Truths About Riding Gear

Crash4_02-smProtection is a good thing, right? Of course it is. After all, nobody wants to get hurt if they can help it. Besides that, the right riding gear makes being out on the open road more comfortable and enjoyable. The gear you choose also completes your “look” and style. What’s not to like?

Freedom Lost

Most people ride motorcycles for fun…Nobody I ever met said they ride to be safe. The focus on fun over safety leads a lot of people to adopt a lackadaisical attitude toward the real risks of riding and a distaste for wearing protection.

I get that. Before I knew better I would hop on my CB160 in whatever I had on. Shorts? Sure. Sneakers? Absolutely. No Helmet? Why not?…It’s a short ride to the market, after all.

Well, that ill-informed and clueless kid turned into an adult who has seen what happens when skin contacts asphalt at speed and what a top-quality helmet looks like after an impact (see photo). You can say my innocence has been forever ruined. But, I’m okay with wearing protective gear if it means an increased chance of living a long life on two wheels.

Cost

That sense of security doesn’t come for free. First, there is the monetary cost of outfitting your body with decent-quality protective gear. You’ll want gear that works in hot, cold, and wet weather. It’s out there and is really not as costly as many people assume. Shop around.

Photo2_Readiness-nogear-smHassle

Then there is the inconvenience of putting on and taking off all that gear. Sometimes I just want to jump on the bike without taking 15 minutes to put on all the “proper” gear. But, if I don’t zip on my gear I feel a bit guilty for not managing the risk, imagining how much it would suck if I were to fall and slide wearing only my bluejeans instead of my armored MotoPort Kevlar pants.

A lot of you would think that’s a bit over the top as many of you have no problems wearing  jeans to protect your legs, with a few of you even choosing to ride lid-less, for Crys-sakes! For me, there’s never a question about wearing a riding jacket, boots, helmet and gloves…I always do.

As much as riding gear can be a PIA, once I’m on the road, I’m happier, more comfortable and less likely to need the services of Nurse Roadrash if something bad happens. I can live with that, and I hope you will too.

Think about this: Imagine how foolish and remorseful you’d be if you crashed in your t-shirt and jeans while all your best protective gear is hanging in the closet. Even if you don’t think you’d beat yourself up too bad about it, your mother, spouse or (smart) riding friends will probably raise an eyebrow about your lapse of judgment as you wince in pain with the slightest movement. Dumbass.

Photo3-Gear_Harley-smImage

Gear also completes your style, announcing to the public and your peers what “tribe” you belong to.

The type of gear your peeps wear (or not) is likely to be what you will wear. Showing up at a gathering looking “over protected” could mark you as less of a man or a Nervous Nellie. This matters because we’re all just kids living in overgrown bodies who want to fit in, after all.

The solution? I suggest you be brave and wear what makes the most sense to your values of risk management. You don’t have to diverge too far from the norm. Take a closer look at what’s available and you’ll discover that there are ways to protect yourself fairly well while still achieving the “Look” you’re aiming for.

Imagine this rider's skull if he wasn't wearing a helmet.

Imagine this rider’s skull if he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Does Protective Gear Make Us “Safer”?

Statistics and common sense suggest that wearing protective gear has had a positive affect on injury rates. However, the decrease in injury and fatality rates are not as dramatic as you might expect. In fact, the rate of injury has remained more-or-less constant even when more people are protected. Why?

One possible reason is when humans utilize risk-reducing “interventions”, such as safety belts, bicycle helmets or motorcycle safety gear, they tend to feel safer and therefore unconsciously increase their level of risk. This effect is called “Risk Compensation”.

The prevalence of this behavior varies from person to person, but we are all susceptible.

What this suggests is that the benefit of protective gear may not be fully realized until you understand the human tendency to compensate for a sense of protection. It’s smart to wear protective gear, but be sure to recalibrate your mind to avoid the trap of risk compensation.

J9_CrashRisk Homeostasis

Risk perception and acceptance varies from person to person and is based partly on personal beliefs and past experiences. Risk acceptance is determined by the individual’s need for a thrill. Some people thrive on adrenaline and living on the edge. Others, not so much.

