So you want to ride a motorcycle... and not die

Lets be totally clear here. The statistics say that your are roughly as likely to get in an accident while driving a motorcycle as you are while driving a car. The obvious difference being that a car has a safety cage, and a motorcycle has, well… nothing. So, if you have a brain, you’re going to want to take steps to compensate for that missing safety cage. There’s no guarantee any of this will keep you from dying but it’ll seriously increase your chances of survival. For some quick & easy to digest stats on motorcycle safety check out the Gear Up! Project

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a racer. I’m not a manufacturer or a scientist. I am someone who’s ridden tens of thousands of miles over a variety of terrains in 14 (and counting) countries. Everything here is purely my opinion based on the research I’ve done. I’m compiling it here in hopes that it’ll save you from having to do quite as much digging as I’ve had to do. Before we get started I’d like to point you to WebBikeWorld.com It’s filled with tons of useful information and reviews and something you should definitely bookmark.

Visibility

The majority of this article is devoted to things that will keep you safer in a crash. But, wouldn’t it be better to avoid the crash in the first place? In 2004 a study was published that compared rider conspicuity and crash related injuries.

After adjustment for potential confounders, drivers wearing any reflective or fluorescent clothing had a 37% lower risk … than other drivers. Compared with wearing a black helmet, use of a white helmet was associated with a 24% lower risk… Self reported light coloured helmet versus dark coloured helmet was associated with a 19% lower risk.

I don’t know about other countries but in the U.S. riding motorcycles is so consistently associated with looking cool that riders not only prefer dark colors (primarily black) in their gear, they practically demand it of manufacturers. And yet, one of the most consistent pieces of advice you hear is to “assume you are invisible.” With just a little bit of searching you’ll find tons of posts in blogs and message boards of motorcyclists who have made unquestionable eye contact with the driver of a car only to have that driver continue to head straight for them as if they didn’t exist, or riders who have been clipped by mirrors of cars passing too close.

We need to take every measure possible to stand out. To not only be seen, but to snap people out of their no-think patterns. While I heartily agree that most of that black gear does look cool, you have to ask your self which looks cooler: high visibility gear, or skin grafts over 55% of your body. For me the choice is obvious. Get the high-viz gear, a light colored bike, add some retro-reflective stickers to your helmet (look for 3M Scotchlite stickers at any auto parts store), ignore the advice of squids, and ride like you’re invisible.

If you’re mumbling something to yourself about there being no way you’ll go out looking like a dork, don’t worry, there are manufacturer’s like Rev-It who make some light colored gear that looks damn good. But, you’re going to pay.

In addition to visibility there’s a good post at Motoblag about the other “layers of protection” that help keep you from ever getting into an accident.

Armor

Armor is, of course, critical. If the armor is worth buying it’s CE rated. There’s CE level 1, 2, and 3. Most things are Level one rated which is a hell of a lot better than nothing but you really want to shoot for two because it transmits one half as much energy to you upon impact. Level three is for racing and I have yet to encounter any consumer level stuff that’s rated level 3. As with most things Wikepedia has a nice article that covers the basics. Ratings refer to kilonewtons, and in case you don’t know, “A kiloNewton (kN) is a measure of force, rather than a measure of static weight or mass. Force is calculated by multiplying mass by acceleration. One kiloNewton equals approximately 100kg when the accelerating force of gravity is acting on it.”

“Armor can be placed into one of three categories with level 1 armor being the least protective and level 3 being the most protective. Level 1 armor is rated at 50 joules, level 2 at 75 joules, and level 3 at 100 joules. In order to achieve a rating armor must be able to absorb that amount of energy in an impact and transmit less than 35 kN of force. “

Padding is not armor. There are a lot of motorcycle jackets out there with a little foam padding down over your spine. This is totally useless. It doesn’t hurt to have, but it doesn’t help either.

The next question is “what to armor?” The answer is, absolutely everything you can. Jackets will typically have shoulder, elbow, and fore-arm armor. Which leaves your spine and chest unprotected… pfft, who needs a spine or internal organs! So, you’re going to need to compensate. There are some companies that make form fitting, comfortable spine and chest protectors that won’t leave you looking like a football player.

Knox is the brand you’ll see pretty much everywhere. Here’s a video showing some Knox back and chest armor. Pants will typically have knee and shin protection but no hip. The only separate hip armor I’ve seen has been, essentially, armor shoved into pockets on bicycle shorts (Knox makes this too), and while I can envision putting on such a garment when suiting up for a motorcycle race, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to don such a thing for their daily commute to work, or regular weekend rides. You can get neck braces, and they’re a great idea, but I’ve honestly never seen anyone use one who wasn’t in the middle of a race.

