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Rochester — Before Michigan motorcyclists take to the road for the first time, many of them start out in a parking lot, taking a basic skills course.

It's one of two ways licensed drivers can get a motorcycle endorsement in Michigan (the other way is to pass a rider skills test), but state officials say they need more instructors to teach the classes and improve biker safety on the state's roads.

Among those pushing to recruit more "RiderCoaches" is Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who has ridden motorcycles for 51 years. 

“We do need more trainers across the state,” Johnson said. “We’re actively seeking more trainers because I think it’s so important as riders that we do have the right training so we can drive safely.”

She added that 14 percent of riders in Michigan don’t have a cycle endorsement for their license and are “responsible for half the accidents” involving motorcyclists in the state.

According to State Police statistics, 2,886 crashes in Michigan last year involved motorcycles, resulting in 140 deaths and 2,362 injuries.

Although she doesn’t currently own a motorcycle, borrowing one for annual Motorcycle Safety Month rides each year, Johnson said she has taken an updated safety course herself. In a YouTube video released in May, she appeared astride a Harley-Davidson while discussing how to ride safely.

The state has 32 public and private training providers, according to Johnson. Last year, 11,478 new and seasoned bikers enrolled in one of the state’s safety courses. A list of local training providers and lots of other resources for Michigan motorcycle riders is available at www.michigan.gov/motorcycling.

Chad Teachout, state coordinator of the Michigan Rider Education Program, said a 2014 change in the curriculum requiring all instructors to undergo further training to become recertified led many instructors to retire instead, leading to a 30 percent drop by 2016.

Teachout said the MREP is still recouping in the two areas affected most by the loss — Metro Detroit and the Grand Rapids area.

“We were really hit pretty hard in those two main areas,” Teachout said. “Our other sites are quite a bit smaller. They were hit, too. They’re able to hold their own, but we still need coaches everywhere.”

He said additional funding to hire instructors, included in the latest state budget, should help but is overdue. RiderCoaches make $24 to $35 per hour depending on their location; the average pay is over $28, according to Teachout. 

Public training providers, typically at colleges and universities, receive state grants to subsidize the cost of training. Teachout said that since 2014, the costs associated with conducting training courses — insurance that training providers must buy, maintaining motorcycles they use, paying trainers — have risen.

The result: Riders who can't get into training classes because there aren't enough teachers.

“I’m going to use Lansing Community College as an example because that’s where I instruct,” he said. “Last winter alone, they had over 300 people call and want to get put on a waiting list. They can’t even train that many people.”

Walter Decorek, 61, program director of Advance Cycle Training Center which offers safety courses at Stoney Creek High School in Rochester, has been an instructor since 1986 and says he has seen the teacher shortage develop since then.

He said in 1985 when he did his instructor training, 32 people started the class and 11 graduated. He is the only one still teaching courses.

"I average 21-24 classes a year ... so that’s pretty much every weekend all summer long," Decorek said.

Last weekend, five aspiring cyclists enrolled in Decorek's basic rider course — four of whom had never ridden a motorcycle before, and one who hadn’t ridden in 15 years.

“Walt’s been riding for 30 years, so when he sees what you’re doing, you’re not just running through a drill,” said one of the students, Josh Brown, 27, of Dearborn Heights. “We’re doing it and he’s assessing what we’re doing and he’s like ‘Hey, you could correct this and be aware of this.’”

Decorek works during the week doing motorcycle repairs and handyman work as a contractor, but his real joy comes from showing students how to ride.

“Like an artist, when you paint something, you look back and say ‘I did that,’” Decorek said. “When I take someone who has never been on a bike and is curious and wants to do this, and at the end of the weekend I hand them their certificate and see them just beaming, so happy and so excited, that’s the reward you get out of it.”

malsup@detroitnews.com

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