You learned to ride and you’ve got your bike! All ready to go, right? Wrong! Unlike cars, which require no special equipment to be safe and comfortable inside, motorcycles offer no crash protection for the rider, plus they tend to fall over when stopped, and they provide virtually no protection against the elements and road hazards. Why we ride them is an unsolved mystery, at least to those who don’t ride.
That’s why we use safety equipment when we ride. Every time we ride. Safety equipment isn’t a fashion choice, it’s not a political statement, it’s not virtue signaling; it’s there to keep you healthy, comfortable, visible and, when the worst happens, provide you as much crash and injury protection as is practical.
Healthy: Motorcycle gear can prevent long-term damage to your body. Covering all your body parts in hot weather protects you from skin-cancer-causing solar radiation, and hearing protection prevents long-term hearing loss.
Comfortable: Good apparel creates a microclimate next to your skin to keep your body at the best temperature. Using a cooling garment to stay cool or using a heated vest or liner to stay warm is just smart. Heat stroke and hypothermia are real and happen to motorcyclists, and can cause drowsiness, unconsciousness and loss of motor control.
Visible: Safety gear like helmets, gloves and jackets should have some kind of reflective or (better yet) retro-reflective (this means the light is bounced right back at the source) stuff on it to make you visible at night. But what about daylight, too? Head-on, a motorcycle and rider’s visual footprint is not much bigger than a standing person, and the helmet and jacket are the first thing drivers see (if they see us at all). And yet, black is by far the most popular color for these items. Make your gear visible and as if by magic, you’ll start having fewer “close calls.”
Protection: And of course, your gear protects you from what we hope isn’t the inevitable: bouncing off the ground, cars, curbs and other things you’ll encounter on your unplanned off-bike excursion. Duh, right? Well, we’re all guilty of riding with less than full protection for whatever reason. Here are a few of our favorites:
So wear gear! But what to wear? And why? Read on.
We love taking the afternoon to spin around on our motorcycles. The ritual of getting ready, getting on our gloves and jackets, helmets and boots. We waited all week to get out on the road and its magic. It all feels great. What does not feel great, however, is wind noise - our hearing can take a serious beating while we are out riding. One OSHA study found that riding a motorcycle at less than 40 mph with an open helmet could produce steady noise levels up to 90dB - the same as a leaf blower. At 65 mph sound pressure levels skyrocketed up to 105dB, even 115dB. Driving without hearing protection at that level is safe for only a matter of minutes. Motorcycle safety courses and manufacturers are now integrating this information and making the same recommendation. You might just need your helmet and gloves when you ride but you always need to protect your hearing. Use hearing protection when you ride.
The biggest problem with understanding and monitoring our hearing health is we lose our ability to hear gradually and by the time we notice, it’s too late. When you lose your hearing it’s permanent. So how does our sense of hearing actually work and how do we lose it? Our ears come equipped with approximately 16,000 hair cells that act as ultra-sensitive sound detectors. As sound enters the ear these cells will actually bend under the sound pressure. Different sets of cells are dedicated to narrow frequency ranges and create electrical impulse responses to the stream of sounds in conversation, music, or the roar of the highway. This creates our sense of hearing. If you’ve been out riding for several hours you may notice that your hearing feels muffled or dull. You might not hear whispers or your ears may ring. Your hearing may rebound within a few hours. Similar to blades of grass under a heavy adult vs. a child, hair cells will bend more if the sound is louder. However, the hair cells have a limit to how far and often they can bend. Repeated exposures to loud noises may eventually destroy the infrastructure of hair cells that enable you to hear. It can become hard to communicate or hear critical signals around you if this loss continues by repeated exposure.
How loud is too loud? Safe exposure time is a function of sound pressure over time (sound pressure is not the same as volume). Everything up to 85dB is safe, at which point your safe exposure time without hearing protection is then limited to 8 hours. Decibel measurement is also algorithmic instead linear - each 3dB increase is a doubling of sound pressure and the halving of safe exposure time.
If you are wearing a full face helmet you might think that it will do the job of decreasing wind and engine noise and protect your hearing. In reality, wind dynamics actually force helmets to vibrate increasing sound pressure and putting your hearing health at risk. Over the last 20 years there have been studies that demonstrate that motorcyclists noise exposure is unique and greatly influenced by the transmission of sound pressure through the helmet. The raw numbers are sobering.
