CORVALLIS - Steve Garets directs the best-kept secret at Oregon State University.

It's a safety program that has trained nearly 20,000 Oregonians, a dozen at a time. Students average 35 years of age. It offers courses to 98 percent of its potential Oregon students 50 miles or less from their homes - within 90 days of registering. Its main office is at OSU, but it offers no classes on campus and receives neither state general funds nor university funds. And it may have helped save literally hundreds of lives.

Garets directs Team Oregon, a motorcycle safety program that recently celebrated its 14th birthday.

"It was given that name to reflect the team approach to motorcycle safety in the state," Garets said. "You have to get a bunch of people involved. Insurance companies, schools, motorcycle groups and law enforcement groups, just to name a few."

In 1984, Oregon legislators required the state to create, fund, support and administer a motorcycle safety program. Garets, a motorcycle safety expert then working out of Idaho, was brought in to do a state needs assessment. He helped Dave Lawson, an OSU professor in health and human performance and a motorcycle safety advocate, write a training grant to the Oregon Department of Transportation. The grant was approved and Garets was hired to run the program.

Team Oregon runs exclusively on tuition and the Department of Motor Vehicles fee for a motorcycle endorsement, with some help from donations.

OSU employees train instructors and staff a mobile program that serves students in 13 locations statewide. Four community colleges - Chemeketa, Lane, Linn-Benton and Portland's Sylvania campus - offer classes through semi-autonomous Team Oregon programs. The Sylvania training site taught more students than any other such program in the U.S. last year.

Team Oregon has classes for beginners, experienced riders, law enforcement personnel, and an advanced rider class that meets on one of two go-cart courses.

Certification for safety instructors is also offered. Some 75 instructors teach classes for Team Oregon, and the program employs the equivalent of six support and administrative staff in five locations.

"We're flying all over the place all the time," Garets said.

Beginning students tend to range from non-riders terrified of motorcycles, eager new motorcycle owners and experienced riders annoyed they have to take the course.

"Everybody comes in with some baggage," Garets said. But experienced riders are sometimes so hooked they become instructors, he said. "Once you give them one piece of information they didn't know, and they go test it and it works for them, they come back and say 'What else do you have for me?'"

Safety exhibits and a speakers bureau reach an estimated 300,000 people a year. Exhibits include a motorcycle embedded in the driver's side of a VW Rabbit. The southern Oregon accident impressed Garets with its worst-case scenario nature--an alcohol-impaired, uninsured rider driving a borrowed motorcycle at 100 mph. (The rider died; two other people were seriously injured).

Garets looks into the causes of motorcycle fatalities each year. Even a decade ago, the statewide training emphasized that a single drink before riding could be deadly.

The year legislators mandated the safety program, there were 87 motorcycle-related deaths. The number of motorcycle-related deaths per year is now in the 24 to 26 range, a 61 percent decline. Oregon has had the lowest motorcycle accident rate in the country for two of the last three years, Garets said. That's a 70 percent drop since 1984.

"With the number of people we have riding, that's phenomenal," he said. About 165,000 Oregonians have motorcycle endorsements.

Garets can't prove that his program has been responsible for those drops. But the feedback he receives and his own experience convinces him that the training makes a difference.

"They're entrusting their safety into our care, and we take that responsibility very seriously," he said. "You have to balance bringing people along in their riding skills and giving them the ability to form judgments that will save their lives . . . and still have fun."

More information about Team Oregon, including its class schedule, is available at (800) 545-9944, or by writing Strand Agricultural Hall 216, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore. 97331-2216.

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Steve Garets, 541-737-3845