the state—MOST and MIT—and it’s own cone test.

Bud Beaverson of the DMV said that there was from one to several “minor” crashes in the MOST test but at that point only one that required medical attention and that crashes were a “problem” in the Quick Stop in the Curve.

He also said that “overall the MOST is favored.” But he went on to say, “What concerns us about this, however, is do the examiners feel it’s best due to less judgment required on their part, or is it easier to say “the timer says you failed?” Interestingly, he said there was “strong examiner opinion that an on-street test is best. Many examiners are recommending adjustments in the MIT scoring system to increase the level of difficulty.”

Three months after the article on Wisconsin’s research, the August 1984 issue printed an article describing Florida’s new licensing program. In it, MSF is portrayed as being heavily involved in what that program would be and the legislation behind it. It also says that “Florida officials consistently expressed their desire to adopt not just a motorcycle operator licensing program, but the finest program available” [emphasis in text] and chose MOST at sites that tested the most riders most often and Alt-MOST at smaller sites.

It also included something that would change motorcycle licensing dramatically: It was in Florida in 1964 that the driver’s license-waiver began. It was part of the deal MSF and the Florida dealer’s association worked out with the licensing authority—though since it had never been tried nor tested there was no evidence the course evaluations and the MOST test were equivalent.

Even so, “Florida’s new program also allows graduates of a quality rider education-program to have the licensing skill test waived….”There’s great optimism that this waiver will create an incentive for new riders to take the Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC).”

But there was no proof that the course itself was effective in producing safer riders (and already studies had shown MSF’s curriculum to be ineffective). The Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC), though, did test the student’s ability to shift and stop in a circle in the end-of-course evaluation.

Now we return to that compelling question—is a rider who passes a simple skill test ready for traffic—that was asking in the Fall 1987 article devoted to MIT, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets”.

The author, Kenard McPherson was manager of research programs for MSF in the first years of the foundation’s work and went on to the National Public Research Institute. He had been deeply involved in the In-Traffic test and was the author of Development of an in-traffic test for motorcyclists, 1978 published by NHTSA. Yet, unlike other articles on licensing Safe Cycling gave no credentials to McPherson in the by-line.

The article describes the test in more detail and points out the many benefits. The In Traffic test offered several advantages over off-street testing. Among those benefits were: “It focuses exclusively on behaviors of critical importance to safe riding” [emphasis in text]…which produces a more accurate and uniform assessment of rider performance….”

MIT, he writes, is a “straightforward test that gives a clear and true reading of the most important aspects of motorcyclist performance…Furthermore, programming the route where riders respond to real traffic situations enables examiners to spot flaws in riding strategies. In this way the test provide a learning experience for riders while serving as an effective evaluation device for licensing officials.”

Additionally, McPherson wrote, “since public streets are used, motorcycle applicants like the test because they feel they are responding to real-world situations. Examiners like the test for the same reason; they also realize it is far more challenging than tests that check only minimum riding skills (how to start, turn and stop).”

Iow, McPherson is recommending that riders do what drivers have to do—take it to the streets under trained observation to prove competency.

At the end of the article is a small box that states, “Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.”  In all the years that Safe Cycling has been published this is the only article I’ve found that has that statement. And this is the only article that states that the content is the author’s opinion rather than fact.

Yet this article was published three years after the only state-run evaluation of MSF licensing products had been done and summarized in Safe Cycling with the finding that MIT was “best” and that it needed to be even harder.

Iow, when the most challenging of all the motorcyclist tests is held up as the most accurate and best test to evaluate motorcycle safety, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation quickly distances itself from its own licensing product.

Instead of MIT or even MOST, MSF pushed Alt-MOST, the easiest of all MSF’s tests. (That is until the new MSF Rider Skill Test Motorcycles & 3-Wheel Vehicles came out last year.)  In a very short span of time, Alt-MOST is now endemic across the country.

As is the driver’s license-waiver granted by successfully passing the training course.

And when the MRC gave way to the MRC: RSS, shifting and stopping in a circle/curve had also disappeared from the end-of course evaluations.

Iow, even though there was a demonstrated drop in fatalities when MOST and MIT were used as the licensing tests, they were replaced by Alt-MOST that was, by MSF’s own admission, less comprehensive and lacked a critical skill that was known to be deficient in riders.