The amount of risk a person takes is also determined by “risk homeostasis”. Gerald J.S. Wilde, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada wrote a controversial book titled “Target Risk 2: A New Psychology of Safety and Health” where he describes how each individual will compensate for changes in risk exposure. His hypothesis is that if risk is reduced in one area, the individual will increase risk in another area to maintain his or her level of acceptable risk.

Whether you believe this or not, it is an interesting theory that I think has at least a thread of truth and further points to the importance of self-awareness when it comes to risk perception and awareness.

No Panacea

Crashed helmet-sm

We’d all love to think we can prevent death or serious injury simply by zipping on a sturdy jacket and strapping on the most expensive helmet we can afford. But, the reality is that many deaths occur despite the rider wearing all the best gear. After all, elbow, knee, back and shoulder armor is no match for a truck or tree. And no helmet made can withstand the impact of more than 300 G, which is a problem when a direct impact at normal speeds can easily exceed 500 G.

BCordura-Damage02-smy all means, increase your protection. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that simply wearing protection will save you from poor decisions. You need to be careful not to adopt a false sense of confidence because you feel less vulnerable.

PLEASE do not think for one minute that wearing good riding gear doesn’t reduce or prevent injury and death…it does. Just remember that protective gear is intended to prevent injury, not give permission to ride recklessly.

What am I missing? Add your comments below.

Remember that I moderate comments and it may take a few days to approve yours. But, rest assured, your voice will be heard.


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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in All Things Motorcycle, Motorcycle Musings, Motorcycle Safety Tagged with: , , ,
8 comments on “Truths About Riding Gear
  1. Bob Fesmire says:

    I had a friend who scoffed at me riding with ATGATT. “Aren’t you hot in all that stuff” he and his wife asked me so many times. “If I had to wear a helmet and couldn’t feel the breeze I wouldn’t ride” was another often stated phrase. His idea was to just ride slower. He would explain to me that when people wore gear they would ride dangerously. I disagreed with him respectfully, as you would with a good long time friend.

    All of that stopped on the day they went for a little around town ride – a route they had done many times. Temperatures were cool so they wore helmets and leather jackets to be warmer. Twenty minutes into this slow paced ride they hit a pot hole. They and the bike went down. “It happened so fast, we were only doing 25 mph – our heads banged hard, so hard – it’s lucky we wore helmets” was what he told me. They continue to ride now 10 years after the incident – BUT now they wear gear every time they go for a ride, even if it’s just around town. Oh, except for for their lower bodies. You see, that part didn’t get hurt so they figure wearing jeans is still OK.

    Some people have to experience things on their own before acknowledging/accepting reality. I ride ATGATT because I assess the risk without the need to first experience the consequences.

    Just my personal opinion.

  2. Bill Cool says:

    Great topic Ken…and very appropos, as a fitting item on one’s holiday wish list could be some protective gear!

    One line in particular stood out to me: “Think about this: Imagine how foolish and remorseful you’d be if you crashed in your t-shirt and jeans while all your best protective gear is hanging in the closet.” My only road “get-off” was about 1 mile from my home, on a hot summer day where I went out to the bike with just my helmet and jeans…sat on it…and thought, “man, even though I’m only going on a 5-mile-roundtrip-errand, I should go get my summer jacket.” Good thing I did – because I soon found myself on the asphalt due to a surprise dear “attack.” Without that jacket and armor, I undoubtedly would have a different kind of tattoo on my arm.

  3. steve says:

    I just ordered one of these to augment my ATGATT:

    http://www.greatamericantrek.com/wear-leatt-neck-brace/ another motoref I know always wears one after being rear-ended at low speed by a team car during a race…

  4. Eddie G says:

    What an absolute spot on article. I ride a Harley and in my state of NJ I actually think I am the only one that rides a Harley wearing full gear. On a forum I frequent there is constant bashing back and forth about this subject and you really explained it clearly. Gear does not make you any safer. I have the same risk riding with or without gear. Granny in the Buick Regal is not going to hold off pulling out in front of me because she sees I have an armored jacket and armored pants on. The gear will give me a higher chance of survival and less injury (barring heavy direct impact or getting squashed by a semi) then someone without gear. That’s it. It also shouldn’t give a pass to ride more aggressively either. Excellent excellent write up!

  5. brady says:

    What about the basic financial advantages of wearing gear? Spending $1000. on gear will almost surely be cheaper than the medical bills (even just co-pays), lost wages, and pain of a motorcycle accident.

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