If you are out on a BMW K100 at 60mph you could be experiencing sound pressure of 100+ dB, which is safe for less than 15 minutes. Increase the speed to 80 mph and the amount of safe time at speed drops to less than 2 minutes. Luckily there is an easy fix for all of this. The best motorcycle ear plugs can help keep you safe and comfortable on the road while actually improving your riding experience.
The main type of hearing protection that everyone is familiar with are foam ear plugs. On the positive side they are inexpensive and effectively do the job of reducing sound pressure. The two biggest problems with foam are comfort and sound quality. Foam plugs put a large amount of pressure on the ear canal and can be terribly uncomfortable. Foam ear plugs also block all sound and can virtually eliminate the highest frequencies. If you are trying to listen to the radio or your communications systems, what you hear might wind up sounding like all vowels. Hi-Fi hearing protection delivers the right mix of comfort and sound quality for an optimal experience. Professional grade motorcycle ear plugs are designed to be supremely comfortable and are manufactured from a premium grade, velvet finish silicone that is comfortable for hours. You should forget you are wearing them. They should also have an ultra-low profile and fit comfortably under your helmet. A Hi-Fi filter system allows a precise amount of unobstructed sound into the ear so you still have a high-quality audio experience but at a safe, comfortable level. Clearly hear your communications equipment and main situational awareness. The good news is that you don’t have to sacrifice your experience. to stay safe and comfortable when you ride.
If you don’t absorb technical details well, here’s the one thing you need to remember about helmets. Wear one. The numbers speak for themselves:
Duh, right? Then why do more than half the riders in states without helmet laws ride without one? Some myths and misconceptions and the diagram that says it all.
They’re more dangerous than not wearing one. Anti-helmeteers say the weight of the helmet, or the chance the helmet can somehow twist the rider’s neck makes the risk of spinal-cord injuries greater than not wearing a helmet. This is a whole bucket of nope. Credible studies show helmets not only don’t cause more neck and spinal cord trauma, but that helmeted riders report less of such trauma, as well as a lot fewer head and brain injuries.
They restrict vision. Yeah, no. Full-face and 3/4 helmets afford a 210-degree field of view by DOT regulation; human peripheral vision is about 180 degrees.
They restrict hearing. You know what restricts hearing? Hearing loss caused by loud wind noise and exhaust. Helmets restrict hearing very little, and you should be wearing hearing protection anyway (as we said above).
A full face helmet is overkill. Dr. Dietmar Otte released his famous helmet diagram in 2008. 60%+ of impact and abrasion takes place on the front of the helmet. Sometimes a simple diagram tells you everything you need to know.
So how do helmets work, anyway? The same way Best Buy protects your TV set from shipping damage. A helmet is a system composed of a hard outer shell, an impact-absorbing EPS foam liner, a cloth ‘comfort liner’ against the rider’s skin, and a ‘retention system’ (a strap of some kind) to keep it on your melon.
Here’s the main thing to remember. The helmet’s job is to safely slow your head during a rapid stop, like when it hits a solid object. The outer shell is there to protect the EPS liner and spread out the force of impact. Though cheap and crude, the Styrofoam liner does an amazing job protecting your brain against the bruising and resulting swelling that occurs when your head comes to a sudden stop. Your brain is the consistency of Jell-O ™; think what happens when you drop a bowl of it on the kitchen floor.
The EPS crushes as it absorbs energy, gently slowing your head down from 15 mph to zero in a millisecond. The basic design and accompanying DOT regulations haven’t changed in 50 years because it’s affordable and effective protection. Helmets are designed to protect your brain from rapid deceleration, which means you never buy a used helmet; the liner could be damaged even if there’s no visible exterior damage.
So what helmet do you get? Our advice: get the best one you can afford, and get the most protection you can. That means a high-end full-face lid from a major manufacturer, with the fit, features and price tag that’s best for you. This means you have to get off the couch and go to a motorcycle shop, where there should be a knowledgeable product specialist to get you the right helmet. Will you pay more? Probably. But you’ll know right away that you made the right purchase, and you’re supporting a motorcycle shop, which is also good.
