Sunday, 22 April 2012

Crazy "Graduation"

I heard recently that young people in the United States are not buying or driving cars like they used to. It seems they don’t feel that same pull to the automobile that generations of teenagers before them all over North America have felt. I was driving in my car -unfortunately, I now work too far from my home to ride my scooter on a route that involves six-lane highways - when I heard this and thought how important the car had been to me and my siblings, my parents before us and to my grandparents. Yet, the report rang true; my own daughter shows little interest in driving or in advancing her licence from intermediate to permanent.

The interview suggested that the graduated licensing system was the reason for this shift. GLS was introduced around the world to reduce the number of crashes involving young drivers. For the most part, it seems to have worked. But the by-product may be that, unless there is a keen interest in driving or a need to use a car, young people can’t be bothered with the lengthy process. I wonder how many potential scooter riders feel the same.

As I drove along the 401, a busy highway north of the city, listening to the radio, I wished I could be on my scooter listening to the wind. But I know it would ridiculous for me to ride a light, 125cc scooter at 100 kilometres an hour, buffeted by the tractor trailer truck that would invariably pass me. And yet I have “graduated” in the motorcycle licensing system to a permit that would allow me to do just that.

When the Ontario Ministry of Transportation introduced its GLS in 1994, it required riders of

motorcycles and scooters to prove they could drive safely on “controlled-access” highways before

getting their full M licence. It took years but finally the ministry recognized that taking small

scooters on a highway like the 401 was outright dangerous. So in 2005 it prohibited mopeds and

scooters with engines less than 50 cc from controlled- access highways and dropped the highway

portion from their test.

That still left a grey area for scooter riders who don’t want to travel on highways, but want an engine large enough to give them the acceleration they’ll need in most urban situations. Riders like me. After receiving my M2 on a motorcycle and after I decided the scooter was the right choice for me (see Scooters and The Art of Compromise entry) I asked around and decided the 125 cc Yamaha Vino had the right power. I’ve been riding without incident for years now.

When, a few years back, my M2 was running out, making it time to get my M licence, the full and permanent one, I called to see how I could earn it safely on my Yamaha - without going on the 401.  I tried calling numerous people at the drive centres and was always told that if I took the test required for my engine size in the Toronto area, I would have to go on the 401. I tried to argue that I didn’t think that would be safe and that I had no intention of using my scooter that way. (In fact, I met a scooter rider who did brave Canada’s busiest highway only to be stopped by police who told her she wasn’t allowed on it.) Perhaps just to get me off the phone I was given the only two other options open to me: redo the M2 licence every five years or transport my scooter to a smaller centre (the one suggested to me was hundreds of kilometres away) where the four-lane highway used for the test might not be so intimidating. Since time was running out, I retook my M2, and temporarily put my quandary about the M licence on hold.

As a journalist, I called the Ontario Ministry of Transportation a couple of years ago to figure out if things had changed, but was told again that anyone with a scooter over 50 cc had to take the highway portion of the test to get the full licence. The official I spoke to did tell me that examiners had the discretion of conducting the highway portion on a section of highway that has a speed limit of at least 80 kilometres, but only if there is a ministry-approved route near the testing centre and only if a rider asks for the modification.

But most riders don’t know to ask; many remain both confused and frustrated with the system. Danute, a rider in Hamilton told me she uses her 125 cc Yamaha to get everywhere in that city. “It puts a smile on my face even on bad days,” she said. Her top speed is 80 kilometres an hour. Anything faster and she feels as though even a pebble would throw her off.  She was contemplating getting her full licence when I spoke to but couldn’t imagine taking her scooter on the 401, where she “could be sucked under a truck or blown into a ditch” or risk annoying motorists by driving too slow. She hadn’t heard of the examiner’s discretionary authority and planned on booking her test in a nearby smaller city with less-travelled highway. “It’s the oddest thing,” she said, “to sit around and have to figure how to do this the safest way.”

Another rider I spoke with owns both a motorcycle and a scooter. Bridget uses the motorcycle on

the highway and keeps the scooter for running errands in the city of Burlington. She has her full

licence but tried to get information for her son who returning to Canada and wanted a licence for

his scooter. After speaking with the ministry, the solution she cam up for her son was borrow a

more powerful scooter than his vintage Vespa so she could handle the highway speeds on his test.

“Laws haven’t been updated for scooters here,” she said. “It’s not like Florence or some

other European city. You have to work and figure your way around getting an M licence here.”

I ended up figuring another way to get my M licence, but it cost me $350, far more than the government $75 fee for the test. It’s a safety course approved by the government for motorcycles and scooters with engines of 100 to 230 cc that allows students to try the test after a day of safety training. The main advantage:  highway driving is tested on an expressway where the maximum speed is 80 k.

The course certainly wasn’t a waste of money. The instructor, Sharon, was a big woman with a big motorcycle who handed out good advice along with safety tips. “Scooters are small, even smaller than motorcycles,” she said. “Riders have to be vigilant.” Throughout the day, she insisted on absolute attention to riding in blocking positions, constantly checking mirrors and consciously looking both ways before making any kind of move.

“In Canada, we are behind the time when it comes to scooters,” Sharon told me. In Europe where lane splitting is common (the practice is illegal here) “cars are accustomed to scooters. Drivers there watch out for scooters and realize that lane splitting keeps traffic moving faster.”

But Sharon also pushed for fearlessness. “You own the road, but you have to claim it,” she said.

Nowhere was that more evident than on the highway where hesitating is just about as deadly

as speed. For most of the riders taking the test that day, it was their first time on an expressway;

some said it would be their last. Riding in the rain on the expressway felt okay - in fact even  a

little exhilirating, but I've never gone back. I have the licence now and that's enough.

The whole process was actually more complicated than I’ve described but at least I’m now finished with the crazy system. As I drove the other day on the 401 ensconced in my car, listening to my radio, wishing I could be on my scooter, I knew what’s crazier is that I now have a licence which legally allows me to get on a big Harley - if I had a death wish – and head out on any highway in Ontario. What kind of system is that?

Here's a link to a good course in Southern Ontario:

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