Total Control 1-Day Premier Course Review: California Safety Program

Perhaps you rode dirt bikes as a child and never took your license test, or your new acting job might require that you are a motorcycle rider. It could be that you simply feel that you missed the motorcycle-riding boat and want to jump on as a mature ‘easy rider’.

Maybe there’s some trepidation because of a break in your riding career, or an accident has left you feeling anxious. Some people spend intense years raising a family and find that when offspring are fleeing the nest, they decide to go back to motorcycling. Perhaps your parents, partners, or friends take a deep breath when you mention motorcycles. We all have a story.

Total Control Premier Course: 1 Day Class

Based on experience, the DMV motorcycle skills test does not bode well for all types of motorcycles, in particular longer-wheelbase models. If your riding is already more than beginner level, and you decide to retrain and/or get your license, then there is now a suitable new option for you. In most states, and now in California, you can get back to riding and get legal with a Total Control 1-day Premier Course—one-day!

In California, the price of this Premier (intermediate level) one-day course is $300, and to get your license with that one, you must be over 21. This is marginally cheaper than the 2-day Beginner course at $350 for those over 21. However, the starter course is open to those under 21, and runs $295. The skills I learned on the Premier course have noticeably improved my riding. Not only do I feel safer on the street, but I also have more confidence. Those have a very definite value to me, and it’s way higher than three hundred bucks!

This course has been a long time in the making. Years back, when Lee Parks was the Editor of Motorcycle Consumer News, he started receiving feedback from motorcyclists expressing their desire to better understand and improve their riding skills. There was clearly a demand from riders wanting help to become better riders—not in a ‘want to go racing’ way, but for more confidence, safety, and enjoyment on the road.

In response, Parks designed and then ran a Total Control Advanced Riding Course in the late 1990s. It was a success, and is also available as a book—Total Control: High performance street riding techniques.

As positive feedback from the Total Control course spread, it came to the State of Maryland’s attention. In 2006, Parks was approached with an invitation to tackle the issue of the many statewide unlicensed riders, known as ‘shadow’ or ‘dirty’ riders to law enforcement in the state. Sounds like a cool name, but nah, not really.

Parks developed a 1-day Premier intermediate-level course specifically for riders who already know how to ride. It would refresh or improve their riding skills, and qualify them for a motorcycle endorsement in the process. A one-day course that doesn’t force riders to go through two days of machine control basics appeared to be quite appealing to the shadow riders, so the program was a huge success. The good news spread. Soon after, Texas started using the same training and testing, followed by Colorado and other states.

However, for a state that in so many ways leads the country in innovations, California had fallen behind other states and done nothing to address its so-called dirty riders. Worse, the motorcycling death toll was also increasing alarmingly, year-over-year. Clearly, the existing MSF course was no longer doing the job.

Total Control Premier Course: Motorcycle License

Parks wanted to help. He approached the California Highway Patrol in 2012 and shared that his Total Control training was proving successful in other states. As it happens, the MSF contract was due to expire in 2014—a couple of years away. Those two years proved critical, and Parks was able to gather some of the best industry minds to create a bid for the contract and ensure that “opportunity met preparation to create a bit of luck,” as he describes it.

Although Total Control subsequently took over the California State 2-day beginner licensing program in 2015, California law did not allow a one-day licensing course for intermediate-level riders that already knew how to ride. That hurdle had to be overcome before Premier 1-Day students could be licensed without going through a beginner course. Finally, in 2020, the law was changed and the 1-day Total Control Premier Course is now officially approved to license and improve riders’ skills who already know the basics of controlling a motorcycle.

My story is a little different, but I certainly had the potential to be a ‘dirty’ rider. Despite having been fully licensed in both the UK and Australia for a couple of decades, I am not licensed in California or anywhere else in the US. Having recently joined my husband here in glorious California, once I lost my visitor status and became a legal resident, a California license had to be mine, or I would become a ‘shadow’. After some research, I found the newly available Total Control 1-day Premier course and booked it, pronto.

I received an emailed confirmation, which included a waiver form to sign and return. As advised, I got a good night’s sleep before the class, and took some healthy snacks along with me—I was hoping they’d help settle my nerves, as I’ve always been an anxious test-taker.

For the class, you can use your own motorcycle or borrow (for no cost) one of the Total Control training motorcycles. Happily, I had access to the Ultimate Motorcycling magazine test KTM 200 Duke that I reviewed last year. As a light, maneuverable, oh-so-easy-to-ride bike, it was clearly the perfect machine for this riding course.

