Passing the Pennsylvania Motorcycle Road Test 2017 and Nailing the Dreaded Figure 8

©Slater Harrison All reproductions must cite the author and link/cite this original URL. Although this article is about the Pennsylvania test, you might find some of it helpful even for other tests.

When I lived in the county of Bangladesh, we had to ride motorcycles because the roads were bad during the monsoon season. But I didn’t have a license when I got back to the U.S. I could have taken an MSF course, but I already knew everything (ha ha; so I thought)! There were practice tests for the written test that you take to get a learners permit (good for 1 year), but I really didn’t know what was coming for the road test. Here is what I learned.

Where I live in Williamsport, PA, the road test consists of 3 figure-8s within a box, weaving through pylons and getting up to 3rd gear and downshifting at least once—within a certain length. Of these tests, the figure-8 was the most difficult and panic inducing. I practiced for a while in the box, only to learn that because I have a 250 cc machine I have to use a box that’s 15 feet smaller. The box was even on a slope. Impossible!

Well, I learned some good tricks. You still have to practice. And the really good news is that when you combine the tricks and practice, you will be a better, more skilled, safer driver at the slower speeds (and you’ll stop looking like a dork at slow speeds).

The box for smaller cycles is 30’ by 35’ (bigger machines get 30 by 50). One person suggested riding the rear brake. That helped a little when I tried to make the tight turns. Maybe it was just my bike, but the throttle seems to be slow to deliver when I’m about to topple over, and very jerky. I was always having to put my foot down, and several times almost laid the bike down. Having the brake on all the time lets you get a burst of speed when you need it, just by letting off on the brake. But I found a better way.

That first strategy that really helped was going into second gear and using the clutch. I know this is probably rough on the clutch, but do you want to pass the test or not? For whatever reason, the power is always there. Gone were the jerks and foot-downs that I experience in first gear. And try that for the weaving through the cones part, too. But there were 3 other things that got me over the top of the figure 8.

The second trick is better known, but did you know that “look where you want to be, not where you are” also works at slow speeds? Like magic! By getting into the habit of looking to the side where I wanted to stay within a line or corner, somehow it worked.

The third trick is just to pass the test--very specific to the method of testing: the box (although the skills learned are valuable, it’s unlikely that we’ll be doing figure-8s)! It’s a way of using the rectangle space efficiently. You enter the rectangle and head toward one back corner (the DMV person did not care which way I started—clockwise or counterclockwise). That first corner is no big deal; but from it you head to the other back corner and that one matters! Hug it, making a tight turn. It might be a good idea to verify with the DMV guy that you can touch the lines with your tires—as long as you don’t cross over them. And at this point stop thinking of the figure-8 as two circles stuck together. You will have to use space in the box creatively. Take the second corner almost touching the lines and turn you eyes toward a point in the middle the other side of the rectangle. Ideally, you will turn tightly enough that you backtrack a little toward the back of the rectangle. Then another tight turn and you are turning your head again, looking at the front line. If you did a good job that front line will be easy, so you get a little break before you have to thread the needle again.

Yes, my drawings are out of scale, but I’m concentrating too much to be able to know my exact path. If you think it would be helpful to have a friend with a quadracopter/camera take a video of the path and speed from above, let me know. If enough people think it would be worthwhile, I’ll do it.

I would wish you good luck, but with enough practice you WILL nail the dastardly Pennsylvania Figure-8—luck and nervousness will retreat to play only a minor role!

After that, it’s just the same thing over and over. If you put your foot down or cross a line DON’T PANIC!!  Even if you loose points you might still pass. The other 2 tests following are far easier. I almost forgot to put my visor down, but in the end I aced the test.

The last trick I discovered because, even when I was good enough to navigate the figure-8, it always took me a couple of tries to get in the grove. Do you know any athlete who does not warm up? We are talking about a physically demanding activity, so try to find a way to warm up before the test. Just driving there isn't enough. Try to find a way to do some figure 8s, preferably within the box. And don't let your machine sit for more than 15 minutes--it should be warmed up too.

I wear leg braces so I can’t move my ankles at all. I didn’t think I’d be able to ride a cycle with foot shifting again. It looks a bit odd when I shift by throwing my leg outward, but it works. The point is (as in all of life, grasshopper) seek out knowledge from multiple sources, test the ideas and then practice until your arms and legs fall off. Do that, and even with some disadvantages beyond your control, the impossible will become possible.

Slater on his motorcycle with packages in his backpack and pannier, bound to the cycle and also some in his jacket