How safe is safety gear?

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In the first study of its kind, researchers in Australia have applied hard numbers to the safety gear we wear below our helmets. Surveying motorcyclists who had crashed both with and without injury and with and without items of clothing like boots gloves and jackets, the team was able to piece together a statistical analysis of the benefits of each individual piece. For instance wearing real motorcycle boots was found to reduce the chances of injury by 53 percent.

The study will be published in its entirety in Accident Analysis and Prevention, a trade magazine for the organizations that try and make the world safer. But, key statistical findings have been released in part:

“When garments included fitted body armour there was a significantly reduced risk of any injury. This included a reduced risk of any injury to the upper body by 23%, legs by 39%, hands by 45% and feet by 45%. The results also found riders wearing shoes or joggers had a much higher risk of foot and ankle injuries, as any type of boot reduced risk of injury by 53%.”

The study also determined the kind of impacts in which we’re most often injured:

“While there are limits to the extent clothing can prevent injury in high impact crashes, it is in low impact crashes that protective clothing is thought to offer the greatest injury reduction. There is also evidence that the majority of motorcycle crashes do not involve high impacts.”

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Another interesting takeaway is the frequency with which motorcycle gear fails:

“The results of the study also send a clear message to the manufacturers of motorcycle protective clothing.  The proportion of jackets (29%), pants (28%) and gloves (25%) that failed under crash conditions due to material damage indicates a need for improved quality control.”

To us, those numbers don’t seem to indicate a quality control problem with the right gear, but are rather indicative of the huge disparity in quality and protection between cheap crap and quality gear like I crashed in on Sunday. It stands to reason that an expensive leather jacket made by experts in the field of safety will offer greater injury amelioration than a bargain bin mesh jacket with cheesy foam in place of substantial armor. It seems as if the study has failed to account for that disparity, instead only identifying the presence of motorcycle-specific or non-bike wear. Of course that’d be nearly impossible to do, but it’s worth bearing in mind while considering the results. If jackets can reduce the risk of injury by 23 percent even while 29 percent of them fail, then it stands to reason that a high quality jacket, possibly even equipped with chest and back protection, can reduce that risk substantially further.

“We think it’s vitally important that riders have access to information such as the findings of this study so they can make informed decisions about what they should wear every time they ride,” concluded a motorcycle insurer after being presented with the results. We couldn’t agree more. Knowledge is power.

George Institute

Thanks for the tip, Nick!

  • http://rider49er.blogspot.com Mark D

    Damn, the last few paragraphs really make me want to upgrade my jacket/pant combo. Despite the jacket being A*s and having a new bioarmor back protector, its still a bargain bin mesh jacket…

    I have no idea how people ride without boots and gloves, though. They’re as essential as a helmet to me.

    • HammSammich

      “I have no idea how people ride without boots and gloves, though. They’re as essential as a helmet to me.”

      I completely agree…but when I occasionally cross the state line into ID, I see people riding without gloves, boots or helmets…Madness!

      • Eric

        I live in CT (no helmet law). There isn’t a decent riding day that goes by that I don’t see many people in t-shirts, shorts no helmet. It’s baffling really.

        • Erok

          It makes you cringe. 200 dollar oakleys or a cheap helmet, not really a discussion there, you would think.

          • Gene

            What I can’t understand here in Florida is the people riding around with a $500 Arai… strapped to the back of the bike! WTF?

            OTOH, not having a helmet law does let you know instantly who’s a dumbass and who probably isn’t.

            • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

              The helmet on the back of the bike happens here in Texas all the time. At least their lady passengers will survive. Maybe.

              • http://www.muthalovin.com the_doctor

                So true. I ride with a jacket, helmet, and gloves every time i step out the door. When these people without any gear on see me, I get the feeling that they think I am actually the idiot who is way too concerned about falling down.

  • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

    “But, we key statistical findings have been released in part…” omgeez fix it.

    Reminded me of this other Australian link: Which parts of your body are most at risk?

  • matt

    really looking forward to some real destructive testing data and reviews on clothing. Love to have that. Probably won’t happen, but it should.

  • Thom

    Hell , you guys at HFL have been proving these points thru real world experience ( re; crashes ) since I started subscribing , yet the Aussie’s needed how much $$$ to come to these conclusions ?

    :o)

    • Felix

      Honestly, anecdotal evidence is great, but hard data is always better. We should be thankful that someone is willing to spend the coin to do this kind of data-gathering and analysis.

      • Thom

        Hence the smily face ;o)

  • http://lightsoutknivesout.tumblr.com/ Scott Pargett

    I gotta ask, I can’t make out the HFL “logo” of sorts. What is it?

    • Paul

      I’ve been wondering about that, too; but today I think I’ve finally seen that it’s a ram’s skull. Way butch, that.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler
  • Felix

    It’s great to see some hard data to back up common-sense conclusions about safety gear. Also interesting to hear that any boots were almost as effective as motorcycle-specific boots.

    The failure rates for (presumably crummy) gear were pretty scary – if 20-30% of gear fails, I have to imagine that’s more like a 50%+ failure rate for low-grade gear.