My instructor, Jim Schmitt, quickly approved of me riding the 200 Duke, as he considered it ideal for the day’s task. Costing just under $4000, the petite KTM debuted in the US last year. It has a low enough seat that, with my 29-inch inseam (my height is 5′ 6″), I can easily flat-foot when stopped. Billed by KTM as a city commuter, I know from experience that it is actually more than that; it’s a great all-rounder and comfortably handles freeway speeds and canyon riding, as well.

It didn’t help my nerves to hear that the pass-rate for the Total Control 1-day Premier Course is only 70 percent. Yes, this course is quite demanding. Approximately half of the 30 percent who fail is made up of riders who cannot pass the initial entry-level DMV skills test (also known as the ‘lollipop’ test) that starts the day. The other 50 percent who fail do so on the various skills tests throughout the day after each learning exercise.

Total Control Premier Course: KTM 200 Duke

Make no mistake, this course is not a walk-over—you need to be able to ride; it is not a one-day shortcut to a motorcycle endorsement for beginners. However, as with any challenge, the training is a lot of fun, and I found it very satisfying to improve my skills. I enjoyed each section, and after Jim’s initial demonstration and several practice attempts, I discovered that I could accomplish them relatively easily. I passed each test, and look forward to continue honing my skills into the future.

Interestingly, the CHP indicated to Lee that a 70 percent pass-rate was not merely considered acceptable; it was ideal from the agency’s perspective. Motorcycle officers undergo rigorous training and very stringent testing themselves. They want the assurance that this course was not an easy way out to get a license, and that it would actually help develop better skilled, safer road users. In reality, no one would want this to be an effortless test that sends riders onto the road with a false sense of security.

As predicted, I was quite nervous prior to the start because that’s how I get. Despite my years of experience, I felt some trepidation taking the lollipop test, first on the agenda for the day’s course.

Schmitt immediately put me at ease, as he is a great people-person. With 16 years’ experience as an instructor, he nurtures a friendly atmosphere within the class. We all said our hellos and made a bit of an introduction about why we were attending the day. He then quickly eased the eight of us into having a chat to develop some bonding—we felt like a team. Schmitt’s friendly, confident manner, in turn, gave me some confidence. I soon started to relax.

Our team is a mixed bag, including Marcus, who intends to ride his new birthday Ducati Panigale V4 for his daily 37-mile each-way commute. He’s here to improve skills and get his license.

John has ridden off and on since a little kid. When he was in high school, he had a street bike, and lost a few friends to motorcycle accidents. Now, he “doesn’t feel too steady” despite having ridden both off-road and on the street. His girlfriend has a motorcycle and her M1 license. However, she also has some fears about riding. John needs a boost to his confidence, and to get his M1 endorsement before his permit expires; he wants to ride with his girlfriend.

Prior to the last few years of riding, I’d had a break of some 35 years, so I felt relatively inexperienced. Of course, that made me the perfect candidate as well.

Total Control Premier Course: California Motorcycle License

We gather around Schmitt, wearing full COVID coverings (we will never recognize each other again!), and he takes us through the hand signals and instructions he will use throughout the day. No matter what type of motorcycle we all ride, there is also very much an unspoken open camaraderie we all feel.

Sadly, two of the eight riders that started the day did not get through the day with a pass. They failed the lollipop and initial basic skills tests, and although neither was a complete beginner, they both clearly needed the two-day starter course to bring them up to the intermediate level.

I spoke to one of them and, although disappointed, he was very gracious on hearing the news that he wouldn’t be able to continue the day. He admitted that he’d perhaps bitten off a bit more than he could chew for now. There were no recriminations or shaming. Schmitt’s kindness and professional attitude set both riders up to go do the two-day beginner course and then when ready, return to the Premier course to further improve their skills.

Riding is not only about what you already know and do. It’s also about realizing how much more knowledge there is to gain, and being taught what techniques need improvement. Riding is a continuous self-challenge. Because of that, it’s an ongoing enjoyable experience, and that is part of the fun.

The Total Control course uses simple to understand, attractively designed PowerPoint screen presentations throughout the day. Each slide is supplemented with video and verbal information from Schmitt. He covers defensive riding techniques, traction management, mental state, concentration level, and positive attitude. Schmitt encourages questions and exchanges. These key points correspond to the riding exercises that start with smooth throttle application and brake control. Grasshopper-like, we absorbed our leader’s knowledge. 