One thing to note about back armor is that most motorcycle related spinal injuries are a result of twisting the spine. Back armor will not help in this situation, However, people have been throw off and landed flat on their back, and having some nice impact absorbing armor along your spinal column is definitely going to help in falls like that.

Garment Materials

Here it’s pretty simple. Your three best choices are Cordura/Dynatech, Kevlar, and SuperFabric. Cordura (like all cloth) comes in various Deniers which has a variety of related definitions which essentially mean how dense the fabric is. The higher the number the better. I’ve seen garments with denier’s of 2000. Denim Jeans and 70 denier nylon require 4.5 pounds of force to tear. That’s it. That’s nothing. 620 denier takes 35 pounds which still doesn’t sound like a lot to me when you crash at highway speed. 1000 denier is 110 pounds which is getting better and is about the same as really good, new leather, but it’s still not much when you compare it to good kevlar which requires over 1,200 pounds to tear and SuperFabric which claims to have 14 times the abrasion resistance of kevlar.

There aren’t many manufacturers that offer Kevlar, and right now RevIt is the only company I’ve heard of that’s using SuperFabric. It should be noted that SuperFabric doesn’t appear to be a fabric so much as it is a means of welding microscopic pieces of ceramic onto other fabrics to imbue them with the the incredible heat resistance and abrasion properties of ceramics.

What’s important about this is that the harder it is for your suit to tear the less likely the road (or whatever else you’re rolling over) will have a chance to scrape away flesh.

There is, however, a subtle issue that doesn’t get nearly enough talk-time. Melting. The friction of your weight being shoved across asphalt at 60+ mph is severe and uickly converts into a lot of heat. What’s worse than road rash? Road rash with plastic melted into it. So, do your research and avoid suits that are made from polyester. On a related note I’ve read anecdotal evidence that if you’ve got something like good Kevlar, that won’t melt, the heat will still be there and possibly melt any polyester clothing you’re wearing under it.

Leather is, always a popular choice, and has really good abrasion resistance (not Kevlar good but…), and obviously won’t melt, but not all leathers are created equal. Some leather is supple and soft and feels oh so comfy, and as a result does a crappy job of protecting you. Also, leather alone only provides abrasion resistance. It won’t keep you from breaking bones.

Racing leather is good (or they wouldn’t race in it) but the more you use it and break it it becomes softer and more flexible which decreases its ability to protect you. But who wants to put on a skin tight leather one-piece to go to the store? No-one I can think of. There is some good gear out there made from leather, that can be easily thrown on over normal pants, and has good armor. Don’t forget the fact that most leather is just plain hot in the summer. Also, leather absorbs water, which makes it heavier, and more uncomfortable. No, opening your jacket is not a viable solution to the heat problem. This exposes your chest and means that the coat could get pulled down your arm and off the shoulder, which would, in turn, move the armor away from your elbow and forearm and spine (if it had spine protection to begin with).

Chaps will help with abrasion on your legs but personally, if I had to choose between having my butt scraped off or my legs I’d choose my legs. I appreciate the ability to sit down. Anecdotally I have heard comments from doctors about having treated a number of riders with missing butt skin as a result of chaps.

Denim… If it wasn’t obvious from the numbers above denim, anywhere on you body, is brain-dead stupid and offers you no real protection whatsoever. You may as well be naked. Yes some manufacturers make denim jackets with good armor, but what’s the point if the material holding the armor is so easy to tear that the armor could be ripped out of it in an instant? While this may be unlikely (I doubt anyone’s tested it), I’m not willing to risk it.

I haven’t been able to track down any specs on the tear resistance of “waxed cotton”. But, here are some things to consider. The friction that arises during a crash is instantly converted into a lot of heat. Wax melts very easily, and at temperatures that can instantly melt 500 denier cordura it’s relatively safe to assume that the wax is going to melt away and leave you wearing what is essentially thick jeans material. However, it’s still cotton and cotton was never designed for high tear resistance. I’d expect the tear resistance to be slightly higher than jeans, but not enough to make any realistic difference when dealing with the forces at play.

Regardless of what material you choose it’s important that you get something that has lots of good venting so that you won’t be tempted to leave it at home on those hot days. Color also plays a factor here. Dark colors are not only harder to see but also absorb heat more and make you hotter. If you live in a colder part of the world you may want to consider getting separate winter and summer gear, or gear with a separate rain liner and thermal liner. See [Thermal Regulation][] for additional details.