    • Sean Smith

      Another way to read that number is “20-30% of gear is cheap plastic crap and will fail.”

      • GoFasterPB

        Seriously… in three of my four falls my gloves have failed me in some way. Held, Alpinestars, and Fox are all reputable brands, but when selections of their entry/mid level gear are poorly made it’s that much tougher to find that perfect balance btwn protection, quality, comfort, and reasonable price.

        It’s a pain in the ass to wear GP-style protection for my <10min commute sometimes, but I've learned the hard way that it's the only way I can ride with piece of mind.

        • Sean Smith

          I flat out refuse to wear any glove without full gauntlet wrist coverage and some form of armor on top. I doubt my pointy wrist bones would fare well in an encounter with the road.

          • GoFasterPB

            I agree. That being said, I’ve only had the pleasure of testing out shorty gloves… wrists were ok, but impacts were low-speed. Just gotta make sure the seams on the palm and/or knuckles don’t tear apart exposing quarter-sized areas of skin and bone.

        • Justin

          Failure isn’t necessary a bad thing. I went down at 60+ wearing Racer high end. It pulled out some stitching on the palm sliders but my hands suffered no damage. Gear should be seen as consumable, crash hard enough or in the right way anything will fall apart. What matter is if it keeps your soft squishy bits under the gear intact. +1 on Sean’s recommendation. Even well fitting sleeves like to pull up when ripped on by pavement, gauntlets keep you from getting rash on the wrist and good ones have some armor on them. Seeing rash on external armor bits is quite sobering! Makes you think of how much worse it could’ve been.

    • Barry

      That’s where it was really tough to read the pdf that everybody and their uncle has been forwarding to me from this report. Not only is it in black and white, and trying to describe things in color(the impact risk zones), but the graphs are absolutely terrible. The one that was interesting seemed to be drawing the conclusion that basically every brand of two piece leather suit failed to meet standards but one, and that the synthetic suits tended to fair a little better. And if I read it correctly(again, entirely possible I’m not, since it’s a terrible graph), they were saying that the A* kit didn’t hold up well at all, which surprised me. I’d personally liked to have seen Dainese and Kushitani in there, as I’ve wrecked a bunch of times on the track in my Dainese and Kushi suits, without failure. But I’ve also wrecked on the street in jeans and a Joe Rocket Phoenix. Jeans were toasted(as was a kneecap), the Joe Rocket held up well and protected me to the extent of no damage upstairs, but it was a low speed off. I’ve also wrecked an ueber-expensive pair of Held gloves that just exploded on impact and cost me a fingertip and a nail.

  • John

    Glad to see them taking the initiative to do the study…this should’ve been done a long time ago by an independent party, aside from private corporations. I’ve got a few volumes from some other sources but none have elaborated in detail on any body gear aside from bicycle or motorcycle helmets…it will be a real plus if they contain detailed studies on axial loading on teh spine and hyperextension of the extremities, in my opinion this is a large part of accident trauma aside from impact alone.

  • 85gripen

    I wear a pair of traditional Engineer’s boots. They’re steel toe and I keep getting the whole “motorcyclists shouldn’t wear steel toe boots” argument. Is this an urban myth? I’m sure it would take a hell of a wreck to deform a steel toe to pinch down on the toes. Probably far less likely than your toes being broken because your bike fell on your foot.

    I’m sure purpose-built modern racing boots are best when riding but in regular everyday commuting I’m not likely to be wearing racing boots.

    • John

      The urban myth in regards to toe dismemberment in an accident is false. There are zero recorded cases of such things happening. The reason steel toed boots are a bad idea is because for one, the toe area is usually constructed so big in the larger sizes it can hinder your foot from getting under the shifter, they can also prevent you from feeling the shifter altogether.

      You should definitely consider some sort of riding boot since they are generally made to prevent the sudden “over-flexing” of the foot, left/right, up/down. This is what breaks your foot in an accident.. There’s also the shin, heel and toe friction protection. On this same note, you also DO NOT need the $500 luxo models. I’ve seen some top tier brands that lack the type of real-world features some lower-end models give you. Hope that helps!

      • brutus

        they’re just so ugly, boots especially. For now im sticking with my steel toed work boots.

        • John

          I get what you mean, personally “Sidi” are the worst offenders in the needless tacked on crap department in my subjective opinion. But if you’re a normal street rider, there’s plenty of “cleanly styled” affordable choices out there.

          I love my military boots, but I’ve learned the hard way not to wear those while riding, a direct hit to the ankle hurts like hell, no matter how tough the leather is.

          • Joe

            I used to wear hiking boots, but I’m glad I switched. I love my TCX Airtech boots, they are the most comfortable footwear I own.

          • Archer

            Puma Desmo. Full stop, end of story.

            • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

              I can’t recommend the Desmos. I adored mine but, after a year of daily use, both zippers failed on me. The teeth are so small compared to other boots and the zipper isn’t attached to any sort of stretch panel. Puma wouldn’t warranty them because I was two or three weeks beyond the one year warranty. Thankfully, the shop where I bought them did.