MSF then pushed for the driver’s license-waiver and pushed it for all states afterwards and then dropped a large number of skills from the then-new MRC: RSS including testing the critical skill that they knew was deficient in motorcyclists. And this all occurred before the 1990s.

By the late 1980s, the regular licensing column disappeared from Safe Cycling—that’s because motorcycle licensing (and the spread of MSF licensing tests) were in all but four states by the end of the 1980s. MSF had accomplished its task and was firmly ensconced in DMVs across the country.

Then in the spring 1990 issue, “1990’s: Licensing the Un-Rider” appeared. The by-line tells us that it was written by Terryn O’Reilly, Manager, MSF Licensing Dept.

It begins, “For years this country has had a high number of unskilled, unlicensed, uninsured and unhelmeted cyclists. We hear that these riders feel that licensing tests are scary, a bother, or just not worth the effort. Ditto for rider education. Registration and insurance are a burden. Helmets are a hindrance.”[ii]

In fact, at that time, according to the 1989 version of the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) “more than 40 percent” of fatalities were not properly licensed and  “in some states” up to 80% were not properly licensed. Today that’s fallen to roughly 25 percent.

O’Reilly then says that society was in such a hurry nowadays that the licensing process had to be “streamlined for an impatient public.” Iow, the cantankerous ones that find the process a burden are forcing the entire system to accommodate them.

The article goes on to summarize the discussion to update to the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) such as tightening standards. She implies that the blue-ribbon committee dismisses concerns about bigger bikes as just being a “gut feeling” and then dismisses graduated or tiered licensing claiming that studies don’t support it and that it would make going to the DMV just that much more of a hassle.

Then she presents Provisional Licensing [emphasis in text] as superior to graduated or tiered licensing which was to be “a system to monitor the traffic violation records and crash involvement of newly licensed riders. Restrictions promote safety and provide incentive to attain full privileges. Appropriate licensing sanctions are imposed on first-time licensees if they exceed a pre-determined threshold or violation convictions.”

That system never materialized—and doesn’t even appear in MOLS when it was published.

Instead, MOLS sums up the difference between on-street and off-street testing in a way that’s very reminiscent of McPherson’s article: Off-street testing evaluates vehicle-handling skill while on-street testing “assesses applicant’s traffic sense and their ability to put safe riding principles and procedures into practice on the road.”[ii] Iow, it’s that pertinent question McPherson said traffic safety experts were already asking—“Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?”  Off-street testing cannot evaluate that.

O’Reilly went on to say, “Extravagant education requirements, sluggish licensing systems, citations never issued or tickets not upheld will only slow us down. “  Notice that this MSF employee was lobbying for less-demanding education standards and criticizes the licensing system—something that was created by MSF and supported by MSF until it convinced states to allow the driver’s license-waiver for passing the course.

And now some twenty years later up to 66 percent of riders get their license through taking a MSF curriculum training course and receiving a driver’s license-waiver.

Today, the new MSF license test, the Rider Skills Test is exactly what is advertised—it tests a very few skills at below street speed in an off-street environment. In many ways it’s a dumbed-down version of Alt-MOST that was a dumbed-down version of MOST which was a dumbed-down version of what NHTSA wanted in a motorcycle license test that would “offer the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”

In the intervening years, as noted, the percentage of not-validly licensed fatalities dropped from over 40 percent to 25% and the percentage of validly-licensed fatalities has grown to 75 percent.

If you read the current MOLS, it worries about the same things and recommends many of the same things as it did in 1989—and I would bet worried about and recommended in the three earlier versions as well. This time, though, it talks about graduated licensing and it’s so enthusiastic about rider education. My guess is that the next update to MOLS will be no different.

As far as the puzzle of motorcycle safety goes, a key piece would seem to be what the minimum standards are—and it may be that the motorcycle licensing tests—both at the DMV and in the course—may have sunk too low to be a meaningful gauge.

It’s no puzzle, then, that so many licensed riders are dying when the tests that are supposed to prove competency are weakened over and over. It’s a mystery, though, why we allow it.

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14 Comments on “Twenty year drop in standards: licensing as a puzzle piece”

  1. Dave B Says:

    “the licensing process had to be ‘streamlined for an impatient public.”

    Pathetic. And now we have a more impatient public in coffins. MSF – Motorcycle Sales Foundation.

