By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
"Kids on motorcycles" is a cliche in table talk about causes of the perennial carnage on highways, but experts say the kids are getting a bum rap.
The kids might not be totally innocent, but Jon Elliott, owner of the motorcycle safety training firm Totalrider.com, and Perk Bearden, owner with his wife, Debra, of Texas Motor Sports and rider coach for a weekend safety course, both say that among the biggest two-wheeled dangers, here and nationwide, are people 40 to 60 years old returning to the road after many years.
"They think they remember everything, and they don't," said Elliott, an Austin resident who leads courses in Austin, Hutto and Killeen. "They're less likely than younger people to wear helmets and carry other gear, and they buy big cruise bikes, which are involved in more crashes."
The problem is aggravated by mushrooming motorcycle, scooter and moped sales by people seeking alternatives to cars, SUVs and trucks for basic transportation in the wake of soaring fuel prices. So the Texas Department of Public Safety urges people returning to two-wheeled transportation to take courses to brush up on skills and principles about staying upright on the road.
Elliott, a former soldier and Austin police officer, says only a small minority of his students are refreshers, however. They may be only a few of the motorcycle purchasers, though; bike dealers say many people are buying cycles or scooters for the first time to fight the gas wars, and Elliott said a typical class will have as many of these first-timers as beginner recreational riders.
The state requires a safety course only for riders 15 to 17 years old, but older riders have powerful incentives. Both local schools furnish bikes on request for their basic courses, and a graduate with a valid Class C auto license can secure a motorcycle operator's license with only the written test, without having to buy a cycle first and perform for a highway patrolman.
Many cycle shops offer discounts for graduates, and the certificate can get a 5 percent to 20 percent discount on insurance, depending on the company.
So with the increase in cycle sales, cycle schools are booming. That's a good thing, because so are motorcycle accidents.
John Young, state coordinator for motorcycle training for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Texas had 803,000 licensed motorcycle riders in 2006 and 838,000 in 2007. As of April 1 of this year, the figure was 853,000.
According to the latest certified statistics, the state had 346 fatalities involving motorcycles in 2006. Totals for 2007 are not yet certified but are estimated at 400, and Young said every major metropolitan area reports fatalities increasing this year.
DPS trains instructors for certified courses and licenses them. In areas underserved by private instructors, the DPS offers its own courses with mobile units.
"Until recently, the average waiting period for a course has been one to two weeks," Young said. "It's about twice that now. A lot of instructors have doubled up, with classroom instruction going on while another section is in the field. We're seeing a lot more weekday classes. It's not uncommon for people to commute 100 miles or more for a course."
Overseeing a class of eight on a parking lot at the intersection of Farm-to-Market 3219 and FM 439 in Harker Heights on Wednesday morning, Elliott said his classes have grown from weekend-only to seven days a week.
Classroom sessions are held at Killeen Power Sports. The whole course takes about 15 hours including one classroom session and two on the range.
Several rider coaches work under head rider coach Sonja Skinner, a Navy retiree and Harley rider who wears a helmet. Bryce Gross was the rider coach Wednesday.
Elliott, a former soldier and an Austin police officer, has taught motorcycle safety for 17 years but only went full time a year ago. He has been teaching in Killeen two years. Totalrider.com taught 2,500 at its three locations last year.
"Most crashes are caused by bad cornering, braking and swerving, and that's what these students are learning about now," he said.
"It's important to keep your eyes on where you're going. Most people don't know you don't have to crash a bike unless you're dragging a handlebar. The cycle can do a lot more than most riders can."
He cites a 93.7 percent pass rate in his classes and says his coaches will meet one-on-one with riders who don't pass the first time and with students whose schedules don't fit any regular time.
Bearden, who has taught safety since 1978 beginning with a program in Killeen schools, hasn't seen the surge in demand that Elliott has, although demand has been steady.
He said courses at Fort Hood, which are free to soldiers, probably have been taking care of most of the increase. He and Elliott both offer discounts to active military personnel, but Hood's courses are free.
His courses, with students scheduled through the end of September, include classroom sessions at Texas Motor Sports Friday evening and Saturday afternoons with riding times in the Vive Les Arts parking lot Saturday and Sunday mornings. He leases bikes to Fort Hood for courses there.
His courses are filled about three weeks in advance now. "This course is really necessary," he said. "It teaches young people basic skills, and it shows people who haven't ridden for a while that their skills aren't what they once were."
Elliott and Bearden both also offer advanced courses for experienced riders who want to sharpen their skills. Students in those courses must have their own bikes.
"With the things we teach about attentiveness and vision, our graduates will be a lot better automobile drivers, too," Elliott said.
Totalrider.com can be reached at (512) 947-8909 or (512) 431-3828. Bearden at Texas Motor Sports may be reached at (254) 526-7800.
Contact Don Bolding at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7557.