"You're just teaching the same stuff as ... but in a fancy frock!"
That was how one sceptic put it a couple of years ago. Variations of that statement have been made on numerous occasions ever since I launched my school, Survival Skills Rider Training, in 1997 and explained just why and how I was offering something different from the usual Roadcraft-based training available elsewhere.
So is it actually true? Read on and make up your own mind.
'Motorcycle Roadcraft - the police rider's handbook' has been around since the 1960s and is based on even earlier work. In short, since police drivers were crashing too many vehicles, Hendon police driving school was set up to improve standards. Initially, the courses were based on the principles devised in the 1930s for the Metropolitan Police by the sixth Earl of Cottenham, Sir Mark Everard Pepys, a racing driver who had campaigned for driving tests and mandatory 3rd party insurance.
Back in 1935, Pepys, wrote a book containing the rudiments of the system. In 1937, Lord Trenchard, who was police commissioner, asked another well-known racing driver, Malcolm Campbell, to involve Pepys in the new Hendon police driving school. The accident rate dropped by 70% within one year and in 1957, the training was adapted to motorcycles.
Via a 7-point system introduced in 1955, we arrived at the familiar Information - Position - Speed - Gear - Acceleration 'Police System of Car (and bike) Control' that is used to train police drivers and riders today.
What are the benefits of using the Police System?
The thinking is that using an effective system gives predictable and repeatable results; in other words, it can be used consistently. Planning our riding and riding systematically to that plan should keep us safer. And certainly, the historical evidence suggests that historically the Police System was a big success for the Met Police.
But are there any problems?
Yes, in my opinion. Simply applying THE Police System - or ANY system come to that - isn't what keeps us safe. Just as it's pointless flipping the blank pages of a book without content, working by rote through a system is useless if we're not putting the right information into that system right at the beginning. And that system is also useless if we draw the wrong conclusions and make the wrong decisions. NO system can make up for a lack of knowledge and understanding. It's simply an empty shell. Garbage in, garbage out.
What's missing from Roadcraft?
To my mind, what's missing is any real structure to the defensive riding content. The Police System is all about putting the bike in the right place, at the right time and at the right speed. That's a good starting point, but we have to understand the circumstances in which a systematic approach to riding is necessary. And that requires not just some instruction on how to do the 'right' thing but some insight into how, where and why things go WRONG. Only then is it possible to see how to use the Police System to good effect. There is plenty of useful content in Motorcycle Roadcraft but there is little meaningful which tackles the essential question:
"What causes crashes and what are we going to do to prevent them?"
Why do I think that?
My own progress into advanced riding isn't typical. I'm not ex-police, nor did I go through the police-based instructor training system with either the IAM or RoSPA to become an advanced rider coach. I have an independent, EDEXCEL-moderated BTEC in post-test training as well as an NVQ in distance learning, as it happens.
But it all started much earlier. I bought a bike - a Honda 125 - because I needed independent transport around London whilst studying for my science degree. As a new rider in the capital, I discovered almost immediately that things go wrong very fast when we're on two wheels. Fortunately, I was young and bounced well.
Degree in hand, I tried teaching but discovered I hated schools and school kids. With some bills to pay when I dropped out of that career path, I took a temporary job as a courier whilst I put the bank account to rights. That temporary job turned out to last sixteen years because I thoroughly enjoyed riding the bike for a living, but I very quickly realised that the only way to keep paying the bills was to stay upright - crashing really wasn't an option.
And that taught me very clearly was that expecting anyone else to keep me out of trouble was highly risky. I also discovered that I could be doing all the 'right' things myself, and it still wouldn't keep me out of trouble. I rapidly learned that the only reliable way to cope was to expect people to make mistakes - myself included - and to have a good handle on where, why and how things to go wrong, in order to be ready to deal with emergencies.
In other words, what I got was intense 'hands-on' grounding in a style of riding which was all about self-preservation and disaster management.
After funding my way through a research-based Masters degree my final couple of years as a courier coincided with the internet beginning to open up, and thanks to my MSc, it was easy enough to do some research into bike crashes. It confirmed much of what I'd learned the hard way during my courier days:
most crashes involving motorcyclists happen in the same few places - junctions, corners, overtakes
whilst junction collisions caused by other drivers are the most common motorcycle crash, most of the serious and fatal crashes are down to rider error
many of the crashes would have been avoidable had the rider seen the situation developing or been able to make the right machine inputs to get out of trouble
riders have been having the same crashes since data began to be collected after the Second World War
The last point is important. More than sixty years after the end of WW2, the standard approach to rider education based on the police approach has failed to 'fix' these standard crashes; deaths and injuries may have fallen, but the fact is that each new generation of riders crashes in exactly the same way in exactly the same places. We are still forced to discover classic biking mistakes the hard way.
Dabbling in advanced riding
Back in the early to mid-90s I got involved with an advanced riding group. Frankly, I never felt at home.
My personal and hard-earned experience in avoiding the standard 'gotchas' as a courier was ignored, even viewed negatively at times. I felt the training was less about improving my skills and awareness, and more about changing my style of riding to fit their image of what a rider should be in order that I passed the advanced test. In particular, I was very uncomfortable about the incessant push "to make progress" by riding a pace that genuinely concerned me - and I say that as a former courier whose living depended on prompt deliveries and thus didn't hang around unnecessarily!
And crucially, I was increasingly of the opinion that my advanced group - and the book their training was based on - was offering little help to riders in terms of understanding why crashes happen, and next to nothing in terms of how to avoid them.
