By Julie Shelley, U.S. Army Combat Readiness CenterMay 5, 2016
FORT RUCKER, Ala.(May 5, 2016) - For new motorcycle owners, the camaraderie and shared experiences of participating in a Motorcycle Mentorship Program can set the stage for a lifetime of safe riding. The way those programs are structured and run, however, can greatly impact their effectiveness.
Bill Maxwell, safety manager for the 311th Signal Corps (Pacific Theater) and former motorcycle coordinator for the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii Safety Office, has seen numerous MMPs throughout his career. As a lifelong rider, longtime instructor and the Army's only California Superbike School Advanced Rider Trackday certified trainer, he has several thoughts on the factors that make a local or unit program successful.
"Mentors are more than just the commander's tracker of training," Maxwell said. "But in some units, that's all they're doing. It's so much more than that. They have to be the go-to person for all motorcycle-related questions for the unit."
Maxwell said that for mentors to succeed, they must have a template for success that answers questions such as what it means to be a mentor, what their duties will be, and what lessons other programs have learned over the years. In addition, placement of the mentor within the unit also makes a difference.
"Our experience in Hawaii has shown the mentor needs to be no higher than battalion, preferably company level," Maxwell explained. "The reason is, if you're higher than battalion, you don't have that routine contact to see the new bike that showed up in the parking lot or hear that conversation in the hallway."
While not every installation has the same favorable riding climate as Hawaii, many of the Army's locations, particularly those in the southern United States, offer extended riding seasons. Those posts will naturally have a higher rider population - in Hawaii, it's significantly more than 10 percent, according to Maxwell. Besides mentors being available to their Soldiers, it's important for them to emphasize a "crawl, walk, run" approach with their new riders, regardless of the time of year they purchase their bikes.
"New riders can't just go from off the chocks straight into the run," Maxwell said. "Part of a mentor's job is to tell them that. Take it step by step, you need some real-world experience in addition to the Basic RiderCourse."
One model that's worked for mentors in Hawaii is a three-tiered lesson plan in and around the local area following the BRC: start riders out in tightly controlled traffic situations like streets running
through post housing or "backwater" roads, then progress to lesser but still controlled scenarios such as non-peak city riding, then graduate to the more dynamic conditions of the freeway and open road.
"Mentors need a lot of hands-on time with new riders before they progress to unrestricted traffic or higher-level training," Maxwell said. "When you've got a wingman and you're poking around base housing, taking it slowly, things don't tend to happen. You can only assimilate things so fast, and part of a mentor's job is to tell you, 'Learn these baby steps first before I cut you loose.'"
These personal relationships built early, Maxwell said, can provide the foundation for a lifetime of safe riding for motorcycling novices.
"The contact between a mentor and individual Soldier who's either a potential or existing rider needs to be at the grass roots," he said. "Many riders in the civilian population learn the basics from close family members like fathers or uncles. Our mentors must be a fitting substitute for those family relationships."
While MMPs are not currently mandated for Army organizations, they have been strongly encouraged by senior leaders since a 2005 memo from the then-Army chief of staff. Leadership's long-term goal is to see MMPs established in 90 percent of units by 2020, as outlined in the Fiscal Year 2016 Army Safety and Occupational Health Objectives. To that end, the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center has a collection of resources online to help leaders and mentors build their programs and borrow best practices from existing MMPs.
"We've tried to provide that template for success," said Steve Kurtiak, motorcycle safety specialist, USACRC. "We can't give fledgling programs everything they need because specialized requirements vary by unit and are affected by many different variables. But the foundation is there; it's up to leaders and mentors to fill in the gaps."
Both Kurtiak and Maxwell agreed that ultimately, creating safer riders is a combination of engaged leadership, effective mentoring, lifetime learning through progressive training, and Soldiers committing themselves to responsible riding. Robust MMPs create an environment where each of those factors are allowed to thrive.
"Smaller, tighter mentorship programs don't see many accidents, if any at all," Maxwell said. "Personal interaction is key - ride with your riders."
For more information on motorcycle safety and MMPs, visit https://safety.army.mil.