The 11-Month Itch

'How sweet, he's smiling.  He must be dreaming about me.' (Man is dreaming about a motorbike).

It’s been 11 days, 12 hours, and 13 minutes since I last rode my bike. It sits in the shed, and once in a while I take it out and poke about with it, then put it back. Yesterday I got as far as putting my biking pants on and fetching my helmet before prudence caught up to me at the front door. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather, and there was nothing wrong with my bike. Why, you ask? Because here in Quebec, for the first 11 months after obtaining a learner’s licence, you have to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, and the few people I know who ride have been busy. I’m in biker purgatory, limbo-land, the 11-month itch.

Obtaining your motorcycle licence here in Quebec is a complicated and expensive process. There are three separate exams—theory, closed circuit, and road—and you must take a course with a certified training school. There are theory classes, closed circuit practice, road practice with an instructor, accompanied riding—the whole process takes at least 12 months before you catch sight of the holy grail. It looks something like this:

motorycleprogram2015-2

I’ve got no problem with the theory test or taking a course. Such courses have been around for some time but are usually optional. Apparently they give you the equivalent of two years of experience, and as a teacher, I’m all for learning from more experienced people. I found the course extremely helpful in developing both the skills and road awareness necessary to stay safe, and I believe it foolhardy for anyone to ride a motorcycle without taking such a course.

Motorcycles are powerful, dangerous machines. Search YouTube for “newbie motorcycle fail” and you’ll see videos of people climbing on sport bikes before they barely know how to change gears and heading off on the road. You just know that’s not going to end well. Having an instructor take you through that learning curve will save you a lot of road rash. But the 11 months of accompanied riding does not make sense and here’s why.

I understand the rationale. According to statistics, a rider is almost twice as likely to have an accident in the first six months of riding as someone with over four years of experience. And many fatal accidents result from someone coming into a corner too hot and swinging wide into oncoming traffic. An experienced rider knows how fast to take a corner and has a better awareness of road hazards. He or she rides in front and can alert the newbie to potential dangers, as best as one can from the seat of another bike.

But there are several problems with this aspect of Quebec’s motorcycle licensing law. For one, it assumes that your escort is responsible, which is not always the case. A newbie could be peer-pressured into keeping up with a group of canyon carvers, which could actually cause a crash, and often does. What if, like me, you don’t have any (or many) friends that ride? Then the bike sits in the garage and you don’t get in much practice while muscle memory deteriorates. Then when you do get on the bike you are even more at risk until you regain familiarity with the controls. And what about after the 11 month period? According to the same statistics, a rider with 2-3 years of experience is even more likely to crash than someone who’s been riding for less than 6 months. Who’s going to save the “newbie” then?

The law groups all motorcyclists into one camp, but I’m not an 18-year-old with little or no experience with defensive driving. I’ve been driving a car for 35 years without even a fender-bender. Sure, I did some joy-riding in my youth; who hasn’t driven country highways at 100 mph with ski goggles on? But that was a long time ago, before that thing called “the internet” existed and smoking was fashionable. I think that clean driving record of 35 years should count for something. Surely it shows I can anticipate potential accidents and avoid the risks of sharing the road with unaware and aggressive idiots.

My dad was self-taught. When he went to buy the bike, the owner basically showed him how to change gears and brake. He said he drove home practically the entire way in 2nd gear. Then in the evenings, when traffic on his road dropped off, he’d drive up and down practicing. For his test, he had to drive around the block. When he returned, the evaluator stepped off the curb in front of him to test his emergency braking. And that was that. The next day he and my mom set off for Cornwall.

He only came off once, when a boy ran out from between parked cars in front of him. While I wouldn’t recommend this method of learning as the norm, it shows I think that, after you master the technical aspect of riding—an aspect I don’t mean to belittle—the rest is a matter of maturity and attitude. The same could be said for learning to drive a car; the only difference is that on a bike, the consequences are higher.

As for the technical aspect, what makes most sense to me is the stepped system used in the EU, where licensing is restricted by age, experience, and engine size. Roughly speaking, 16-18 year-olds can ride mopeds and 125cc bikes; 18-20 year-olds 250-400cc bikes (technically speaking, it’s restricted by horse power and power-to-weight ratio); then after 2 years of experience, one can get a full-power bike. As I understand it, if you start riding over 20, you still have to ride the smaller bike for two years before you can graduate up to a full-power bike.

This makes sense since the real technical difficulty of riding is a factor of power and weight. You shouldn’t be allowed to have all that power at your fingertips until you’ve mastered how to control it. It’s not just a matter of speed but controlling the throttle on turns so you don’t slide out the back end, and weight of course affects stopping distance. I couldn’t believe my ears when one of my fellow students at the course said he was going to buy a 1,700 cc bike upon graduating. He’d just finished swinging his leg over the school’s Honda CB125. “Dude,” I thought, “all 1700cc’s?” That’s a bigger engine than my son’s Toyota Echo!

I’m glad to read that the SAAQ recommended back in 2013 that the 11-month probation period be scrapped. It’s not working. It’s not enforceable and not effective. There has been considerable interest in the news lately about motorcycle fatalities. Let’s hope the Couillard government acts quickly to bring Quebec’s motorcycle licensing up to date with most other jurisdictions. Such changes would not only save others like me this excruciating waiting period but, more importantly, also save lives.

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