If you only read one article about gear
Why Safety Gear? Accidents Happen
A very common question among new motoryclists is, "What kind of riding gear should I get?" It's a really good question, and it shows that you're on the right track. Unfortunately, it's also hard to answer well, because everyone will have a different set of requirements for their gear.
A simple fact of life, faced by every motorcyclist (whether they acknowledge it consciously or not) is that motorcycles are unsafe. Being on two wheels, bikes are much less stable (able to resist tipping over) than cars. There's no safety cage around a motorcyclist protecting them from the outside world.
This is perhaps the most important lesson about motorcycles (and cars): It is impossible to reduce your risk of collision to zero. You can make that risk very small, but it will always exist. That is why we wear riding gear: it protects us in that instant where circumstances coincide to separate bike from rider. When someone makes a mistake, the safety gear being worn can mean the difference between waking up sore the next morning and waking up in the hospital, or not at all. Note that it doesn't matter whose mistake we're talking about: the rider's, the SUV driver's, or the deer's. Any one of them can cause a serious enough problem that the rider is suddenly separated from her bike.
In a "typical accident" another vehicle does something to cause the motorcyclist to crash, and the motorcyclist then slides along the pavement until they come to a stop. Although there's not a clear breakdown of the kinds of injuries sustained, a lot of potential exists for abrasion damage. This is the scenario from which most safety gear is intended to protect.
Safety gear is utterly useless unless you wear it, every single time you ride. You can't control when and where a collision happens. The time between the crash starting and you hitting the ground is on the order of tenths of a second, in which time you can't put on any gear you didn't happen to feel like wearing. There's a phrase used by many motorcyclists, ATGATT: All The Gear, All The Time. If you do that, you will have substantially increased your chances of surviving a motorcycle accident unscathed.
This is not all to say that "accidents are inevitable, so sit back and relax", for the opposite is true. There is so much you can do to prevent collisions. You need to take the MSF beginning rider's class, if you haven't already. You need to read articles and books on how to ride safely. You need to think about how you ride, and learn lessons when you make mistakes. By no means should you come away from this article saying to yourself, "accidents just happen; there's nothing I can do about it."
What the Gear Does
Motorcycle safety clothing breaks down into some obvious categories:
For the purposes of this article, we can lump "everything but helmets" into one category and helmets into their own category.
Helmets are designed primarily to prevent the rider from bonking his head on solid objects like the ground. Specifically, they're designed to reduce or prevent blunt brain trauma and neck injuries. Secondarily, they're good at keeping the head separated from abrasion damage.
Helmets also have numerous beneficial attributes that don't have anything to do with preventing accident damage. They protect the rider's hearing to some extent (although earplugs are still a very good idea). They provide protection to the face and eyes from wind blast, insects, debris thrown up by tires, etc. A tinted face shield can provide some protection from the sun. Most helmets effectively keep rain off the rider's head, and provide insulation and venting suitable for maintaining a comfortable temperature in a variety of conditions.
There are many myths about helmets that are worth dispelling. Helmets DO NOT:
For more information on helmets, please see the helmet FAQ.
The other stuff (jackets, gloves, etc.) serves the nearly singular purpose of separating the rider from the pavement in a slide. Most jackets, pants and suits contain "armor," which is a fancy word for foam strategically placed over vulnerable areas, like knees, elbows, shoulders, spines and hips. Do not discount the value of armor just because it appears to be "mere foam." It can absorb a considerable amount of energy that would have otherwise been transmitted right to your elbow/knee/etc.
Don't Disregard the Side-Effects
Outside of an accident scenario, this gear also serves several more useful purposes. It protects you from the sun, wind and any wind-borne dangers like insects, rocks, rain, etc. It can keep you warm or allow a great deal of ventilation. It can allow you to carry your stuff in pockets. It should be reflective, and can be brightly colored to warn off predators (such as Chevy Suburbans).
Although I've separated the "effects" of this gear into accident-related and non-accident-related, don't make the mistake of thinking that either topic is more or less important. Anything that keeps you, as a driver, comfortable is an important safety device. When you're not comfortable (from frozen fingers, or wind burn, or monkey-butt from sitting too long -- doesn't matter) your fatigue increases. As your fatigue increases, your ability to pay attention to traffic and the road decreases. Your ability to pay attention to your surroundings and react appropriately to them is the number one thing keeping you from being involved in a collision.
