A Guide to the Basics of Motorcycle Safety Gear
Buying gear can be overwhelming: dealerships and online superstores are full of
expensive products promising to combine style with protection, but what do we really
need? Find out where it’s safe to be frugal – and where pinching pennies will cost you
more in the long run.
One of the major benefits to riding motorcycles is the increased sensory stimulation:
scents and sounds that would otherwise be muted by the confines of a car come alive
around us. Of course, that same lack of restriction also increases exposure to the
elements and therefore to danger. Because of this, motorcyclists must compensate with
wearable protective gear.
The good news: Motorcycle safety gear is by no means in short supply. Catalogs,
online retailers, and motorcycle dealerships all offer a variety of goodies and
accessories designed to protect riders.
The bad news: Rarely does motorcycle gear come cheap, and the inundation of
products can make it difficult to tell the difference between essential and superfluous.
That’s why we are here to help. Let’s take a look at the basics of motorcycle gear for a
greater understanding of what you need to ride and what you can skip.
While not all states (or countries) make wearing helmets mandatory, protecting the skull
from impact should be a top priority for riders of all skill levels and disciplines. A full-face
(integrated visor) helmet offers the best protection but does so with a few shortcomings,
namely increased weight and decreased environmental interaction.
Wearing partial coverage helmets allows for more direct environmental interaction but
makes eye protection like goggles or glasses a necessity.
Some modular (convertible) helmets are dual-certified as both full-face and open-face
status, where the chin bar can be locked into place while riding but “flipped up” or
removed entirely when stopped.
According to research conducted in 2008 on motorcycle riders who had crashed, results
concluded that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by roughly 69% and fatality by
Motorcycle helmets contain decals on the back indicating the degree of safety
certification performed. DOT represents the United States Department of Transportation
safety certification. It is the minimum requirement for any approved motorcycle helmet
and must be clearly displayed for the purchaser and/or an officer of the law. Snell is an
independent testing laboratory which tests helmets more rigorously and stricter than the
DOT standard. If a helmet doesn’t wear either label, do not purchase it or use it for
Not only are gloves essential for debris protection and temperature insulation, they
serve as an invaluable purpose in the event of a crash, where we instinctually attempt to
break our fall with our palms. Wearing gloves can reduce the risk of injury to the hands
by 45% and reduces the risk of open wounds by 73% http://www.defense.gov/home/pdf/0412_militaryrider/DYK_USMC2.pdf. Additionally, a decent pair of
gloves reduces risk of burns when performing simple maintenance in and around a hot
engine compartment. Finally, studies link colder temperatures and skin exposure to
delayed motor response. In an environment where fractions of a single second can
make a difference, keeping digits warm is invaluable.
Jackets & Pants
Like with helmets, there is no universal set standard when it comes to selection of
clothing when operating a motorcycle. Motorcyclists have traditionally been associated
with the use of leather for this simple reason: Not only does leather offer resistance to
the wind when traveling at highway speeds, it is surprisingly beneficial in diffusing
friction from the road in the event of a crash. These days, synthetics and polymers in
textiles offer alternatives to genuine cow skin but the goals when assembling a riding
outfit remain unchanged.
While footwear is a personal preference, there are factors (such as a non-skid sole and
oil resistance) to seriously consider when making a selection. Wearing the proper
motorcycle boots can reduce the risk of injury by 45% and reduce the risk of an open
wound by 90% http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/unsafehelmetid/pages/page2.htm.
Leather work boots can work in a pinch, but purpose-built motorcycling gear is
preferable because the toe-box is typically lower-profile than a typical work boot. This
makes getting a foot under the shift-lever less cumbersome. Additionally, specifically
placed lugs are designed to keep feet on foot pegs. Ankle protection against impact and
twisting is usually accomplished through ergonomically designed plates. Finally, the risk
of laces coming untied and entangled during a ride is avoided by plastic or metal
enclosures typically found on riding boots.
While we covered the essentials that no motorcyclist should consider riding without, this
is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to protective gear on the market today. The
good news is that with a little common sense, deciphering what is crucial and what you
can do without isn’t a daunting task.
Beyond the Basics
Back and Chest Protectors
Full protector jackets (or racing suits) are the absolute best bet from a safety standpoint.
Full protector jackets offer friction resistant outer materials and an air chamber. The
trouble, however, is twofold: they tend to contain heat and are rarely cheap. The good
news? Many of their qualities can be duplicated through individual back, chest, and
neck protectors designed to keep the spine safe. These protectors attach around the
waist and the neck and are worn under your jacket. Using these protectors will reduce
the risk of injury by 23% and a 63% reduction of an open wound injury http://www.defense.gov/home/pdf/0412_militaryrider/DYK_USMC2.pdf.
If the thought of adding additional layers to your riding gear cramps your style, some
degree of spinal safety can be attained through armor inserts for your riding jacket. Most
riding jackets come standard with a removable spine protector insert.
Elbow and Knee Guards
While dedicated riding gear often includes some degree of joint protection, riders who
only sport leather or denim need to protect their elbows and knees. Separate knee and
elbow guards are available in a wide variety of shapes, styles (over or under clothing)
and price points. These key areas of the body are often damaged in a crash: 50% of
crashed riders injured their knees, with 56% of crashed riders having arm injuries http://www.transport.wa.gov.au/mediaFiles/licensing/LBU_DL_B_GoodGearGuide.pdf.
Just like helmets’ DOT & Snell certification, motorcycle protective components should
boast a CE certification (for Conformité Européenne). Never purchase or use gear that
lack this standard.
Fatigue, especially during long rides, has been linked to the droning sound of air rushing
around the helmet. An affordable and simple solution is to use foam earplugs, which are
typically sold in disposable and reusable varieties.
Riding a motorcycle is exhilarating, exciting, and life changing. However, it is also
dangerous. Make sure you are wearing the proper gear before heading out on your
bike. Preparing for a safe ride – without breaking the bank – is the first step to enjoying
the open road!