Advanced training for motorcycle riders is rigorous and has proven record of lowering fatal accidents, but insurers are not interested in lowering premiums for those with these skills Chris Wheal reports

The weakest part on a motorbike is the nut that connects the handlebars to the seat. This biker joke refers to a high-tech and complex component that takes in gigabytes of information, processes that data and makes decisions within nanoseconds. It is sensitive to heat, cold, bright lights and to darkness, all of which can affect its performance.

It has artificial intelligence, so it gets angry, grumpy and upset as well as tired, bored and distracted. It has huge potential to miscompute or to malfunction. And it is easily damaged, difficult to repair and readily destroyed. It is, after all, only human. That is why advanced/defensive rider training, or post-test training as it is increasingly being called, is so important.

Ask anyone who rides a bike and they’ll admit that you only really start to learn how to ride after you have taken your test.

It’s not that the test is set at a basic level – advanced tutors complain that the test has taught you bad habits and you need to learn things differently. The generally accepted safer riding technique is based on the long-established police motorcyclists’ system of Roadcraft (see box).

But if only it were that simple. Not only are there many different sources of training and assessment for bikers, but a new national system is about to be launched that will involve a guaranteed insurance discount called an Enhanced Rider Bonus (ERB).

This ERB will transfer between policies like a no claims bonus. It has been devised by the Driver Standards Agency (DSA) and the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA) but there is still some confusion as to where the main existing providers will fit in the scheme.

Advanced training

From the riders’ perspective, there are three main advanced training bodies. The police run a Bikesafe scheme in all but two areas nationwide (where lack of local sponsorship prevents it). This is a one day “assessment” of a rider’s skills with a few pointers and thoughts on how to ride better.

Bikesafe does not like to call its day “training” although there is a certain amount of classroom-style information. Riders then get to ride out with a police motorcyclist who will discuss their riding and suggest improvements.

Bikesafe recommends further training with the Institute of Advance Motorcyclists (IAM) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa). The police do mention that there are other, commercial, providers but, as a public service, only recommends the two with charitable status.

In London – with 150,000 bikes registered, the largest biker community in the country – the copper in charge is Sergeant Paul Mostyn. His team handles more than half of all the Bikesafe bikers in the country. “We now have 2,300 bikers a year through Bikesafe in London and have had 9,500 bikers through the scheme since we started in April 2003,” he says.

In London, Bikesafe costs £30: a tenner to cover the food and hiring the building, a tenner to the booking agents and a tenner to offset the subsidy from Transport for London, which still pays £3,000 for a course of up to 12 riders. “We follow up each biker with a questionnaire months later. We have 99% positive feedback and we know that 63% go on to do further training,” says Mostyn.

There were 69 motorcycle fatalities in London in the year before the scheme started and just 44 in 2005, the most recent year for published figures. The number of serious injuries has fallen from 1,200 to 780. “It costs the state £1.6m for every fatality on the road, so we know we have saved £180m in London alone.”

Among bikers, there is a perception that there is an advanced riding hierarchy, with the IAM coming next and Rospa for the truly serious about their biking safety.

The IAM is run by members for members, using volunteer instructors who have passed the IAM test and decided to go on to help others. It costs £85 to sign up but you then chip in a voluntary sum – £10 usually – to cover the costs of the volunteers’ fuel each time you ride out. The IAM has more than 10,000 biker members, and a further 4,500 who have passed IAM tests in another vehicle.

It also has more than 1,500 bikers qualified as trainers. In many parts of the country, bikers have established completely separate groups to car drivers.

In London, there are two “pot luck” meetings a month where you turn up and are paired up with an instructor for a ride out, with regular stops for coaching and encouragement.

You can also arrange one-to-one sessions with trainers known as the Essex Girls because they will go out with anyone at anytime. Even on the wettest days, you’ll still ride 50 miles during the session, often more.

Each ends with a debriefing, some pointers to think about and a score from your trainer. You need to get consistently higher than 85% to be considered for the test.

There are also machine control days – learning to control the bike, particularly at slow speeds – training in group riding, week-long residential courses and group ride-outs. As well as its practical credentials it is friendly and inclusive and has a social side to it.

Rospa’s instructors are a mix of paid and volunteer riders whose examiners are professionals and it has three possible standards: bronze, silver and gold. Only those at the highest level can go on to become instructors, taking Rospa’s diploma.

Bikesafe’s Mostyn gives an indication of how highly regarded that is: “All my team are Rospa diploma holders,” he says.

Rospa’s four-day defensive and advanced riding courses run from its Birmingham headquarters but you can travel far afield in a day and easily cover more than 100 miles. There are no more than three on the course with an instructor and there are classroom sessions, and tests (I got an embarrassingly low 11 out of 20), then lots of riding, with breaks for chats and tips and new things to concentrate on. It costs £1,300.

The alternative is to join a local Rospa Driver and Rider group. Each has its own fees, starting as low as £20 in some areas.

The test cost £54 and you are likely to have to take it again later to get the higher standards. You have to retake the test every three years, regardless.

Rospa has 1,200 motorcycle members and about 170 new tests are taken each year. After my two days with a Rospa trainer, he suggested a four-day course might have just about got me to bronze standard but no further.