Leather vs. Textile
For the "other stuff" that's not a helmet, there are basically two materials you find them constructed from: leather and textile. Textile is usually some form of heavy nylon, commonly called "ballistic nylon." Each material has strengths and weaknesses, but both are excellent choices for street wear. Let me say that again:
For use in street riding, either leather or textile gear will work very well.
Leather is not "better" than textile for street use. Before I explain that statement, let me show you the pros and cons of each material:
Picking the Right Gear for Street Use
Riding on the street (which is to say, riding with traffic on public roads, not on the track) your maximum speed will probably stay at or below 60 MPH, except on rare occasions when you find some open freeway, or if you have a particularly aggressive adrenaline addiction. Since you can basically count on a crash happening at a lower speed, you can also count on not spending a whole lot of time sliding after the crash. Since that's the case, you don't need really good abrasion protection. Obviously, better protection is always preferrable, but there are some tradeoffs that make it easy to argue that textile is an excellent choice for street use.
You will need to keep in mind throughout this discussion that your needs will dictate changes -- if you actually spend most of your time riding at 80 MPH, leather is probably a justifiable expense for you.
Most importantly for me, it's really difficult to make leather waterproof. I mean, it's a serious pain in the ass, and by the time you've done it it's not very nice leather any more. I wore a leather jacket for a time, and every time it started raining I either had to pull out a rain jacket (making me feel like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man) or dry my jacket out for hours upon arrival. This day-to-day annoyance was more than enough to convince me to find a better textile solution that could be more easily waterproofed.
With that in mind, take a good hard look at the table of pros and cons above, and mentally cross off the factors that don't matter for you. If you never ride in the rain, then waterproofing is probably unimportant, etc. The choice of leather vs. textile often boils down to "what can you afford?" I urge you to consider that for a given price, a textile jacket will commonly provide better value than a leather jacket, both in day-to-day and crash protection terms.
As a point of reference on the crash survivability of textile, I once asked Rider's Wearhouse (makers of the Aerostich Roadcrafter textile suit) about crash damage they've had to repair. The guy I was speaking with said they've had numerous suits come back after crashes (some as fast as 70-80 MPH), and not one of them had been damaged badly enough to stop protecting the rider. That says a lot to me about the ability of textile to keep a rider safe. (Yes, of course it may be that they never saw the suits that really failed; surviving an 80 MPH slide down the asphalt is all I can reasonably ask from my safety gear.)
Conspicuity, or "Being Seen"
One of the problems identified in the Hurt Report was that car drivers had a hard time seeing motorcyclists. It specifically says that making the motorcyclist more conspicuous through the use of brightly colored clothing, headlights and reflective materials resulted in a reduction of collisions.
Keep this in mind when you're looking at gear. Black leather may look cool (nay, it does look cool), but it's also hard to see in traffic. Your riding gear should be as bright as you can stand; ideally it'd be high-viz yellow with reflective, flourescent orange stripes all down it. Most people can't take that much day-glo all at once though, so most riding gear has mere splashes of color.
The more colorful your riding gear (particularly your jacket and helmet, which is what most people will see from the front), the easier you are to see. The easier you are to see, the less likely other drivers will act as if you're not there. I started riding with my high-beam on all the time during the day and noticed that people seemed to see me better. Woo!
Note that, although red and orange seem really bright in sunlight, they fade out to grey at twilight or in the dark. White is an excellent color, along with flourescents, because they remain bright through twilight.
Notes on Textiles
When you're looking at textile jackets, you want to select something with the highest surface of "ballistic" nylon possible. This is the heavy-duty, thick-weaved nylon that usually reinforces elbows, shoulders, hips, and knees on riding gear. If you could find a piece of riding clothing that was all ballistic nylon you'd be set, but no one makes that. I suspect such a garment would be too stiff to be really useful, but it's a good goal to strive for.
Motorcycle Consumer News did an abrasion test on a variety of materials, including ballistic nylon and some other forms of nylon. As expected, the ballistic nylon did really well on abrasion, the "regular" nylon not as well. So, make sure that your textile gear has as much ballistic as possible.
If you're looking at mesh gear, the mesh materials tested did surprisingly well on abrasion tests. Most good mesh gear will have ballistic nylon in high-wear areas; look for it. Mesh gear is an excellent idea if you're going to be riding in temperatures from 80 to 95 degrees F, as it will keep you from overheating.
