Motorcycle training: A chat with Bill Shaffer

June 10, 2021

A motorcyclist following a curve in the road

​Bill Shaffer is the director of the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center (MMSC) and a dedicated motorcycle enthusiast and rider in his own right. Now that the 2021 motorcycle training season is underway in Minnesota, we sat down with him to learn about the trends and issues he's seeing with riders lately, and how the many motorcycle training courses on offer can address them.

DPS: What are the biggest safety and skill issues we see with motorcyclists on the road?

Shaffer: “Ten of our 11 single-vehicle crash fatalities this year have happened while a rider was negotiating a curve or turning. Improper cornering is a big problem, and many riders do not fully understand counter steering. These riders get by most of the time because it's natural to counter steer, but they don't think about it or understand it. The problem comes when the chips are down. Maybe they entered the corner too fast or had to change their cornering line, and then they panic and try to steer through the turn, which causes them to run off the road or cross the center line. Riders who truly have learned and understand the concept of counter steering keep it fresh in their minds and are able to apply it when things go wrong. This is a huge crash prevention skill.

“While our last Minnesota rider survey showed that the majority of Minnesota motorcyclists wear a helmet all or most of the time, 75 percent of riders killed in crashes this year were not wearing a helmet. It doesn't take much of a fall on hard asphalt or concrete to cause significant injury or death if you hit your head and you're not wearing a helmet."

DPS: What are the most common issues trainers see in classes?

Shaffer: “In the Basic Rider Course, a lot of new riders are not familiar with using a clutch, and clutch control and finesse are critical to smooth and safe motorcycle operation. Additionally, the concept of counter steering is foreign to almost all of our beginning riders in the basic course.

“For the Intermediate, Advanced and Expert Rider Courses, students often need to work on building skills to execute low-speed, tight maneuvers. Also, many have never practiced emergency stopping or swerving a higher speeds on their bike, and they work on mastering those skills on their own bike during these courses so those skills are second nature when an emergency braking or swerving situation arises on the highway."

DPS: How do these issues get addressed in training?

Shaffer: “The Basic Rider Course provides novice and beginning students with step-by-step exercises to learn the basics of clutch control, shifting, cornering, emergency braking and swerving. These 'building blocks' can form a strong foundation for beginning riders to experience the street. In the Intermediate Rider Course, riders practice these same skills and then expand their skill repertoire using their own motorcycle, which is also a great bike-bonding experience. The Minnesota Advanced and Expert Rider Courses provide the ultimate rider and motorcycle bonding experience. These courses teach advanced and expert motorcycle control skills and hazard avoidance maneuvers based on police motor officer training. Not only are these courses a lot of fun, they really up your riding game in every way."

DPS: What reasons or misperceptions might riders have for not wanting to take a class?

Shaffer: “Our biggest challenge is getting riders to take additional levels of training after the Basic Rider Course. Once they are motorcycle license endorsed, a lot of riders never come back for more training because they have a basic skill set, which will see them through everyday motorcycle operation – until another driver, a deer or a decreasing radius turn throws them a curve.

“For the roughly 500 riders a year who do come back for higher levels of training, they are not only honing their skills for real world emergencies, but they are having a lot of fun. Riders don't realize the courses beyond the basic course are a ton of fun. There's no pressure to pass any tests, they work at their own pace, and the instructors are easy going and as helpful as you want them to be. It's really fun to learn great bike handling skills and pretty cool, too."

DPS: How are those reasons potentially deadly?

Shaffer: “A basic skill set is a foundation on which to build the advanced and expert skills riders need to not only maximize their enjoyment of motorcycling, but also to maximize their ability to deal with adverse situations encountered on the road. The Intermediate, Advanced and Expert courses will really hone hazard avoidance skills, and the Advanced and Expert courses add a lot of real-world hazard avoidance maneuvers at higher speeds.

All levels of MMSC rider training courses are open and running the summer through September. You can learn more and sign up for them on the MMSC website.​​