  2. vstromer Says:

    Hi Wendy,

    Not sure what you meant by this:

    “The Alt-MOST is given on a range that’s 125 feet by 30 feet—or longer and just as wide as a compact range today upon which stopping in a curve is taught. ”

    I’m assuming by “range” in the above you mean a BRC range. The most narrow BRC compact range diagram shows the range to be 60′ wide by 200′ long, with a minimum of 20′ of runoff in all directions (40′ preferred). With minimum runoff it takes a parking lot at least 100′ wide for a BRC compact range.

    vstromer

  3. wmoon Says:

    My mistake–meant to look up the compact range dimensions but was caught up in holiday cheer–and comfort–and forgot. I will correct. Thanks.
    W.

  4. CaptCrash Says:

    Honestly? As an instructor I would LOVE to be able to administer “In Traffic” tests. Often–and I know no other way to say this–folks ‘get lucky’ at the right time and pass the end of course evaluations. It’s not unusual for instructors to look at each other over the score sheet and say, “Wow, didn’t see that coming”.

    Of course that flows both ways, often riders who do well in training have problems during the evaluation.

    Isn’t it odd that we require an “in traffic” test for cars but not bikes?

  5. Jeff Brenton Says:

    Another “advantage” MOST/Alt-MOST and other range-based tests have, as far as the states are concerned, vs. in-traffic testing – the examiners do NOT have to be licensed motorcyclists. Saves a few bucks…

  6. wmoon Says:

    Jeff, examiners don’t have to be motorcyclists to do the in-traffic test either. They follow the rider in a car.
    Wendy

  7. wmoon Says:

    CaptCrash, I’ve heard of the poor student that passes and the good student who fails for years now–imho, I think they should both fail and have to take the test on their own bike. Stress that spurs the poor student doesn’t assure that they can handle the stress of traffic and stress that downs the good student, to me, says a lot about their future ability to do well in traffic which is a hellava lot more stressful than a test with a friendly instructor on a little bike on a perfect range.

    And yes, I think it’s a crime that riders don’t take an in-traffic test–on the bike they will be riding.
    W.

  8. Dave B Says:

    In NJ, the road test for a Class D license is given in an enclosed off-road area. (Maybe that’s one reason why NJ has one of the highest accident rates).

    I’m starting to like the idea of granting the road test waiver after completing the BRC and the ERC. Students come back for reinforcement training, students take the Skills Evaluation on their own motorcycle (which means they should have done some on-road practice riding with a licensed rider) and providers get a second sale. Might be one solution to reduce the accident rate.

  9. wmoon Says:

    Dave–why? Why would taking the BRC and the re-heat BRC be a solution? Why would taking a course that has NO new skills, no increase in difficulty and where the cognitive aspects are minimal increase safety?
    W.

  10. Mark Says:

    In addition to the fine points you have made, a good question would be. In Ca you are required to demonstrate the intermediate skill of low speed maneuverability, you put a foot down and you fail. In the U-turns of the BRC, the only intermediate skill reviewed, a student can put their foot down several times and still pass. The max points off is 7 while it is 15 for all of the others.

    Anyway, I thought you would find some of our research interesting, please contact me directly, for more information.

    In 1994 the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) successfully lobbied to have their subordinate organization Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s (MSF) motorcycle test be offered by private contractors as an alternative (different than the DMV) on-motorcycle test for licensing.

    CA Motorcycle Fatalities and Licensing

    Total Licensed Percent
    Year Fatalities Fatalities Licensed

    1994 298 124 42%

    1995 268 111 41%

    1996 243 119 49%

    1997 251 132 53%

    1998 213 124 58%

    1999 249 162 65%

    2000 286 197 69%

    2001 300 216 72%

    2002 331 217 66%

    2003 399 267 67%

    2004 460 286 62%

    2005 490 340 69%

    2006 524 333 64%

    2007 540 337 63%

    2008 589 375 64% *** Most people killed on motorcycles are now properly licensed ***

    The only effect licensing has had in Ca is that more of the fatalities, die with a license.

  11. wmoon Says:

    Unfortunately, Mark, you are correct–but not just in CA. Across the nation, the overwhelming majority of rider fatalities are fully and legally licensed. As the articles point out, MSF has consistently dumbed down the licensing tests–even though they knew that only the bottom 20% were eliminated this way. The licensing tests obviously do not test the minimum standards of skill or ability to ride in traffic–in CA or elsewhere.

