Protective Motorcycle Gear

I participated in a focus group the other night about the kinds of motorcycle gear worn these days. It was interesting to see what non-biker researchers wanted to know. I cannot reveal information about what we discussed, but generally what I heard is consistent with what I see among my fellow biker friends who are not “hot dogs” and are generally safe, sane, and experienced riders.

I mentioned my participation in this group to my friend WC who asked…

Question: Hi-Vis. Is that gear considered as protective as leather? It would appear to me that leather would be far more protective, but impractical in summer. I have seen very very very little hi-vis jackets up here. Maybe like 1 in 100 bikers. During the summer it is almost universal t-shirt and jeans. I always say to myself (thanks to you): boy, dude, do you have a death wish?

I admit, I also have been among those who would wear jeans and t-shirts while riding, especially on hot days. No one likes to roast astride a hot engine, particularly when traffic is congested and slow.

Also, most bikers (like most guys) are vain (though most will not admit it). They want to “look cool” astride their rides, wearing choices of gear that are more fashionable than functional and protective. I get it — no one wants to look like a dork — or as someone in the focus said, “The Great Pumpkin.”

Further, no one wants to consider that he may have a crash. All bikers think their skills are perfect and that they won’t have a crash. This is common — it is called denial. Most people live in the State of Denial. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt, it is a state of mind. (Sociologist in me again — no one wants to think of bad things happening to them and do not prepare, or put it off until they experience a reason to change their mind.)

Also having an affinity for wearing leather motorcycle gear, I have deliberately chosen to wear leather jeans, cloth or leather breeches, or leather chaps while riding. Leather is cool (looking) as well as protective, right? A cool-looking high-end Langlitz Jacket completes the statement that my gear is great looking as well as functional and protective.

However, since about 2014 and in particular since the crash that I experienced on 31 May last year, I have changed my thinking.

While I like leather and still wear it a lot, leather can get hot and it can feel heavy. It’s fine to wear a heavy jacket when it is cold, but sometimes heavy leather jackets restrict movement. Sometimes.

While speaking with some of my motorcop friends and also at a police motorcycle riding competition, I saw cops being issued — and wearing — high-vis gear. Perhaps not bright yellow or orange as you see on cops in Europe (who adopted hi-vis gear years ago — we in the U.S. are always behind on these things due to our reluctance to consider that anyone from another country may have an idea that is worth considering.) But what I was seeing U.S. cops wear was gear that had retro-reflective stripes and piping, as well as made not of leather, but of ballistic nylon (or a 600 denier nylon-leather combination.)

I bought my first hi-vis jacket in 2013 — made by Rev’IT in The Netherlands. At the time, I was riding my Harley to work in the dark, and I wanted something that was more visible to other drivers on my dark commute. I also improved the lighting on my Harley so you can see it from the moon, but that’s another story.

I was wearing that Rev’IT jacket when I had my crash. I tell ya, if it were not for that jacket, I would have sustained much worse injuries. When my body was ejected from my motorcycle on a downhill grade of a major highway at about 40mph (64kph), according to the police report, I slid on my side and back some 300 feet (90m). While I broke three ribs when I hit the pavement, I had no abrasions. Not even a scratch anywhere on any skin on my body — face, neck, arms, hands, legs, or feet.

My boots took a beating. My gloves were torn. My SEER helmet was banged up. There was a huge gash/scratch on my leather chaps. But to the surprise of medics who treated me on scene, and to nurses and the doctor in the hospital ER, all were amazed that I had no abrasions. Anywhere.

All to the credit of having chosen to wear a ballistic nylon jacket that morning.

Being a geek by nature, after my crash and while not doing much during recovery, I researched just how ballistic nylon works. Its highest value is that it reduces the coefficient of friction. It is designed to slide. And that is just what I did — I slid down the highway.

My cop buddy JB introduced me to a researcher with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (who happens to be his neighbor) who told me that while his research shows that leather is indeed protective for impact injury prevention, leather has a much higher coefficient of friction — about twice that of ballistic nylon. That means that leather will get stuck to — or adhere more to — road surfaces.

The researcher said:

A body clad in leather hitting the pavement at the speed that you did would be more likely to roll because the friction of the leather against asphalt abruptly slows down the forward motion. Nylon won’t do that — a body slides rather than rolls. I can show you some results from lab crash tests.

JB added:

I’ve seen a lot of motorcycle crashes. I can tell you for certain that when a biker’s body rolls on the street, that’s when he gets really bad abrasions, particularly on arms, legs, and the face and neck. You were lucky — when your body slid, you were face up, didn’t roll, and that’s why your face wasn’t injured or disfigured.

So that is what convinced me to buy some more ballistic nylon jackets and choose them more often than any other jacket when I ride the Harley. That does not mean that I have given up wearing leather jackets completely. With such an investment, I am not going to abandon my leather gear. However, especially on shoulder and warm days, I will wear a ballistic nylon jacket rather than just a t-shirt and vest.

The other thing that I really like about textile/hi-vis gear is the functionality. There are a lot of pockets, both inside and out. The gear also is very well ventilated. It comes with zipped vents in the front and back to allow air to flow through, yet the jacket provide protection. That is why I can wear a hi-vis ballistic nylon jacket in warm weather (say, up to the mid-80s/30C), while I could only weather leather when it is cooler. Leather in warm weather causes me to feel so uncomfortable, I get distracted by sweating a lot.

I have to admit, though, I still can’t consider wearing ballistic nylon pants. They still look too much like racing clothes to me, and I’m not a racer. Also, I have to consider that I usually ride to a destination (family, friends, restaurant, etc.) and nylon pants would get hot and are not easy to remove like chaps are. So I’m still working on the lowers why my upper body is better protected.

It was interesting during focus group discussions that when asked “what would convince a guy to wear high-visibility (“hi-vis”) gear?”, most of the participants said what I’ve heard from my biker friends, “that gear looks awful. I don’t want to look like a big lemon. It’s too bright.”

Well, for me, just call me The Great Pumpkin. I ride my own ride and set my own style. I really don’t care about fashion or what other people think. My attitude comes from experience, self-confidence, and true lack of concern about opinions of others.

Life is short: consider ballistic nylon to wear when riding a motorcycle (in boots, of course!)

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