Navy revs up motorcycle safety classes

Training required to ride on base

Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

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U.S. Navy photo by Bruce Moody
Sailors and Navy civilians wait their turn while practicing sports bike handling techniques during a motorcycle safety course at Naval Station Anacostia.


Dan Moore expects to be really busy in 2009. One of four motorcycle safety instructors for Naval District Washington, an area that includes Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Moore is an instructor with Cape Fox Professionals Services.

In September 2008, the company received a $53 million fleet-wide motorcycle and roadway safety instruction contract from the Department of the Navy.

"Historically, Naval District Washington has taught motorcycle safety to about 300 people a year," Moore said. "But, by the end of 2009, we will be teaching five days a week to try to reach about 1,300 people."

Moore noted that any sailor or Marine who gets a motorcycle and rides it either on or off base must take a safety course.

The course is similar to the one offered by Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration. Beginners start with a two-day course, followed by a one-day course for experienced riders. There is no charge for active duty personnel or for Department of Defense civilians.

According to the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va., motorcycle fatalities for the Navy were up 65 percent in fiscal year 2008 and up 32 percent for the Marine Corps. Almost 90 percent of the fatalities were due to accidents with sport bikes which, according to the Department of the Navy, can have a speed in excess of 160 mph.

Vanessa Jones, who works with Moore as a motorcycle safety instructor, said that because sports bikes are so powerful, riders underestimate how fast they can go.

"There is also the copycat issue," Jones said. "If you go fast, then people want to see how much faster I can go. So, we want to try to train as many sailors and Marines as possible so they understand that these bikes do take off when you hit the gas. It is a powerful motor for someone who is unskilled."

Moore said that occasionally people resist having to take a motorcycle safety class.

"But, I say to them, one: You don't have to go to work. Two: It's free and three: You get to ride your motorcycle," he said with a laugh. "I've never had anyone say after the class that they never learned anything."

Deb Graham, who works as a contractor at Pax River, took the class in October 2006.

"I took the advanced class," said Graham, "because I had been riding for a long time. I grew up riding ATVs as a kid and now I have a Harley Sportster 1200. It's really my first street bike."

Even though Graham considered herself an experienced driver, she said the course came in handy when she took her driver's test at the MVA.

"It made me very aware of how important instincts and training are," Graham said. "In class, our instructor would point to an obstacle and we would practice different kinds of weaving in and out and turning fast or very slow around corners. Maneuvering your bike as you go slower is harder because you don't have a centrifugal force.

"During the MVA test, you have to go very, very slow in a short distance and it was difficult," she said. "If you are going faster, it is easy to stay upright. But, you really have to balance your bike when you drive at a slow speed."

Both Moore and Jones have been riding motorcycles for a long time. Moore said he has about 135,000 miles of accident-free riding, while Jones has been riding a bike for 23 years.

New bike riders are not limited to young enlisted sailors and Marines, although E-4s and E-5s account for 54 percent of Navy bike fatalities. Men and women of all ranks are buying and riding sports bikes. But to ride a bike on the base, riders have to complete the certification in the motorcycle safety class.

During the first set of classes, instruction can be pretty basic, according to Moore, which is probably a good thing since both Moore and Jones have seen people buy a motorcycle and then have the dealer deliver it to the front gate.

Students spend eight hours in the classroom and 10 hours on a motorcycle range. The basic class has 17 exercises and the experienced class has nine exercises. Students have to meet the goals of those exercises before the class will move on to the next set.

Classes are held in rain and in cold weather, but not if the weather is freezing, according to Moore.

"If they have a bike, they need to be able to ride it in all kinds of weather," he said. "But, if it is going to be freezing rain, I will cancel the class. I don't want people having an accident in class."

This year, there will be training aids available for some classes.

"If you think you want to ride, but you don't want to buy a $3,000 motorcycle in case you don't like it," Moore said, "we will have a training motorcycle that six students can use in class. Obviously, if you already own a motorcycle, you can't take this particular class."

Service members can register for the class by going to ESAMS, the Enterprise Safety Application Management System for the U.S. Department of the Navy.

The next class at Pax River is set for early March. After riders have completed the class and met the rest of the criteria, including having insurance and a valid driver's license, riders can get a base sticker which will permit them to bring their motorcycle on base.

Moore said he cannot stress enough the importance of the motorcycle safety course.

"You can buy a motorcycle when you are 18 years old and you don't even need to have a driver's license," he said. "These young kids buy a machine, have no training and go out there and kill themselves. They need to take the course."