              Damn shame, because they are handsome and supremely comfortable boots. I pray they’ll change that zipper design.

        • Gene

          Not only are they ugly, I’ve yet to see a riding boot with any sort of ventilation. I’m forced to stick with my hiking boots.

          • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

            I guess that depends on what kind of ventilation you’re looking for. There are a handful that utilize perforated leather and/or vents. They might not be your style, though.

            A guy commented this morning on a local forum saying, “BTW, everythings fine with those hiking boots untill the lace catches on a peg/lever. Don’t ask me how I know!!!! I’ll never wear lace up footwear on a bike again.”

            Sounds like a fun lesson to learn.

            • Greg

              I am always amused by the “ugly” commentary relative to proper riding gear. Most manufacturers make decent, clean looking jackets, boots, pants, gloves…you don’t have to try hard to find them. I wear black leather (Dainese Zen jacket and pants, usually) all black A-stars boots, etc. You don’t HAVE to look like a pirate or a power ranger to wear good quality protection.

          • Гена

            Even inexpensive Icon Field Armor have large panels of a stiff but breathable fabric. Or you may step up to waterproof/ breathable Goretex boots, like TCX Air Tech.

  • alexio

    thank you for this article. it is excellent

  • Johndo

    Now if they can just make good looking clothing that offers decent protection :)

  • alang

    I really like this lady. Very sensible approach. She’s the kind of person we need for motorcycle legislation in the USA.

  • John

    Protective gear prevents injury? No shit.

    When people ask me why I wear a one-piece Aerostich Roadcrafter, Arai helmet, Sidi boots, and Held gloves, I reply, “Next time you are driving your car on the highway, imagine what would happen if you opened the door and jumped out.”

    That’s why you wear gear.

    Like the study said, most injuries are from the initial impact with the ground, the bike falling on you, and the road rash from sliding on concrete and gravel and asphalt. You can wear gear that will greatly help with these kinds of injury.

    Getting hit by a bus, well, that’s a whole ‘nother recovery ward.

    • Barry

      The tack of the article was not just “safety gear needs standardization because it prevents injury”, but a more appropriate for Aussie’s and Texans: all the current gear assumes you live in San Francisco or the North of Europe. If you ride in highway traffic in central Texas, the Aerostich is a non-starter. I love mine for long distance travel, but it’s just too freakin’ hot. You’ll die of heat exhaustion inside a half hour. I’ve tried a Teiz, and it sucks great hairy ones. A friend just got the Motoport two piece ventilated, and it looks better, but still not ideal for real heat. I know that nothing will be perfect, but there IS a need for stuff that is as maximally cooling as possible while having armor. I’ve actually taken to wearing a supermoto racing undersuit that’s meant to go under a jersey, since all of the high impact zones are armored, it’s just that none of the secondary slide zones are more than a thin mesh just there to hold the armor in place.

      • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

        Barry – for a jacket, look at Vanson’s VentMax jackets. Ridiculous airflow, outer is a 1000D Cordura loose weave with internal leather backing in shoulders and elbows, full (basic) CE all around including back. It’s tough to top for ventilation.

        What didn’t you like about the Teiz gear, and what did you try out?

  • John

    Forgive me if you’ve had this chat before, but several studies into risk compensation suggest that things are not as straightforward as we might hope. ie, if you put on loads of armour, you’re more likely to take risks and fall off than if you wear a mankini and flipflops. So when Australian authorities did a study to find out how much safer ABS made their taxis, they found it didn’t. The ABS ones had more crashes, at higher speeds, particularly in the wet…

  • Гена

    Basically, the study says that jackets and pants help in “low impact” crashes. Which means that they only protect from road rash. But many gear Nazi act like wearing those jackets makes riders invincible, when in reality they will not prevent any serious internal injury. I am well aware that a very bad road rash may be life threatening, but chances of it are low.

    • http://www.facebook.com/beastincarnate Ben Incarnate

      Without more detail, chunking all jackets (or all pants) together ignores a lot of differences in jackets. That’s fine for a summary that effectively says, “Even the worst jackets help.” Staring at the least common denominator doesn’t work when considering more intense crashes. That’s where things like quality armor/materials/construction become essential and, sadly, where many lower-end jackets seriously skimp.

    • Tony

      Yes and no… nothing will help you if a truck runs over you, or if you hit a wall head on. But in most cases rider has some choice of how to crash and dissipate energy – most often it is a slide. And then, choice of gear means a lot. A road rash at 80mph slide wouldn’t look very pretty.

      You may also hit a sharp object during a slide / tumble… that might rip your leathers open, or rip your guts out. There is a picture of the latter online… the guy lived.

  • vegetablecookie

    Maybe it’s just me, but I wear gear mostly because it’s more comfortable to ride in. No sunburn, no bugs in teeth, no dirt/gravel in eyes protected only by sunglasses…etc, ect. I realize I’ll pro’ly be better off if/when I crash, but I’m seriously into my own comfort and proper gear gives me a lot of it.

  • Greg

    Some of the comments above suggest to me that many have not yet crashed on the street. Proper gear mitigates the effects of fairly serious events….from my own, personal experience.