Time for Tiered Licensing?


THERE'S BEEN MUCH DEBATE about what has caused a spike in motorcyclist deaths in recent years. Some say the growing fatality count can be correlated to increased sales of sportbikes to young, first-time riders. Others say the rise in deaths comes from a decade-long increase in V-twin sales to buyers ages 45 and over who've returned to the sport after a considerable absence.

Studies show most motorcycle crashes involving injury or death occur at low speeds, and that the majority of those incidents usually involve 1) a second vehicle — normally a car turning left into the rider's path, 2) alcohol, or 3) rider inexperience. The first and second contributing factors are hard to eradicate, since there'll always be inattentive or boozing motorists. However, I think there's something we can do about the third factor: rider inexperience.

I've been there. I've been a squirrelly 17-year-old doing 142 mph on a country road atop a 7/11 GSX-R, and I've been an equally unsteady 30-something attempting low-speed, legal lane-splitting maneuvers atop a fully laden V-twin dresser. Looking back, I wasn't really having fun on either excursion. Why? Because I wasn't educated about the situations in which I found myself. I was inexperienced. And inexperience is what kills.

European legislators have proposed a new licensing system for the 27 nations making up the EU. Applicants would first have to pass a written test; then they would enter a four-tiered licensing system (with the entry level dependent on the individual's age and the type and size of vehicle). Riders would need to wait two years before training and testing for the next tier.

The first license, "AM," would be available to 14-year-olds and up, and would restrict them to mopeds, scooters and road-legal ATVs with maximum 50cc capacity and a top speed of 30 mph. The second, "A1," is open to riders at least 16 years of age and restricts them to motorcycles and scooters with a maximum size of 125cc and producing up to 15 hp. The "A2" license, open to riders 18 and older, is restricted for motorcycles with a maximum 48 hp. Finally, those granted access to the "Open Class A" license would have to be at least 24 years old, or possess at least two years of riding experience with an A2 license.

I think a similar system of licensing in the U.S. would be a great idea. But I also understand the business implications. Since the goal in a market economy is to make the maximum amount of money by selling the most expensive product to as many people as possible, making it more difficult to obtain a motorcycle endorsement would dramatically decrease the pool of available customers. But shouldn't there be a system in place to prepare those who want to ride?

Some would argue that such offerings already are in place, in the form of MSF courses. But those programs are strictly voluntary and are superseded by what I feel are lax state-sponsored written and road tests. So I asked the MIC and a few OEMs what they thought about a mandatory, tiered licensing system:

  • Tim Buche, MIC president: "A regulation is a knee-jerk response by government to correct something they think we're not capable of managing ourselves. To regulators, this probably looks intuitively like the right thing to do, but I would suggest to base any action on study and not by arbitrarily determining horsepower and displacement matters. We'd rather see mandatory training up to some age and inducements to interact more with the rider training system, where we have courses for beginner and skilled riders. It's really important that we make wise decisions ourselves rather than wait for the government to do something to us."
  • Suzuki's Glenn Hansen: "Motorcyclists must do their share to reduce accidents, injuries and deaths, but putting all the burden on motorcyclists in the form of graduated licensing is unfair, and the only way it will reduce accidents is by reducing ownership."
  • Nick McCabe of Ducati: "You can still get in trouble on that EX500 or Vulcan 250 just as easily as you can on a 1098. A graduated system would allow people to learn and then move up, but a strong testing process in the first place would likely serve us better."
  • And Kawasaki's Greg Lasiewski: "Since we are unaware of any demonstrated link between engine displacement and motorcycle accident rates, and a graduated licensing system would inevitably be more costly and cumbersome to administer, Kawasaki feels it is better to focus attention upon making sure all motorcyclists are licensed and properly trained."

Would the system of licensing being debated by the European Union benefit us here? Let us know by e-mailing your comments to editors@dealernews.com.

Guido Ebert Senior Editor gebert@dealernews.com