All of these advanced training opportunities are well worth it. They enable riders to see more, process information faster, and have the bike in a better road position, at a suitable speed and in a more appropriate gear (gears on bikes make a much bigger difference to performance and wrong gears are much less forgiving than in cars).

Riders will be ready to take evasive action when dangers present themselves.

Bikesafe is a great start, the IAM takes it further and Rospa goes that extra mile. For example, while Rospa instructors will insist on riders wearing hi-viz jackets over their bike gear, the others recommend it but few in the IAM wear it.

“We’re rewarding the mindset that the rider had behind them when they went on the course

Chris Poole, Bennetts

Empirical evidence

Yet insurers have been slow to reward the efforts riders have made to take these courses – and the money they have spent – with discounts.

A common reason is that they do not have the empirical evidence that those with advanced training have lower claims – many claims, such as theft, are not rider skill related. The industry is also wary of the extra administration of checking evidence of test results, especially those repeated every three years.

Bikesafe has negotiated discounts with Bennetts, Devitts, Carole Nash and Ebike.

Bennetts’ marketing manager, Chris Poole, himself taking his Rospa test, explains the thinking: “The Bennetts discount for Bikesafe is a broker discount. After one day’s Bikesafe you do not present a better risk to underwriters but it is a start.

“We’re rewarding the mindset that the rider had behind them when they went on the course.” Some of Bennetts’ insurers also offer discounts for different training courses, but, as you can see from the chart, it is patchy.

A couple of years ago the IAM tied up with Belfast-based broker Adelaide to source discounts for its members.

Sam Geddis runs the 15-year-old broker and has been involved in the IAM deal. By 1998, Adelaide realised it insured two thirds of the bikers in Northern Ireland. Geddis took his own bike test and now sends any staff who do not ride bikes for lessons so they understand them.

The Bikesafe scheme started in the area and some riders were taking additional training but insurer discounts for it were patchy and one of the main discounters, Cornhill, pulled out of the market.

Geddis applied his insurance mind to the problem and decided the solution was to gather empirical evidence that advanced rider training did save insurers money. “The IAM claims that doing their exam does make you a safer rider but they cannot prove it. We know from working closely with the police that it saves lives but underwriters have not been able to see the evidence that it reduces claims,” Geddis says.

Adelaide signed up Equity Red Star. “The idea is to corral IAM riders together as an identifiable group so that, after two or three years with enough numbers, we should be able to see whether or not they do have reduced claims,” Geddis says.

In the first year, Geddis picked up nearly one in ten IAM members. He knows he’ll never have them all but hopes to make that four out of ten within a couple of years. That should give Equity’s underwriters a big enough sample to compare.

To make comparisons accurate, the policy had to be the standard Equity bike policy, but the broker and insurer have agreed some add-ons and are even looking at future gifts, such as paying the IAM membership renewal fee for loyal customers. Equity did not wish to comment.

Rospa, too, is in the throes of signing an insurance deal that it claims will offer its members as much as a 22% discount. It was unable to name the insurer.

The new approved trainer scheme has the potential to derail all the good work these organisations are doing – although that is not the intention.

Karen Cook, motorcycle safety manager at the MCIA, explains: “Several years ago we started a project to get riders assessed and sent for training but they were coming back saying the training was rubbish.

“It was costing between £80 and £125 a day for commercial training and the quality wasn’t always good. The idea is that anyone offering post-test training has to be to a certain standard.”

The register is currently voluntary – only 12 individuals have registered since February, 81 are waiting assessment and 252 have shown an interest, according to the DSA – but it will become compulsory.

Riders will be assessed and then given training by a registered trainer to improve the areas identified. Once they have completed that, they will get a certificate and that will enable them to get an enhanced rider discount from all bike insurers.

Nick Stephenson, a consultant for the MCIA, has dealt with the insurers. “The insurers are the only people who can talk to just about every single motorcyclist in the UK,” he says.

Ideally, Stephenson wants every rider to be reassessed and trained every three years to get their certificate renewed but the insurers have said coping with that is too complicated. Insurers want the ERB to be permanent once someone has a certificate. Unfortunately, that dilutes the value of the training programme.

The other spanner in the works concerns the IAM and Rospa volunteers. Both organisations are unhappy. “Both Rospa and the IAM are saying ‘do not regulate the voluntary sector as you will take out the largest training organisations in the country’,” says Peter Roger, chief examiner at the IAM. “We are already quality assured by the DSA for our training.”

Forcing people to succumb to tests and pay to be on the register will put off the small armies of volunteers.

Mark Winn at the DSA says: “We have allayed their concerns. Because they are volunteers they won’t have to be on the register.” Neither Rospa nor the IAM are convinced.

Undermine confidence

There are also questions over the quality standards the DSA scheme sets. It does not insist trainers use the Roadcraft system as this would undermine its own basic test and training programme. But everyone from the police down insists the Roadcraft system is safest, so using a system regarded as inferior is likely to undermine confidence in the DSA approach.

And if insurers begin to recognise the certified scheme, which is provided by commercial trainers only, and not award the enhanced rider bonus to those taking IAM and Rospa tests because the training is provided by volunteers, that too will sideline the people who have done the most up to now.

Insurers are in a strong position to drive up standards within the post-test regulated market. They should exert their influence.

Continuing support for the volunteers in IAM and Rospa is also essential. Failure to do both would be like throwing the engine out with the oil change.