I (and the rest of N250RC) highly recommend getting armor in whatever gear you're looking at. Check to see that the armor is CE-certified. That is the standard for motorcycle protection. CE is the European agency that writes standards for thousands of consumer products, like our Underwriter's Laboratories. The USA has no standard for motorcycle armor. What that means is a lot of "armor" in the cheaper gear is actually just flimsy foam rubber of limited use in an accident. Good armor will save you weeks of pain and suffering, and may even save a limb or your spine.
But what about racing?
I've never raced a motorcycle, so I don't speak with a huge amount of authority, but I've gleaned some information by reading a lot. In racing motorcycles, one can reasonably expect to fall off the bike several times in a season (for good riders) or several times in a race (for beginning riders or those who are less skilled). Racing accidents of this type usually involve a low-side followed by a slide for some distance, commonly at high speeds.
For this kind of accident scenario, a leather racing suit is an excellent choice. In general such a slide doesn't damage the suit at all, and it can be immediately reused. A textile suit might well be torn up or abraded to the point of no longer being safe.
However, a racing suit is designed to be worn with nothing underneath, just minimal underwear. Riding your motorcycle to work would be interesting, especially when you arrived and needed to change into regular clothes. Racing suits are also generally tailored for their environment ("hot" usually), so they have numerous vents and perforations that are difficult to cover up. In short, racing leather suits are designed for their job, and don't do well at other jobs. They're also expensive (starting around $800-1000 to get a good, well-fitting one).
If much of your riding is non-touring sport riding, a leather suit could be a consideration.
If you're interested in racing, you need to speak with the racing organization you're joining to see what their rules and recommendations on protective gear are.
Picking a Helmet
Helmets come in a variety of shapes, as do heads. In general, each brand will have a different signature shape (although Arai produces helmets with three different shapes). When your head and the helmet have different shapes, you will put it on and immediately feel pressure points, and also blank spots where the helmet doesn't press at all. Both of these things will make the helmet very uncomfortable after riding for just a short while. To avoid getting a helmet that you won't wear, you should go into a shop or two and try on every helmet they have. It's the only way to get a good fit.
For more information on helmet selection, please see the helmet FAQ.
The Sander Test
This is a thought experiment to see if you have enough good gear. It's already elsewhere in the FAQ, but the idea is so good that it's worth linking to. Please read it.
The Financial Perspective
One common complaint about motorcycle safety gear is that it's expensive. This is true. It probably costs a minimum of $600 to outfit yourself with a reasonable set of safety gear: helmet, jacket, gloves, pants and boots. If you can't afford to get the safety gear, you can't afford to be riding a motorcycle right now. Save up your money until you can afford both the bike you want and the safety gear.
Here's my rundown on prices for gear. Note that these prices are out of my head, based on recent experiences, not from anyone's catalog or website. Please think of them as "ballpark" figures.
You don't have to spend $1000 to get a good set of gear, but if you plan on spending that much, you'll be happy when you get set up for less. One trick you can use to save money is to locate the model and brand of gear you want, but in last year's model. This gear is exactly as protective, but retailers need to clear it out for "next year's model." This stuff tends to go on sale around the fall and winter, although it's worth checking any time of year.
The Finances of Crashing
For this discussion, let's set up a scenario in which we have two different riders: Casual Carl and Safety Steve (thanks to David Hough for the naming convention. Go read his book, Proficient Motorcycling, if you haven't yet).
Casual Carl, as you'd expect, isn't wearing much for gear -- he spent $80 on a 3/4 face helmet and some fingerless gloves that look cool. He rides his motorcycle wearing those things, jeans and a t-shirt. He's got some leather motorcycle boots, but he doesn't wear them very often because they're not very comfortable.
Safety Steve is a safety freak, so he's got a leather jacket, a full-face helmet, full gauntleted leather gloves, textile riding pants zipped to the jacket, and mid-calf leather boots. He's wearing one of those orange-and-reflective safety vests over his jacket because he couldn't find a bright enough jacket that he liked, so his jacket is black. (Yes, people actually do that; I'm describing an outfit I wore for several years.)
Each man is riding along, a state apart, enjoying his bike, at around 35 MPH. Out of nowhere a drunk driver in a Chevy Impala clips each of their rear wheels. There was no way to react; neither driver could have done anything differently to prevent the accident.