Helmets

When it comes to helmets there are three certifications: DOT (required to use in the US), Snell (independent standards body), and the ECE 22-05. There’s a great deal of controversy over the validity of Snell certification for motorcycle. Motorcyclist Online does a good job of explaining the problem with a series of recent tests they did.

The end result is that if you’re concerned about the number of Gs that will be passed on to your brain during a crash you anything DOT approved is decent, anything ECE 22-05 is better. Making helmets that meet the unrealistic Snell tests results in harder helmets that tend to pass on more Gs to you, BUT they still pass DOT so they’re still decent. In the end, when all the helmets are whacked with hard things, the cost of a helmet has no bearing on how safe it’ll keep you.

The price difference between helmets pretty much determines which bells and whistles you get. Like lighter materials, fancy paint jobs, LED lights on the back, easy to remove washable clean liners, or visors designed to not fog in the dead of winter.

It should be obvious, but if safety is your concern your only choice is a full face helmet with chin guard. The two non-obvious things that I may have conceptually grasped when I was a new rider but never truly appreciated then was just how much of a pain in the ass the sun and fogged visors can be.

Sun:

You can’t flip down a shade to keep the direct sun out of your eyes like you can in a car. With most helmets you’re stuck with whatever vizor you happen to have on at the moment the sun appears. If your helmet is form fitting (as it should be) you may find that (sun)glasses don’t work as well as you’d wish because they get moved up or down a little by the padding. My recommendation is to invest in a tinted visor. But, if you ride at night too you’re going to want a helmet that lets you switch it for a clear one really easily. This is where something like Scorpion’s SpeedShift comes in handy. It makes it very easy to pop off the current visor and replace it. Scorpion and HJC (and others?) make helmets with retractable inner sun-visors, which is extremely cool. I’d love to get my hands on one of those for this summer. If you know of another manufacturer with a similar feature, please let me know.

Fogged visors:

It’s not as much of an issue in the summer but if you find yourself riding in cool weather this is a massive pain in the ass. With my old helmet I’d have to lift the visor at every stop-light or it would totally fog over and then put it down again when I started moving lest I freeze. Scorpion is also well known for helmets that don’t fog easily. It’s partly the coating on their visors, and partly the way they direct air over, or away from, them. They also make a snow helmet with a two paned visor with built in electric heating element.

Rear view mirrors:

Side mirrors are notorious, on street bikes, for giving you a great view of your elbows. What you really want, is a rear-view mirror. Currently only Reevu makes a helmet with a built in rear-view mirror. It’s very cool, but it’s also pricey and hard to get in the U.S.. *

WebBikeWorld has a good helmet FAQ that you should definitely read.*

Boots

Motorcycle boots are a lot like ski boots. You want to keep your ankle from twisting, prevent the heel or ankle bones from damage upon impact, and have a material that will survive being dragged across the road. The things you want that a ski-boot doesn’t offer are the ability to more-easily bend your ankle vertically (for shifting), nice grippy bottoms, the ability to walk like a human. Most tall boots will also provide you with good shin protection, coming up to just below the bottom edge of your knee armor. Everything else is style, and there are a lot of styles to choose from. Most of the armor in boots isn’t CE rated, and manufacturers aren’t consistent in what armor to include. I would advise looking for boots with malleolus (ankle bone) armor, as it can save your ankle bone from being seriously hurt and is a strong indicator of a boot made with your protection in mind. I’d have broken my ankle if not for the malleolus armor in my boots.

When choosing a boot don’t forget about waterproofing. Boots can become very waterlogged very quickly and riding in them is a surprisingly unpleasant sensation. However, waterproof boots don’t ventilate well, so if your feet tend to sweat profusely, you may want to just deal with the sloshing pools of water around your feet when you inevitably ride in the rain.

Tall boots, obviously, provide more protection, but there are few manufacturers that make boots specifically for women, and women tend to have wider calves than men with the same sized foot. As a result, many women will find that they have to go with a short boot simply to accomodate their calves.

Don’t forget your laces! Racing boots don’t have laces. There’s a really good reason for this. Your laces can get caught on a peg, or go flapping around in the wind, get caught in the chain, make you crash, and tie your foot to the falling bike so you can’t get off. Oxtar makes a bunch of shoes you could walk around town in but have built in protection AND something to cover the laces, but unless it goes up your leg a bit it won’t help prevent twisted ankles well. If your boots have laces, always tuck them under.

