SURFPAC Safety Shares Motorcycle Best Practices

Story Number: NNS180806-06Release Date: 8/6/2018 1:35:00 PM
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By April Phillips, Naval Safety Center Public Affairs

SAN DIEGO (NNS) -- Injuries and fatalities from motorcycle crashes needlessly degrade operational readiness by taking trained, ready Sailors away from their units. The ripple effect on the morale of shipmates mourning the loss of a friend and co-worker, or having to take up the slack for an injured crewmember exacerbates the problem. So far in fiscal year 2018, the Navy has lost 10 Sailors in motorcycle crashes.

Full motorcycle safety training, consisting of both level I and level II courses, is the only proven method to reduce mishaps and reduce the severity of those that do occur.  Although training is a requirement, not every Sailor who rides is fully trained. However, ships and units under Commander, Surface Forces Pacific (SURFPAC) seem to have gotten the message.

While Navy-wide motorcycle training rates have hovered at about 76 percent for several years, SURFPAC currently has a 90.2 percent compliance rate for cruiser riders and an 88.6 percent rate for sportbike riders, according to Kevin “Bud” Couch, SURFPAC Director of Safety. He attributes the improvements to multiple factors.

“It’s getting waterfront leadership and riders to believe that training prevents mishaps and it’s also working with base and local CNIC (Commander, Navy Installations Command) reps to solve issues with quotas and make sure training is available,” Couch said.

SURFPAC is also unique in that they have a liaison who works with all motorcycle safety representatives (MSRs) on the waterfront, assisting with their programs and answering questions. They provide training and presentations for MSRs and attend waterfront training seminars to ensure the content is meaningful for busy shipboard personnel who are devoting a portion of their workday to attending.

“We’re ready to help out at any point,” Couch said. He said in monthly communications with each MSR, SURFPAC reviews training and program status in an individualized dashboard with each MSR, safety officer, and often the ship’s executive officer, so they can see where they stand and who is delinquent and at risk.         

While a lot of SURFPAC’s motorcycle safety success has been about leveraging relationships and maintaining open lines of communication, they also have sound policies in place to support the program. For example, a ship must be current on motorcycle training requirements every month to be eligible for the Battle E award.  Commander Pacific Fleet supports this focus, too, by having a General Order that mandates riders are current on training, or they don’t ride.

Another policy innovation for SURFPAC is that riders are expected to take their Level II training (Military Sportbike Rider Course or Advanced Rider Course) as quickly as three days after completing their Level I beginners course. While some safety experts feel riders need more time on their bike before taking the second course and require at least 60 days between the two, Couch and SURFPAC have another opinion.

“If someone’s not ready to meet the minimum safe standard, we’d rather they not succeed in a controlled environment than fail out on a busy freeway,” he said, pointing out that those who need to retake their Level II training are at least aware of their limitations.

Couch acknowledges that in spite of their successes, SURFPAC still deals with a problem that’s prevalent throughout the Fleet – ghost riders.

“Ghost riders” are those with no documented training, and who may not have informed the command that they ride, as required. 

“That circumvents the entire system in place to save their lives,” Couch said. He believes fixing the problem lies with involved unit leadership, and with continued work to inform potential riders that motorcycle riding is an inherently risky practice, especially without full training.  He notes that while motorcycle riders make up only about 5 percent of the Surface Force population, they experience half or more of all reportable traffic injuries and fatalities.  More than half of those injuries and fatalities are among the small percentage of riders who are not fully trained. 

“Command success is dependent on knowing your people, and leaders who walk the parking lot to see who is riding and who hasn’t been to training. We are also working with the Chief’s Mess to make that a leadership focus. We need to get these riders in the system and into training because ghost rider mishaps are always gruesome,” Couch said.

Leaders from the CNO on down have realized inherently risky off-duty activities such as motorcycle riding can have an effect on readiness. Just as on-duty risks are managed through training, ensuring all riders receive initial, advanced, and refresher training, and mentorship through command motorcycle safety programs, is key to preventing needless mishaps.  And, it’s free.

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