In her early twenties, Diane Howells knew she loved motorcycles. She also knew she was tired of riding on the back. But if she was going to ride, she was going to be safe. She took a course in motorcycle safety in her home state of Vermont alongside classmates Ben and Jerry, the ice cream kings. In 1997, the duo agreed to finance Howells’s documentary on female motorcyclists entitled, Motorcycle Diaries. That film was featured in the Guggenheim Museum’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit designed by Frank Gehry and the Oxygen Network bought the television distribution rights.
Howells traveled all over the East Coast during the filming and the entire process of learning how to ride and teaching others changed her life. “That experience led me to look for a job in something I was passionate about,” she said. Knowing the importance of safety, in 1999 she founded the Motorcycle Safety School, now the largest training school in New York State with three locations and thirty employees. Entering its tenth year, the school is viewed as a pioneer in motorcycle education and rider safety and has seen more than 22,000 students pass through its doors. In 2008 alone, Howells’s school trained 6,000 students.
“Last year, because of the gas crisis, people were trying to save money,” Howells said. Forget Hell’s Angels and Biker Chicks. “Motorcycle riding is becoming more of a mainstream activity, more acceptable,” Howells said. “It’s no longer seen as a rebel activity.”
The average age of students in the school is late thirties. The oldest person is eighty-three, and the youngest, sixteen, who was able to enroll with parental permission. The reason they want to ride? “You hear every story imaginable,” said Howells with a laugh. Women make up 22 percent of those enrolled in the Motorcycle Safety School. “Women now have the means to purchase their own motorcycles. And it’s fun.”
Many women opt for scooters, like the Vespa, which are smaller, lighter and, let’s face it, sexier. “We didn’t see them at all a few years ago,” she said. Howells stressed that’s it’s just as important for scooter riders to learn safety. “The tires are thinner and there is less traction,” she said. “They could be a little riskier.”
The two-day course at Howells’s school focuses on helping the rider learn safety to obtain a motorcycle license. Students learn how to brake and turn. “Most accidents happen at slow speeds,” she said. “It’s all about maneuvering.” She added: “Riding around Manhattan is a lot more dangerous. You have to always watch.”
Learning how to ride correctly is essential. “Riding incorrectly may mean an accident, even death,” she said. As with driving a car, motorcyclists should never drink and drive. “It’s also necessary to wear proper gear,” she added. New York State law requires riders, both drivers and passengers, to wear helmets. It seems obvious, but people are much more vulnerable on a motorcycle than in a car, she noted.
Howells did not set out to be the motorcycle queen. At Boston College, she majored in international business and, because she loved to travel, thought she might become a diplomat. She realized she could still enjoy travel without making it into a job. And she had always been entrepreneurial. Starting a business seemed the right move. Her family was supportive. “My dad had a motorcycle growing up,” she said. “They like what I’ve done, and, at this point, I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Howells manages to fit some of her own riding into her busy schedule by racing motorcycles at the Pocono Raceway in south Jersey.
She will be getting married in August in Vermont, but there’s no chance the two will tie the knot while on bikes. Her fiancé, a hedge fund manager, does not ride. “I’m the risk taker,” she said. “He’s the voice of reason.”
For more information on Howells’s school, go to www.ridemss.com
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