It’s increasingly common for new riders to go through a graduated licensing system whereby they’re restricted to riding certain capacity bikes for a period of a few months up to a few years before they’re able to ride whatever they want. Even in the United States where no such restrictions really exist, the beginner bike category is booming. The factor driving this is supposedly safety – it’s safer for new riders to be on small capacity bikes rather than jumping on liter bikes. But is this really true?
We’re big on safety here at TheRideAdvice. We’re big supporters of ABS, wearing good quality protective gear and really understanding motorcycle techniques. Just look at our YouTube channel if you don’t believe us. And we do believe it’s better for new riders to have lower capacity machines. But the reason for our view has nothing to do with safety. In fact, we say a KTM RC390 is just as capable of killing a new rider as is a Kawasaki ZX-10. The reason we believe starting out on smaller bikes is better is because as a new rider (or even an experienced one), they’re so much easier to improve your skills upon.
The simple reason for this view is that the slower the motorcycle, the easier you can find its limits. On a small capacity bike, you’ll be hitting redline all the time, constantly shifting gears and having to use all the braking power the bike can muster. At a race track, you’ll be using all the grip that the tires can give and to make up for that lower power and you need to take as much speed through the corners as possible. If you start on a liter bike, you’d be lucky to use more than a quarter of its potential performance on the road and at the track, there’s only a tiny fraction of the population that can reach the limits of a superbike, even after decades of riding. You don’t get a jersey in the top team of any sport unless you work your way up, so why should motorcycle riding be any different?
But if it’s easier to learn on smaller capacity bikes, doesn’t that mean they are safer? In a certain way that’s correct, because the better one trains at something, the better they should get at it and the less likely they are to make mistakes. Therefore, someone who starts on an easier to ride machine and learns how to properly ride a motorcycle should theoretically be a better rider when they hop on a liter bike. And that’s fine – no disagreement from us. The trouble is, that’s generally not the rationale behind these laws (or the argument for them) either by governments or even other riders.
Have a read of some motorcycle forums or the ever popular /r/motorcycles subreddit. You’ll find a chorus of people telling new entrants into the sport that in order to live past the age of 21, they should start on smaller bikes because they’re slower and therefore safer. But that’s not true at all.
Safety on a motorcycle has nothing to with power to weight ratios or engine capacity. Safety is about a riders attitude and how they’ve been taught and trained.
Let’s compare the specifications of the most popular entry sportsbike, the Ninja 300 and one of the fastest machines you can buy – the BMW S 1000 RR. The Kawasaki makes just under 35 hp, has a top speed of just over 170 kph and can hit the metric ton of 100 kph in just under 5 seconds. It also features very basic (though adequate) brakes, suspension and tires. The S 1000 RR on the other hand produces 193 hp, has a top speed of 300 kph and hits 62 mph in 3.06 seconds.
But at an average highway speed limit of say 70 mph, which is safer in the event of an accident? The answer is if you crash on either of these bikes at such speeds, you’re facing the same scenario either way – death or serious injury most likely. But which bike is more likely to avoid an accident at such a speed? The BMW has far, far superior brakes. It’s suspension is phenomenal (with dynamic adjustments available as an option) and its tires grip like glue. It’s also equipped with all sorts or rider aids such as anti-wheelie control, traction control and various engine modes. So on paper, the BMW is far, far safer than the Ninja 300 if you’re riding within the legal speed limits of just about any country in the world, and yet in some places, a rider won’t have access to such a motorcycle for the first 3 years of their riding life.
There are some obvious counterpoints to this, mostly with younger riders. Let’s be honest, many teenagers, especially male teenagers are reckless. Many of us have been there and done that and the temptation to set a new land speed record within the first few months of owning a superbike would be too great a temptation for some. And older liter bikes (and some new ones even) don’t have any electronic aids to stop someone from looping the bike when cracking the throttle too hard. But again, if a Ninja 300 can hit 170 kph, a reckless teenager will try his or her best to reach that speed too.
You could also state that our entire argument is moot if restricting riders to lower capacity machines is proven to save lives. And while we will still argue that the policies don’t necessarily make riders safer, we’d have to concede saving lives is the most important point. But guess what, the statistics don’t seem to prove that these policies do help.
We’ve compared data from Australia (which nearly universally introduced restrictions on motorcycles for new riders in 2009) and California, which has no such restrictions. Both Australia and California have mandatory helmet laws so there’s no skewing of data in that way. What the comparison shows is that there’s no marked difference in deaths within age brackets in either case. When looking at the total number of deaths, keep in mind that California has a population of 38.8 million, which is 1.67 times Australia’s population and so we’ve adjusted the deaths in Australia by that amount. That does not affect the percentages.
In comparing the data, you would expect to see that the percentage of riders killed in the 15-24 age bracket (the age bracket which would mostly be filled with new riders) would have be much higher in California than in Australia. But it’s not. The other statistic that you would think would show is a downtrend in deaths in that age bracket in Australia once restrictions were introduced. As you can see, the trend is down slightly, but so is the trend in California. Given that California has no restrictions for new riders, it could be guessed then that the reduction in deaths is due to things like the increased prevalence of ABS, better tires, or just dumb luck.
There’s also real no discernible difference in the raw number of fatalities. In some years, Australia had less deaths in total than California (2009, 2012) but in others California had a lower level of fatalities (2010, 2011).
As we said before, motorcycle safety is a mindset. So if a rider progresses from a 300 cc, to a 650 cc and then to a 1,000 cc and doesn’t really care about what they’re doing or have any interest in improving his or her technique, in our opinion they’re at far greater risk than someone who hopped on a GSX-R1000 straight away and actually learned their craft properly.
The other problem behind this movement to make new riders start on smaller and slower bikes is that it hasn’t been done in conjunction with improvements in rider training. Learning to be a proficient and skilled motorcycle rider is hard – much, much harder than a car. Yet, in many countries all you need to do is take a day’s course and there’s your license. That’s enough so that you don’t fall off your bike when taking off at the traffic lights or teaching you to how change gears, but it’s a long way from creating safe and competent motorcyclists. It leaves it up to the individual to develop themselves as a rider and guess what? That comes all the way back to attitude and a correct mindset.
For places like Europe and Australia, there’s almost no chance of winding back the clock. Western nations are far too risk averse to consider loosening laws in such a way. And that’s fine, because there’s no doubt that there are some benefits in forcing people to learn the ropes on lower powered bikes as we stated at the outset. But the real issue is both rider training and attitude – making people rider slower bikes for the sake of it doesn’t help anyone.