The Total Control curriculum development is continuous. As the training aids are digital, they can be updated continuously. As a result, the course content is an organic curriculum with lessons gleaned from both students and instructors; it keeps the training relevant. Total Control courses are widely used by government entities from local to the military, and these programs enhance rider skills and are statistically proven to reduce motorcycle crashes and fatalities.

In California, from 2010 to 2014, motorcycle fatalities were increasing by over 12 percent every year. Since the Total Control beginner training course took over in 2015, that trend has literally been reversed—fatalities have been dropping by nearly 2 percent each year. In 2019, Total Control training can legitimately claim to have saved 356 lives in just that one year. That is a very real, very impressive number.

Initial introduction complete, we headed towards our trusty two-wheeled steeds. As I mentioned earlier, the first part of the test is essentially the basic DMV skills test. Fairly straightforward, it starts between two cones and consists of riding in a straight-line ride for 50 yards or so while shifting through a couple of gears. Then, you keep going through another two cones, make a U-turn, return through those same two cones, and ride back to the start—all without putting your feet down at any point. At the finish, you’re required to come to a smooth, controlled stop between the two cones where you started.

The second part is the basic DMV lollipop qualifier section. It entails weaving through a set of five cones, then riding two laps within a fairly tight, painted circle while keeping your front tire inside the painted lines and without touching your feet down the entire test. Next, it’s weaving back through the five cones again, and ending with a smooth stop where you started.

During the day, we undertook many exercises that increased our skill with throttle and brake control. We were taught where to look, and then line selection through a corner. Additionally, we tackled low-speed turns, evasive maneuvers, and cornering at higher speeds.

I really enjoyed practicing each technique, as shown by Schmitt. Skills such as turning from standing and tight-space maneuvering were all hugely improved for me during the day. Learning how to avoid objects without braking, stop quickly, and then be ready to pull away enhanced my confidence.

In another exercise, we rode between a figure-8 course, entering and exiting at designated points. Eyes out, we had to look up and across to where we were riding. It’s astounding how, when you’re being watched, you realize that you’re not actually really looking ahead enough. I found this quite a challenge, mainly keeping my speed under control, but, oh boy, the feeling of accomplishment once I mastered it!

Taking the right line through a curve was another exercise I really enjoyed, as it was something I’d never given much mind to in the past. Schmitt demonstrated the incorrect line, and then followed with the correct route for the section. We rode through a marked curve, again using our eyes up technique to spot and then demonstrate our looking ahead to the apex as marked by a larger cone. We were taught how to change body and head position to move the motorcycle to where you actually intend to go.

This was a tricky one—making myself lift my head and have a good long look, not in the direction where I was headed, but to the point where I actually wanted to go. It broke my habit of years of not wanting to take my eyes off only what was straight in front of me. We were tested on each riding-skill exercise throughout the day, and points are registered for any error made during testing. To be successful, you have to clock-up less than 11 points across the skills testing.

Once the riding portion is finished, it’s back to the classroom for a written test where you need to attain a score of 80 percent or better to pass.

If you achieve a pass for both the riding and written, you receive your DMV DL389 certificate. You take this to DMV, along with your permit, to order your license. You will also receive a course completion card which may get you to a break on your insurance, and a discount at some local motorcycle stores—a nice touch.

The recently introduced 1-day Premier Course is an excellent program. The super-enthusiastic instructor clearly wanted us to be competent motorcyclists, and he gave the day his all. The Total Control 1-Day Premier Course is an essential option for anyone who has already taken (and passed) the beginner’s course and offers a valuable learning experience and endorsement route for existing competent riders. For myself, having qualified at the end of the day of intermediate training, I’m now keen as mustard to attend Total Control’s Advanced Course.

The first time we rode after completing this course, my husband immediately noticed the improvement in my riding. My prediction of corner entry-speed has dramatically improved, so my entrances are smoother and more consistent. I have also improved my lines through corners. My braking confidence has taken a significant leap forward, and my judgment of braking distance has improved.

I now have the confidence to ride closer to my husband and in formation with him, rather than trailing a long way behind, as I had been doing. I feel safer and better equipped to deal with any nasty on-road surprises that may come along. My enhanced riding skills have brought a new dimension to my motorcycle riding, and some understanding of California DMV bureaucratic procedures—although that’s a story for another day.

Having been out on a few rides since this enjoyable training and testing day, I now realize what a change there has been to my riding. I’ve received comments from riding buddies about my increased skills. The Total Control 1-Day Premier Course has made a huge mental and physical difference to my riding. I feel the progress in my confidence and control, which can only mean a safer riding career.

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