I would like to think that I am uniquely qualified to answer this question, having spent roughly equal parts of my life living in both countries. After I moved to the US in 1999, I actually had a sixteen year hiatus from motorbikes. This was mainly because I found out that I’d have to do the whole test again and I was not thrilled by that prospect.
Getting Your License in the UK
Worth it to ditch the 'L' plates
At this point it might be prudent to take a deeper dive into the whole bike test question, as my experience in the U.K. was drastically different to over here. Simply put, in England the training was hardcore. It consisted of an intensive 3 day program comprised of (if memory serves me correctly) a day in a training compound practicing the usual beginner stuff (slalom, emergency stops, obstacles and falling off) followed by 2 days of instructed road riding. During this, a group of us, connected by radio, would be riding around the busy city streets receiving directions from an instructor who brought up the rear. I managed to get myself lost on one of these expeditions and spent 20 minutes buzzing around a strange city center in my florescent vest, getting the occasional blast of garbled radio transmission in my ear whenever I was within half a mile of the rest of the group. Not my finest hour.
The test itself took place at the end of the third day and consisted of 30 minutes of riding solo in front of the examiner, obeying his directions while everything you did was scrutinized intensively. Intimidating is the word that springs to mind. I passed (from memory about 50% of the class did) and was euphoric, but it was a frazzling experience. One other thing I should mention is that everyone who went through that class had been riding (using learner plates) for at least a few weeks before the process begun, so had an understanding of the mechanics of operating a motorcycle.
Consequently, the idea of doing all that AGAIN was one that I found very easy to push off and suddenly a decade and a half had passed. Now, if I had known then, what I know now about the US test, I might not have waited so long…
You see, when I finally dragged myself along to the two day MSF training I was amazed to find that there was no requirement for any real world road riding, no observational and signaling drilling and no extended one on one examination. All we were judged on was carpark maneuvering, obstacle avoidance, emergency stopping and some other nuts and bolts stuff. We only touched upon using mirrors and turn signals as an afterthought and never got out of third gear or hit speeds higher than 15 mph. At the time I was pleasantly surprised and relieved by this, but since then, I’m a little more conflicted. The instructors were great people and thoroughly competent, but I was astonished that all but one of us (including some of whom had never ridden a motorbike before the weekend) were judged as fit to get on any bike we could afford and enter the frenzied melee that is Northern New Jersey's road ‘system’. This leads me neatly onto my next point;
After You Have Your License
It ain't going to set your (or anyone else's) pants on fire
When you pass your test in the UK, you are limited to a 42 horsepower bike for your first 2 years of riding. The idea of course, being that your right wrist has to earn the responsibility to safely take itself and the rest of your body into ballistic territory. Now here in the ‘Land Of The Free’ and the home of the ‘Meh, whatever’ you can clamber onto a 200 bhp on ramp - off ramp missile as soon as you can afford to do so. Again, whether that is awesome or awful is up to you, but it’s certainly demonstrative of a completely different cultural mindset.
If you see one of these guys, run a mile
Back in the UK, a parallel issue the aspiring biker has to deal with is insurance. It's incredibly expensive. In reality, even if the legislation referred to above wasn't stopping you getting a Hayabusa the second you got your license, those faceless excel jockeys with their risk emergence graphs and sliding scales of incidence will get you every time. In short, unless you are corpulently wealthy there is simply NO WAY that any of them will insure an 18 year old for a sports bike. Or a sporty bike, or even a 600cc twin that will pant up to mildly devilish speeds from time to time. Essentially if you are young, and especially if you are in a city, you are simply stuck on low powered machines until you have accumulated enough years to be considered a lower risk insurance proposition. This means that the truly capable machines are for bedroom walls only until you run down that aging clock. If you are in London or another major metropolitan area you are probably not going to get to jump on a desirable bike until your 30’s. There’s no conflict for me on this one - it sucks for UK riders.
I can't bear to look
Americans are, how shall I say it, a little more ‘cavalier’ about safety than their English moto-brothers. It still absolutely blows my mind when I see people not wearing a helmet (where state laws allow). I know it's all about freedom and choice etc, but, are the rewards really worth the risk? The UK government doesn't think so - ‘lids are a must. And those outlaw style half helmets that are so popular with the hog fraternity are not permissible on UK roads. It's the full face or a sad face back there. I’m good with that.