Gloves

The main thing to consider about gloves is the temperature you’re going to use them in. You’ll probably want a summer and winter pair because, speaking from experience, riding in the cold, with the wrong gloves, is a painful experience, and it slows down your hand’s reaction times. I’ve never seen gloves with CE rated armor, as it’s probably nigh-impossible to create ones that anyone would wear. Some have hard carbon fiber and / or Kevlar protection on the knuckles and back of the hand, but I haven’t seen any winter gloves like this. You’re going to want to keep your eyes open for gloves that protect your wrist (Gauntlets) and offer some protection for the end of your ulna (the outside bone in your forearm).

As a programmer I would be screwed without the use of my hands, so I always wear full leather gloves with some sort of extra padding or armor across the back and fingers (mine have Kevlar too) to keep them as safe as I can. Waterproofing is even more important in gloves than it is in boots because they’re right out there in the front getting pounded with water, but it’s pretty hard to get right, and if a glove is waterproof it means it’s not going to breathe well, so you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. My advice is to invest in some waterproofing spray, and maybe consider different gloves for rain vs. dry if your hands tend to get sweaty. Boots at least get a little rain protection from the angle you hold them at (or from the front of a scooter).

Tires

Tires make a huge difference. Just like a car there are different tires for different conditions. What’s more notable is how little tire a motorcycle has touching the road. The less you have touching the ground the more critical it is that those few inches of rubber are in top condition. Most car drivers can’t really tell the difference between various tires, except maybe when the roads are wet. Not so with motorcycles. Check out this review of the Continental Road Attacks from an experienced rider to get an idea of just how dramatic the change can be with a different tire. When choosing a tire be sure to get one that’s appropriate for how you ride. Some tires are much better suited for wet weather(you can’t tell just by looking at the treads) but some riders never ride in the rain. Some are better if you go off road, but don’t offer a huge benefit to riders who stay on the asphalt. Seek advice and read up before you buy.

One thing that’s frequently overlooked is tire pressure. Tire pressure affects how well you stick and how long your tire lasts. Under-inflated tires can lead to cracks in the grooves that simply can’t be repaired. Motorcycle Cruiser has a good post about what makes a motorcycle tire and 10 tire tips.

Headlight Modulators

I don’t have any personal experience with headlight modulators but there are many people who swear by them and are convinced they’ve saved their lives. If you’re not familiar with them they’re devices that “rapidly [vary] the intensity of a motorcycle headlight from between 20% and 100% of normal steady-burning power.” They also have them for brake lights, blinkers, etc. There is no question that this grabs the attention of humans.

While some (all?) states do have laws prohibiting non-emergency vehicles from having flashing lights FMVSS 108 (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) (49 CFR Part 571.108 S7.9.4) allows motorcycle headlight modulation systems in all 50 states so long as they conform to the standard. Title 49 USC 30103(b1) (US Codes) prohibits any state from forbidding a system that conforms to FMVSS 108. I don’t know how this plays out in other countries. Unfortunately, some local police officers aren’t well informed about this, see someone using “flashing lights” and write a ticket anyway.

Speakers / Earplugs

In some states it’s illegal to use a helmet with speakers (or headphones under a helmet). In MA it’s illegal to even posses a helmet with speakers. Talking on the phone give you worse reaction times than being drunk (no joke). Music is going to make it harder to notice the sounds of bad things happening.

However, there’s definitely something to be said for having a GPS speak directions to you over a Bluetooth headset, especially when you’re going through a series of close turns. I’d much rather pay attention to the road and hear the directions than have to navigate unfamiliar intersections and look down at a moving map.

Earplugs are interesting. When most people think about earplugs they have little to no real experience with them and think that they just make it harder to hear things. But that’s not really the case. Most disposable earplugs primarily cut out excessive high frequencies. Yes, they’re going to reduce your ability to hear quiet things too, but you probably wouldn’t hear that over your exhaust system anyway. You definitely wouldn’t hear it over your exhaust system with music playing loud enough be heard over your that. They’ll also help prevent permanent damage from long term exposure to loud noises (your muffler). If you’ve ever gotten off your bike and realized you couldn’t hear your friends as well as you could when you got on then you’ve actually incurred hearing damage. Generally this isn’t permanent but enough repeated exposures and it will be.

