Rider School helps motorcycle enthusiasts, beginners tackle the open road

Elaine Ortiz had long entertained the idea of learning to ride a motorcycle, but when the 5-foot-tall Columbia resident sat on the back of her boyfriend's Ducati 900, she found she came up a bit short.

"My feet dangle off of it," said Ortiz, 29.

Still, at her boyfriend's encouragement, Ortiz decided to enroll in a four-day basic riding course at Howard Community College's Rider School, and she found that there are bikes for people her size.

She said when she sat on one of the motorcycles the school uses for classes, a Suzuki GZ250, she discovered there was a spot on the open road for her.

Ortiz is among students taking advantage this summer of classes the school offers year-round. Jim Schmidt, the college's director of motor vehicle safety programs, said economic woes that have hit the industry during the federal budget sequestration have made both classes and equipment more affordable.

In addition to offering classes for those who have never ridden — as well as for riders at various skill levels — the Rider School is conducting a federally funded project gauging students' success, using videotape data to gather research.

The Maryland Rider Study is a three-year National Highway Traffic Safety Administration project. Motorcycle riders take two half-hour rides on pre-determined routes while being videotaped by trailing cars. Schmidt said the community college is in its second year of the project and will observe about 150 riders twice. He said the tests are conducted on four routes south and west of the campus.

"Basically, what's involved is for us to follow new riders from zero to six months of their riding experiences, and test whether we can use video cameras to learn things about their riding progress," Schmidt said. "If this works, the methodology and the data set can be used for all kinds of research, such as various ways of training riders [and] what are the best safety strategies to use."

The study concludes in November.

Schmidt said that after completing the Rider School course at HCC, participants can take a written test and a riding test. Once those are passed, the school grants a certificate that can be taken to the state Motor Vehicle Administration for a class M (motorcycle) driver's license. He said the option of learning to ride through the course attracts many of the participants.

"It's the same test they would take at the MVA, except they don't have to make an appointment or wait in line," Schmidt said.

But most students, from beginners such as Ortiz to seasoned riders, come seeking to learn more about the best ways to tackle roadways on two-wheelers. Ortiz took the school's Basic Rider Course, which offers lessons on safe riding, choosing a motorcycle and gear, defensive riding strategies and handling various situations.

Ortiz said that after two days of the course, she was left surprised about the wealth of information she didn't know.

"There's tons, like how the bike works, just the simplest of things. In a car you're turning the steering wheel. In a motorcycle you have to lean rather than turn the handlebars," Ortiz said. "Just really informative things that you would think that you knew already."

Patrick Mangus, 21, of Baltimore said he's been riding dirt bikes off-road for years, but is taking the basic riding course to obtain his motorcycle license.

"Riding gives you a feeling that there's nothing between you and the road," Mangus said. But he figures the feeling will be different on such highways as Interstate 695.

Schmidt said the schools draws about 1,000 participants each year, many seeking to tackle roads ranging from secondary streets to fast-paced highways to sprawling country thoroughfares.

"For a highly aware, highly skilled rider, [riding locally] is a perfectly safe, lovely experience. But for someone for whom it is just a minor hobby, it can be pretty dangerous," said Schmidt, a cyclist for 40 years.

"If you're going to ride in this area, or any congested area, you have to have an appropriate level of training, frequent experience and the proper riding gear," he said. "And you have to take a serious approach to accident avoidance."

For more information on the Rider School at Howard Community College, call 443-518-4808 or go to coned.howardcc.edu/motorcycle_safety.


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