The Education of Biker Dudes (And Dudettes)

by Jennifer Needleman ([email protected]), published online 05-28-2004

Never Be Limited by Fear — But Do Everything to Reduce Risk

EAST WILLIAMSBURG — According to Brooklynite Diane Howells, there’s a right way to do everything. As the owner and founder of the Motorcycle Safety School on the corner of Metropolitan and Bushwick Avenues, Howells knows that even thrill-seeking has procedures and techniques. In her field, a little bit of education goes a long way — and this is something Howells applies to her life on a grander scale.
Howells began her career as a location scout for films.
“I always wanted to be a director,” she said.
But after a 2 1/2 day motorcycle safety course, paid for as a gift from her father, this Vermont-born gal started on a new path. It was just something she wanted to try, but it wound up becoming part of her career.
“It was a fantastic experience for me,” said Howells. After getting her motorcycle license, she was “so pumped” about riding that she produced a documentary on female motorcyclists called Motorcycle Diaries. The film was received with a fair amount of acclaim, and showed on Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen channel and at the Guggenheim Museum during its motorcycle exhibition. The top two celebrities of Vermont, Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame, helped fund the film — they were in Howells’ motorcycle safety class.
After the documentary, Howells began to think about becoming a motorcycle safety instructor. But then she thought, why not be the boss? The niche was there, so six years ago Howells opened her first school in New York City — which she believes is “the only place to live.”
Now, Howells’ Motorcycle Safety School (MSS) is one of the biggest and most effective in the nation. MSS currently has three locations — Brooklyn, Yonkers and Ulster Community College in Woodstock, N.Y. MSS is unique in many ways, but primarily because it is one of the few schools licensed to issue road test waivers.
“It’s been proven that if people get the right training, there are fewer accidents,” explained Howells. “So the DMV encourages it.”
Although a motorcycle license is not guaranteed, students who enroll in the $380, 2 1/2 day Basic Rider Course leave with training that is above and beyond the call of duty. Students who pass the MSS course receive a waiver in the mail that can then be presented at the Department of Motor Vehicles in exchange for a valid New York State Motorcycle Driver’s License. And to top it all off, it shaves a good chunk of money off yearly motorcycle and car insurance.
The class follows a national regiment that was developed after a California study was done on the patterns of motorcycle accidents.
“They did a study of 3,000 motorcycle accidents and they found that 90 percent involved people without proper training,” said Howells. The results of the study prompted the government to examine what makes good training, and set out guidelines for the road-test waiver safety course.
Howells, who describes herself as adventurous and “always moving forward in life,” believes that people are often times limited by their fear.
“It’s so sad to me when there are people who’ve wanted to ride a motorcylce for years but were too afraid to take that first step,” she said. And what better place is there than MSS to take that first step — under the watchful scrutiny of top-shelf instructors?
“I’ve seen guys with full Harley Davidson tattoos….who had never been on a bike,” said Howells. “Sure, [motorcycling] is dangerous, I can’t dispute that … But you have to acknowledge your risk, accept it and take measures to reduce it.”
Education is endlessly important to Howells, who received her undergraduate degree from Boston College.
“You have to get the right education,” she said. “You take lessons if you want to fly a plane, you should take lessons if you want to learn how to ride a motorcycle.”
Some of the important techniques that MSS teaches that gives their students a leg up on untrained riders includes proper braking and pot-hole navigation. It’s also important, according to Howells, to get the right gear.
“Leather isn’t the best anymore,” she said, and people must get accostumed to wearing bright colors and/or reflective tape. Full helmets are neceesary. In fact, the ever popular “army helmets” that cover only the very top part of the head are actually illegal. Alcohal awareness is essential.
“Alcohal is a huge problem,” said Howells. “You must be totally sober.”
As it turns out, it seems that Howells has become something of a local staple in Brooklyn.
“If you know someone who rides a motorcycle in Brooklyn, they probably know me somehow,” she said. This might be due, in part, to the other types of classes Howells decided to offer at MSS, including an NYC special — Riding in Traffic.
“It all depends on the needs,” explained Howells. “In Vermont, they don’t need ‘Riding in Traffic.’ But here, everyone does it.”
In this class, already-licensed riders learn how to make deft turns at stop lights, start on a hill, find proper positioning in driving lanes and stay safe on highways.
MSS also offers an Experienced Rider class, a maintenance course, a scooter course and private lessons.
The Private Lesson – From a Know-Nothing to Third Gear
Lucky me — I got one of those coveted private lessons, all in the name of journalism. Ray Lopez was my instructor — a man with the patience of a saint.
“I’m very selective with my instructors,” Howells told me before we began. “If they’re not high quality, well, it just doesn’t work. Low quality will come back to get you, one way or another.”
Because Howells’ first motorcycle class was a “fantastic experience” for her, she is determined to make it that way for all of her clients. Thus, Howells spends a large portion of her time in training and re-training with the instructors, making sure they stay on top of the latest motorcycle safety findings. “It’s a fun thing,” she said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
My lesson was, as promised, top-notch. Before I even touched the bike, Lopez calmly and clearly explained every feature of the standard motorcycle (we rode a nice little 250 cc bike together). From the choke to the fuel reserve, the world of the two-wheeled has been opened to me.
I learned how to put the kick stand down. I learned how to park properly — on a hill or on flat terrain. I learned how to mount and how to apply the front and rear brakes together. I learned about the headlights, the blinkers and the speedometer.With Lopez as my cheerleader, I eased the bike into first gear, into neutral, back into first, up into second and down again into neutral.
Then we turned the bike on.
“Get suited up,” said Lopez. “’Cause you’re going to be riding!”
As is always the case, listening made less sense than actual doing, and Lopez eased me along until I was able to walk the bike in first gear, keeping the clutch in the “friction zone.” It was only a matter of minutes before I was aching to put my feet up on the pegs. Before the end of the hour, I had shift to third gear and back down to a stop safely and without fear.
“This is the right way to do this,” said Lopez, who worked for years as a middle school teacher. “You don’t want to just get on a bike and fly into a wall.”
Lopez got a wave from a passerby.
“He’s teaching me tomorrow!” the man called out to me.
“He had a bad experience when he was younger,” said Lopez. “So I’m going to try to get him into it slowly.”
All you need to register for the 20 hour Basic Rider Course is a motorcylce permit — easily obtained at the DMV for under $20. Registration can be done easily online, at or by calling (877) RIDE MSS. If you have a loved one who rides a motorcycle, and whose motorcycling causes you coronary pains and cold sweats, consider a gift certificate to MSS! As shown in the California study, a motorcycle rider has only a few seconds to react during an emergency — knowing what to do will make all the difference in the world.

programmer Jaro Nemcok