Making Tiered Licensing Work in the USA


Categories: Skills, Safety

Motorcycling is a dangerous hobby. Anyone who has ridden for any considerable amount of time has come to the realization that there are any number of ways to get injured on a bike. Experienced riders learn to mitigate those risks. Good riders will attempt to always be seen by traffic, and will ride within his/her personal limits and the limits of his machine on the street. Both good and great riders will exercise caution and care in all traffic situations.

READ MORE: 10 Essential Ways To Prepare For A Bad Motorcycle Crash | RideApart

Safety instructors can teach a new rider how to make themselves known in traffic and they can stress the importance of riding with caution, but what instructors cannot do is prevent young or inexperienced riders from purchasing a motorcycle that is far beyond their limits. A very basic form of tiered licensing is a step in the right direction for rider welfare in the USA and this article outlines what I think could be an effective system.

The Idea

During my time as a Rider Coach in Pennsylvania's PAMSP, I've encountered numerous young men and women who want either the fastest or the biggest bikes that they can afford for their first motorcycles. I've seen students struggle through the Basic Rider Course and then hop on an R1 to ride home.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many riders and instructors, that is a recipe for disaster. A new rider, hopefully fresh out of a BRC, with only the basic skills required to move a small and extremely light and underpowered bike down the road can go out and buy a new BMW S1000RR with nearly two hundred horsepower or even a new Harley Road Glide Ultra that weighs nearly a thousand pounds. Either option can result in the injury of the motorcyclist and damage to the bike itself.

This BMW is aggressive for a beginner.
This BMW is aggressive for a beginner.

The rider's age is also a concern. Understanding the flow of traffic and the way that people react to certain things on the road is a skill that comes with time. Young riders often don't understand how traffic will react to a bike, and when they get surprised, they grab the brakes aggressively. On a supersport, that can spell disaster and on a big heavy bike in slow moving traffic, you're likely going to drop your machine.

Teenagers can't just hop in a car and do whatever they want. They are required to have an adult with them during their permit period and they often can't drive after dark. A motorcycle permit has no such restriction. When you're out there, you're alone. That's part of the appeal of riding a motorcycle, and having a tiered licensing system wouldn't change that.


Removing the freedoms that come with a bike, like the ability to hop on and disappear, is not the intention of a tiered licensing system. It would simply force a new rider's hand a tiny bit in their choice of a first bike.

The Plan

Many European countries require a certain amount of time spent on a 125cc bike and then a 250cc and so on until you become a fully licensed rider. A 125cc bike would simply not work in the USA— they are too under-powered and too small for American highways. The Honda Grom is a great example of this. It's a fantastic bike and they are a load of fun, but as a highway commuter, they are inadequate. Many similar bikes to the Grom just don't have the power to merge with highway traffic that is doing 75 or 80 miles-per-hour.

Honda Grom, great starter bike.
Honda Grom, great starter bike.

Instead, what I would propose is a cutoff at 50 horsepower for the bottom tier of a potentially two-tiered system. That leaves an excellent array of choices for new riders in the entry-level sportbike class. It would allow people who gravitate towards cruisers to get something with a bit more pep than what would be allowed by a conventional tiered system based off of engine displacement.

READ MORE: How To Ride In A Group | RideApart

Many of the small displacement cruisers like the Suzuki TU250x are a bit underpowered for highway use. A horsepower limit would allow cruiser riders to take a Boulevard c50 or something similar without the option of choosing something overly heavy and unwieldy. The common trend with cruisers that make less than 50 horsepower is a curb weight at or around 500 pounds, which would make them much easier for a beginner to handle than a full dresser or a GoldWing.

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