  12. gymnast Says:

    All that a license indicates (or predicts), regardless of one’s score, whether perfect of the lowest minimum passing score, is that one is licensed. There is no research that I am aware of that predicts that any passing score on a written or skills tests is predictive of future violations or crash involvement. In my opinions the test are just too easy to have any predictive value. The only significant difference between a person with a perfect score or the minimum passing score and a person who fails either written or practical tests by a point or two is the possession of a license which allows them to legally operate the vehicle.

    At its earliest inception, vehicle operators licensing agencies were conceived of as a revenue raising mechanism that registered drivers and for a fee licensed those that had reached a minimum age. Drivers license tests, originally written, and later tests of basic operator skills such as parallel parking, three point turns, and stopping at a cross walk have never required much in the way of knowledge or skill.

    Drivers license examiners and agencies have, in most states, evolved from a system of political patronage and are little changed today from where they were 50 years ago, and in the case of motorcycles, states have largely abdicated their responsibilities with the system of License Waivers for minimal training.

    The promise of the Motorcycle, Education, and Licensing Standards of the Highway Safety Act of 1966 have largely, after a few significant improvements, remained just promises, most of which have disappeared down the the memory hole. Engineering changes to vehicles are the primary source of traffic crash injury and fatality reduction. Motorcycle crashes do not easily lend themselves to such “packaging solutions”.

    Graduated licensing with significant improvements in training and testing as well as consideration of individuals operator record files may lead to an actual reduction in motorcycle crashes and injuries. In the meantime, we are confronted with a continuing MSF orchestrated “Hegelian” slide into the abyss of lower qualifications and lower standards for motorcycle safety, operator training courses and license testing standards. Things “motorcycle safety” are not getting better and better, they are getting worse and “worser” in virtually every dimension that that involves the human component of the Man-Machine-Roadway Interface.

  13. Mark Says:

    Gymnast,

    You are absolutely correct is does not matter how someone scores, the effectiveness of written or riding tests is inconclusive at best.

    “All that a license indicates (or predicts), regardless of one’s score, whether perfect of the lowest minimum passing score, is that one is licensed.”

    The license does not reduce risk, in fact having an unrestricted license without ever riding on the street may be one reason riders are so at risk during the learners time.

    I would encourage interested parties like yourself to check out http://www.nationalmotorcycletraining.com/b2r_admindocs.html

  14. Jeff Brenton Says:

    examiners don’t have to be motorcyclists to do the in-traffic test either. They follow the rider in a car.

    That depends upon the state – Some states will allow a permitted rider to operate a motorcycle within limitations of no passengers, no night time, etc., while others require the rider to be “under the direct supervision of a licensed motor-driven cycle operator age 21 or older with at least one year driving experience.” (quoted from the Illinois Motorcycle Operator’s Manual)

    We’ve had some spirited debate about whether the licensed rider COULD be in a car, as far as students riding to a class (law doesn’t prohibit that). If Illinois law allowed for in-traffic testing, it would also have to be amended to allow an unlicensed examiner to do that supervision… or the applicant would have to be failed immediately for committing a traffic violation! 😉

    Of course, as gymnast points out, the on-road test for a car license is not that difficult, either. I remember the 1970’s, when the most feared aspect of the license practical was the parallel parking… and they’ve removed that from the current test.

    The biggest problem is that objective tests have trouble dealing with subjective criteria. It is relatively simple to determine if someone can stop a motorcycle within a reasonable distance from a given speed. It is very difficult to test whether they will be able to figure out if they need to stop within a reasonable distance from a given speed. You can easily determine if someone shows “proper technique” when going around a fixed-radius curve, but not if they are capable of judging the proper entry speed for that curve, if they aren’t given a target speed. These are things you can’t even test well on an in-traffic ride, because the test routes are not going to cover the gamut of potential situations.

    Now, if you’re going to ask, “How can we fix this?”, the answer is, “I do not know.” You can look around to find other disciplines and how they deal with the judgment-vs-skills issue.

    In aviation, examiners are allowed a significant amount of freedom in determining who will or will not pass, and perceptions of applicant’s judgment does factor in, from what I’ve observed. Plus, they won’t even allow an applicant to take the practical (flight) test without a recommendation from the instructor(s) who taught him or her, and instructors do not like to have a reputation for recommending poor students.

    But poor pilots still get through the system, and the primary cause of crashed airplanes perennially involves pilots exercising bad judgment when presented with circumstances that aren’t all that unusual. Kind of like the motorcyclist who comes to a curve in the road, and doesn’t…


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