SURVIVAL SKILLS - OFFERING MOTORCYCLISTS THE UK'S MOST INNOVATIVE ADVANCED RIDER TRAINING COURSES
Do advanced riders crash less frequently?
Here's a useful thought. Conventional training is all about riding well. And once out of the rookie error stage that's what we do nearly all the time. Genuine emergencies are very rare. But here's a useful question. We assume it's our training and riding ability keeping us safe, but do we know that for sure? How can we certain it's not just statistics and the roll of the dice?
Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence that conventional Roadcraft-based post-test training actually reduces the risks for the riders who take it. It's always been assumed that riders with advanced training had fewer crashes, but once out of the new rider stage, the fact is that a reduced crash risk is more likely to be related to experience. In fact a very recent study by the IAM themselves suggested advanced training can engender over-confidence and riding at higher speeds.
So what's different about Survival Skills?
The big problem with learning by experience - as I had up in London delivering parcels - is that we have to SURVIVE that experience!
I started to think the conventional post-test training focus on technical perfection was flawed whilst advice on defensive riding was too vague and woolly to be useful. Specifically, conventional advanced training doesn't prepare us when an emergency actually develops. We're actually taught that if we do everything 'right' an emergency won't develop but the reality is that neither riders nor other road users get it right all the time. And when things do go wrong, we tend to panic because our training didn't prepare us to expect an emergency.
Rather than braking or swerving out of trouble, even the best riders frequently crash in situations where the bike could have got them out of trouble. Read up on Keith Code's 'Survival Reactions' for an explanation of how they cause crashes. Instead of using our emergency braking and swerving skills, we panic-brake (that's why bikes now have ABS) or we freeze and doing nothing (which is why the very latest machines are now starting to move towards automatic braking systems). And we all-too-frequently target-fixate and ride straight into avoidable crashes where there was a way out.
The latest thinking is that these Survival Reactions are triggered by SURPRISE! We're shocked out of our normal routine when a situation develops in a way we weren't prepared for.
If we're to avoid SURPRISE! we need a better understanding of crashing, not just a high level of technical ability. I came to believe three things:
advanced training should give riders a broader understanding of where, how and what crashes happen. We need strategies to AVOID the errors other road users make by riding pro-actively to avoid and evade them. We also need to be aware of the errors we're likely to make for ourselves, and have strategies to recognise them before they happen, and correct them if we actually make them.
the goal of passing a standard test imposes a relatively inflexible style of coaching - I remember only too well being told "if you don't ride the way we teach you, you won't pass the test". That's not client-centred training that seeks to improve an individual based on what the client needs and wants, it's teacher-centred training that produces riders who conform to someone else's values. That may be fine for a police force seeking to standardise their training, but it risks leaving ordinary riders unsatisfied.
advanced coaching does not need to focus on 'making progress' as a goal - the result of a post-test training course should be a rider who makes better decisions, which can include making progress IF appropriate. There's no need to prove prove an ability to be quicker than almost everyone else on the roads - it's simply not necessary to ride like a policeman all the time.
And then I looked around to see how training had developed in fields OUTSIDE rider and driver training.
Delivering Insight Training
The best performance tweak you can make is to UPGRADE YOUR BRAIN and the approach I have developed is known as 'INSIGHT TRAINING'. It's a way of gaining an accurate and deep understanding of a complex situation, in a way that allows us to develop solutions to that problem. The big plus of insight learning is that it doesn't have to be based on actual 'trial and error' experience. Instead, we use our understanding of a problem to solve it BEFORE it happens and it's proven highly successful in improving airline pilot training.
All Survival Skills courses are based developing a full understanding the common crashes - how to correctly identify hazards, accurately assess the threat posed, and employ effective pro-active risk mitigation strategies. Crucially, we'll cover the need to consider the WORST CASE SCENARIO in order to be ready to avoid or evade when (not if) we get into trouble.
Will the car pull out? What if the bend tightens up? Have we considered how the overtake could go wrong? Asking those questions in order to have a strategy to stay out of trouble is the basis of the Survival Skills approach to rider training. In my opinion, it's the only sound way to reduce the risk of crashing - my courses aren't called 'Survival Skills' by accident.
Survival Skills courses are genuinely client-centred
With no need to pass an advanced test or to conform to a particular style, you work with me to develop your own riding in the riding environment that you want to ride in, and in the way you want to ride.
If you're keen on sporting riding, then fine - we can look at how to improve your knowledge, decision-making and skills to help you get the best from your bike. But I can also focus my training on commuting skills if that's what you need. If you're less-experienced, or simply a more sedate rider, I can offer training that suits you too - you won't be pushed too far, too fast for your comfort. But you will be guided through a carefully thought-out structured training course that will help you develop your own riding.
Novice, experienced, Honda or Harley - my training is underpinned by the need both organisations seek to impose a particular style of riding on the trainee - neither are driven by the needs of the rider.
One final point...
Nothing I have written here should be taken to imply that I believe you won't get good training from the usual sources. Many riders get exactly what they want and are very happy with Roadcraft-based training.
But conventional post-test training doesn't suit everyone, and it's good to know there's an alternative.
And even if you've been satisfied with your training, it's always a good idea to expand your experience with a genuinely different approach to rider training.
Cut out the scares and what's left is simply more fun!
WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SURVIVAL SKILLS APPROACH TO ADVANCED RIDING? THEN DROP ME A LINE... TODAY!