On the same topic, I can't help but wince when I see a guy bombing past me on a sports bike in shorts and a tee shirt (normally windblown up to the middle of his back). Unless of course this charming view is blocked by a girl perched behind him in even less suitable attire, hanging on for dear life. It’s not mandated by law to wear protective clothing in the UK but pretty well everyone does. Admittedly it gets a lot hotter here so that, I am sure, is a factor in some people's decision making. But, you gotta wear the right kit in my opinion, every time, rain or shine.
Speed limits, Bribes and Overtaking.
Sir, I feel your pain
I do seem to hear the word ‘Freedom’ bandied about pretty frequently over here. Seems it’s somewhat of a national preoccupation… so why hasn’t anyone made this clear to the people who plan the nation’s roads? I am talking SPEED LIMITS people. Why, in the country where ‘Freedom Reigns’ are you obliged to ride at 30 mph on roads that would be designated as 60 mph in the UK? Why are you constantly assailed with signs advising taking the next mild bend at no more than 15 mph when it’s easily and safely navigable at twice that speed?
I was in at the court building recently paying what amounts to a legalized bribe to prevent having a speeding ticket registered on my license (something else that would not be permissible in the UK, or most other countries, but I digress). While I was there, I saw people who had been issued tickets for 2 or 3 mph over the limit.
That Is Crazy. Almost makes you think that that the issuing of tickets in many instances is more of a revenue making tool for the local police force / city hall, not a road safety measure. Where I come from, you usually have to be at least 10 mph over the (already much more reasonable) speed limit to be worried about getting a ticket. Under that speed, if you are pulled over, it would only be a for a sarcastic “Now who have we got here, Valentino Rossi? This is not a race track etc etc” type lecture from the cop.
But by far my biggest beef is with the miserable individuals who decide where Thou Shalt and Shalt Not Overtake. It's completely out of control. In whose interest can it be that perfectly straight stretches of road are scored with double yellow lines for miles, leaving you no lawful choice than to follow Old Man McClusky down the road in a 45 mph zone at 25 mph just because he's got chickens in the back of his pick up and he doesn't want them popping out eggs as he goes round the corners. Surely there must be a petition somewhere that I can sign? Where are the marches in the streets? On what forum can I leave a snarky comment under an amusing but thought-provoking pseudo name?
Noise and Responsibility
Won't someone think of the children!
Ok let's end on a more positive note as no one loves a whiner. Especially a British one. If the safety culture here is more permissive, the attitude to bikes with, shall we say, ‘acoustically enhanced’ exhaust pipes certainly is too. In the UK you simply don't get away with running bikes (or cars) that are significantly louder than standard. It's called a ‘disturbance of the peace’ and brother, they come down hard on it. The first time you get pulled over for a loud end can you will get a fine and be told to fit a quieter or stock one within 30 days. If you fail to do this and are pulled over again (and you will be), things escalate pretty quickly into vehicle confiscation territory. Seems like over here you can do what you want, which is I think is….oh let’s say 85% cool. I’m as much of a sucker for a sports bike with a cultured howl from a carbon end can as the next man, but a lot of what I hear is just eyeball rattling-ly loud. Not exotic or sporty. There’s a difference.
The worst offenders though, are some of the local Harley contingent, as there seem to be a sizable chunk of them who have NO sound deadening at all and the bikes are just murderously loud, especially when roaring through the building lined streets of my neighborhood. It's seriously enough to scare people and I’ve seen little kids so startled and frightened that they start crying when a bike that sounds like a contestant at the local tractor pull roars down the street. It doesn't give bikers a good name and I can’t help thinking it's very selfish of the owners.
There, I’ve just about covered it. And I’ve managed to completely avoid mentioning the unfortunate fact that you all drive on the wrong side of the road over here. I’m heading out now with a can of black paint and a brush to deal with some of those ridiculous double yellow lines on my favorite road….Ride safe.
No test rides for you buddy
I had a surprise when I was at the dealer looking at a bike with a view to buying. I forget exactly what it was (probably some big Kawasaki, knowing me), but I asked the sales rep whether I could take it for a test ride.
‘No sir’, was the answer.
‘But what if I don't like it’?
‘Well, you could sell it’.
‘So I couldn’t get a refund’? (look, I know this is ridiculous but I was trying to make a point).
This is a little odd. How on earth can I spend multiple thousands of bucks on a bike if I don't know if I’ll enjoy riding it? Needless to say, this is not how it is in the UK.
That incident made me think that it might be a great idea to put together a website that would feature real world bike reviews.
So I did.