In Washington, Steve is flung from his motorcycle head-first and lands hands-first in an instinctive attempt to shield himself from the impact. His right wrist makes a sickening cracking noise, badly spraining it, and he slides, Superman-style, down the pavement before coming to a stop 100 feet down the road. He gingerly gets up, a life-long memory of 20 grit pavement bobbling past his face, very fast and 2 inches away, burned into his mind. Other than the sprained wrist, he has some bruises where he clipped the handlebars with his right leg, and where he landed on the pavement. His helmet is still sort of serviceable but desperately needs a new faceshield, and the right knee on his riding pants is pretty hashed up, although it didn't actually abrade through.
Steve calls a friend to come pick him up and take him to the hospital, since he can't tell if his right wrist is broken or just sprained.
Steve is down about $300 to replace his helmet, $150 for the pants, and $70 for his emergency room copay, where they put a splint on his wrist. His insurance will probably cover the riding gear, and medical insurance reduced his emergency room bill from around $1000 to $70.
Casual Carl, down in Oregon, is similarly flung from his bike at 35 MPH. He also hits the pavement face-first, attempting to break his fall with his hands. The thin, cheap leather of his gloves splits apart in the palms, catching the pavement and yanking his hands backwards, breaking both wrists. His face is pressed into the pavement for a quarter of a second before he reflexively turns it to the side, allowing the 3/4 helmet to take the rest of the abuse. His T-shirt dissappears in the first 10 feet, leaving his bare chest to absorb the abrasive energy of his weight, pressed down across 90 feet of pavement. Both knees and thighs are immediately exposed to raw pavement as the jeans rip open. Fortunately for Carl, the shock causes him to pass out before his mind can fully process the damage he just received.
Carl wakes up in a hospital in Portland, having arrived in an ambulance 16 hours earlier. He's been in and out of surgery, prepping for skin grafts to his face, chest, arms, and legs. A plastic surgeon has already worked on him to reconstruct his nose and left cheekbone. He's had gravel removed from his skin with tweezers and a wire brush. He's in stable condition, but he'll be in and out of the hospital for the next 4-5 months receiving grafts and recovering from the accident.
When Carl is finally recovered, he's out around $15,000-20,000 in hospital bills, and he's lost his job due to his inability to work for the first two months after the accident. He was working at a job where he made $35k/year, so he has forfeited about $10,500 in income in addition to needing to find another job now. (Since I made up these numbers, I suspect they're pretty low -- Carl might actually be out more like $50k or $100k in medical expenses, but we'll work with these numbers, since they're horrifying enough.)
Let's see the tally of who spent what:
Obviously, this is a contrived example. Real world numbers will be different, but this isn't an unrealistic example. Had Carl been wearing better gear, he could have notched down that medical bill. At some point, he wouldn't have been out of action for long enough to lose his job, which would produce dramatic results on the Total line in that table.
However, the point is obvious. Steve, who spent some good money initially, ended up with little financial liability from his crash. Carl, who didn't want to spend much money on safety gear, ended up spending a good chunk of the next few years paying off his medical bills. An ounce of prevention, in this case, is worth hundreds of pounds of cure.
And, of course, this strictly-numbers analysis doesn't look at what happens to a person who has to endure that kind of pain for 4-5 months. It doesn't examine the mental problems that could develop, or the strain on relationships with other people, or the fact that Carl chose to never ride a bike again because it's far too dangerous; he considers himself lucky (and rightly so) that he didn't die in that accident.
As I hope has been made painfully, gut-wrenchingly clear at this point, good quality riding gear is an essential part of riding a motorcycle. Regardless of how skilled you are, there's always a chance that something could throw you from your bike, and if you're not wearing safety gear, it could be the beginning of the end of your life.
Motorcycling is a fun, exciting sport/form of transportation. If you can accept the risk of an accident, and the risk of getting hurt, you can enjoy it. You can reduce your risk of being in an accident by riding safely and alertly; you can reduce your risk of being hurt in an unavoidable collision by wearing the right safety gear. Above all, once you've done what you can to reduce the risks of riding, get out there and enjoy it!
About IanJ: I'm just a regular guy who happens to have some opinions on motorcycling and what kind of gear he thinks is safe. I encourage you to read this article with a critical eye, because I'm probably wrong. I am not paid any money by anyone to write this stuff; I do it because I hope it'll help other riders to be safer. Please engage your brain before taking any free advice you found on some guy's website.