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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Back-seat Driver: California toughens motorcycle license for teens


Back-seat Driver: California toughens motorcycle license for teens

By Tony Bizjak Published: Monday, Dec. 27, 2010 - 12:00 am Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 27, 2010 - 6:59 am Did you know, in California, a 15 1/2-year-old can legally hit the streets on a motorcycle simply by taking a written exam? No training necessary. No skills test required.

Plenty of state lawmakers didn't know that until some Fair Oaks teens brought it to their attention.

The result: Starting Jan. 1, beginning riders under age 21 must attend a 15-hour motorcycle skills and safety course first before they can get a learner's permit and ride on the streets.

As is often the case, the law was born in tragedy. It happened three years ago on a suburban Fair Oaks cul-de-sac.

Teen Jarrad Cole had passed the DMV written exam for a motorcycle learner's permit. He and his dad, Evan Cole, bought a Suzuki RS. His dad, an experienced rider, drove it home and then set up orange practice cones on the street for his son.

Jarrad, in helmet and gloves, was doing well, his dad said. But as Cole stepped into the garage for more cones, his son, he says, crossed a threshold of his own – from life to death.

Cole heard the engine rev. He heard the thud. What exactly happened, he doesn't know. Cole knelt at his 18-year-old's side in a neighbor's front yard. Jarrad tried to get up, but couldn't. A chest artery was severed.

"A doctor said it wouldn't matter if the hospital were across the street, they weren't going to save him," Cole said.

Jarrad's younger brother Sawyer and a friend, Michael Kelleher, launched a high school senior project: Change state law. They enlisted then-Assemblyman Roger Niello and lobbyist Michael Hawkins.

The new law requires teenagers to take the state's 15-hour California Motorcyclist Safety Program.

The course, which costs $150 for teens, is administered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and authorized by the California Highway Patrol. Information is online at

For Niello, the law is obvious: "My question was, how did we let that happen in the first place?"

Once a teen has passed the course, he or she qualifies for a learner's permit.

The permit allows the teen to ride on streets, but not at night, not on freeways and not with passengers.

After six months, the teen qualifies for a motorcycle license. Teens under age 18, though, still cannot drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and can't have passengers under age 20.

Niello said he's gotten some calls from people saying this is nanny government. Niello disagrees: "I would challenge anybody who makes those comments to justify why we should not have a standard of competency on the public roads."

Jarrad Cole's dad agrees. "The street is not a right, it is a privilege," he said. "Riding a motorcycle takes skill and practice."

He still feels the pain. This week, though: "I'm ecstatic."