“Hearing damage can be cumulative and permanent, especially at levels above 85dB, a level at which most motorcycle riding takes place.” - WebBikeWorld

WebBikeWorld has a good page on earplugs and hearing protection.

If you don’t believe me about being able to hear well with earplugs try this: Next time you go to watch a rock band play live, stop off at your local drug store and pick up some cheap foam earplugs. Try listening to the concert with and without them. You’ll never go to a concert without them again. Everything sounds clearer and better.

In my experience the custom earplugs created by injecting a quick-setting silicone, or pressing silicone putty into the ears are worth every penny. They are very comfortable, form an excellent seal, and eliminate a huge amount of fatigue from the high volume of road and exhaust noise. They typically cost $50- $60 though, and require tracking down someone who can make them for you (frequently at motorcycle shows) so don’t feel you need to grab some before getting on the bike. Disposable foam earplugs work great for many people.

Things you wouldn’t expect

Water:

When you’re on long summer rides staying hydrated is, without question, and indispensable safety measure. Getting heat stroke on a bike is deadly. When you’re not hydrated enough your body can’t sweat and rapidly begins to overheat. Your body can produce half a gallon of sweat an hour. If you’re not consuming as much as you’re sweating you will overheat. If you think you’ll be sweating at all, get a CamelBak or pull over for regular drink breaks.

Tire Gauge:

I covered tires briefly above, and I highly recommend you read the article I linked to. But, the short short version is to always have a tire gauge and use it before every ride. Know what pressure your tires should be at for wet and dry conditions. Have your own electric pump at home (they’re only like $25) and know which gas stations in your home area have pumps you can use.

Thermal Regulation:

The hot:

Most people just think about staying cool. And that’s definitely important. As I mentioned above it’s important to have gear that isn’t so hot you’ll be tempted to leave it at home. Go for light colors with lots of good ventilation. Make sure your garments have removable liners and wicking material against your skin.

In my experience the size of the vents is not nearly as important as their placement, and the back vents will provide you with a dramatic amount of cooling when opened. I’ve worn full gear through the middle of the desert in summer and I can assure you that good gear keeps you cool, cooler than a t-shirt because your skin isn’t being cooked by the sun. You’ll still be able to sweat and the ventilation will help it to cool you off. Just make sure you’re not squeezed into your jacket like a sausage so that the air can actually flow over you.

Another option is a cooling vest. This is essentially just a vest filled with a water absorbing gel that you soak. You are then cooled via the evaporative cooling. It doesn’t work very well (or at all) in humid areas, and requires a pretty decent air-flow.

The cold:

You’d think that just adding layers would help, and it does, to some degree, but the wind is a killer. It can be surprisingly painful when it finds holes in your coverings. The problem is that as your body temperature drops so do your reaction times. Hands are one part of your body you want to keep nice and toasty because delayed reaction times when grabbing that break lever is not something you want. Get some winter gloves. And if you’re going to be doing any riding in sub 50 deg. (Fahrenheit) weather you should seriously consider getting some heated grips and a heated vest / jacket. These make a huge difference, but before you plug in you have to make sure your bike produces enough extra electricity to power them, otherwise you’ll drain the battery and strand yourself.

Also, get some neck covering. You have a major artery on either side of your throat, not only is the wind painfully cold on your neck in the winter the fact that those arteries cary so much blood and are being exposed to it means the blood they’re pumping to and from your brain is getting cooled. I’d recommend buying a Cyclone Buff for the cold days. A normal thin buff isn’t bad for the rest of the season either because it’ll keep bugs from pinging off your throat, which is never pleasant.

Overall, if you’re going to ride in cooler weather you need gear that is specifically designed to keep your warm and cover you without any holes. You’ll want winter gloves. Many helmet manufacturers offer some sort of plastic chin insert that you can use to keep the air from pouring in and freezing your chin. They also cut down on the road noise. Waterproofing is also important because while highway wind-chill can be incredibly uncomfortable without the right gear you really don’t want to discover what it feels like when you add being wet to the mix. Be sure to look for reviews online before buying. Some gear isn’t all it’s marketed to be.

Conclusion

Looking cool is not a good enough reason to not wear armor, especially not when there’s some excellent protection out there that looks good too, but as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Stay safe, and either spend what it takes to do so or don’t ride. Your life and livelihood are not worth one more ride. Related: I’ve put together a basic overview of what you can expect to pay (at the low end) for the main items here in The Financial Cost of Motorcycle Safety.


If you spot any errors in this post, or things you think could be improved, please let me know so that I can correct them.