Everybody knows a motorcyclist wears leather. Leather is a great material because it resists wear so well, even better than some space-age synthetic stuff. It also blocks wind, again great for us. Having something as abrasion-resistant as leather – good race-quality suits can slide for 100 feet or more without tearing – is obviously important, but there’s something else to consider that grandpa’s awesome old horsehide jacket may lack.
It’s called impact armor, and you should ride with it every time. “Impact injuries” result from striking a solid object, like a car, wall or curb, which are about as likely as abrasion injuries resulting from sliding. The European Union government has a standard (called “CE”) for motorcycle impact armor that’s similar to our DOT standard for helmets, and most armor you can buy has the “CE” logo stamped on it to show it’s compliant.
You won’t feel like a medieval knight, as it’s simple and comfortable to ride with armor. Almost all motorcycle jackets and pants come standard with CE armor in the shoulders, hips, knees and elbows, or it’s available for another $20-100. Most of the less-pricey brands don’t include a CE back protector (instead there’s a piece of light foam to fill out the space), so get one either designed to fit in the jacket, or one you strap around your waist. Modern impact armor can be soft, light, thin, flexible and unobtrusive, so there aren’t many excuses to not wear it.
Some riders opt for a self-inflating airbag jacket or vest that immobilizes the head and neck in a crash, and you can also get CE-standard abdominal protection…but at some point comfort and practicality outweigh safety benefits. After all, no amount or quality of gear is guaranteed to protect you from injury or death, so you have to stop somewhere.
Leather isn’t the only choice when it comes to abrasion protection. Nylon and synthetics like Cordura, ballistic nylon and motorcycle-specific abrasion-resistant fabrics are great choices. Leather looks and feels great, but it loses its wear resistance over time, isn’t washable and can be damaged by water. Textile jackets are lighter, cheaper, washable and easier to waterproof
A final note. Unlike Zoom meetings, you’ll want pants for motorcycle riding. Your butt is the most likely thing to slide on pavement, and imagine it sliding 10 or 20 feet on hot, rough asphalt. Ow. No thanks! Jeans rip in seconds, so wear abrasion-resistant pants with CE-approved armor at the knees and hips. These start at less than $100, but motorcycle-shop parts managers tell us jackets outsell pants six to one. Invest in pants!
Motorcycle.com columnist Gabe Ets-Hokin wrote a hilarious piece about riders who wear all the protective gear, all the time…except for gloves. Why do they do this? We think it’s so they can work their smartphones while they’re riding (shudder), but please, just…wear gloves. Any gloves.
Why? Well, what happens when our bodies suddenly find themselves hurtling through the air? We instinctively put our sensitive, delicate hands out in front of us, palms down. Crunch. Scrape. Argh! Wearing gloves designed to protect from abrasion and impact on pavement is actually the minimal equipment you should wear, not the maximum. That’s right: if you ride nude, at least wear gloves.
Still not convinced you should wear gloves every single ride? Get a bowl to puke into and Google “degloving.” (Not safe for work, kids or people sensitive to images of violent trauma, which should be everybody).
Unless you are deranged, you are now convinced, but what kind of gloves? They come in all styles and levels of protection; don’t you want the most protective? Not necessarily. These are designed for racers crashing at triple-digit speeds and can be both expensive and uncomfortable for daily use. Here are some gloves you might encounter for street riding; like helmets, buy the ones that fit your needs, budget and desired level of comfort.
Gauntlets: These are gloves with extra material to cover the gap between the glove cuff and your jacket sleeve. They protect against cold, rain, sunburn…and road rash. A good feature is a strap to secure the gauntlet, preventing the glove being torn off.
Shorties: Gloves without the gauntlet. Less protective, but cooler and lighter to wear. Avoid fingerless gloves and mesh backs: you can get hot-weather gloves that don’t sacrifice protection. You can even get them with special finger pads so you can work your phone without removing your glove (but not while riding: again, shudder). These are lighter, more comfy and less expensive, but remember: street-motorcycle specific.
Winter Gloves: Usually waterproof and with a thermal or even electrically heated lining, these combine good crash protection with warmth and comfort. A must for cold-weather and rainy riding.
Sport/Race Gloves: Light, thin gloves that offer both protection and ventilation for sporting and racetrack riders. Look for vented leather backs and multiple straps or other solid retention systems to keep them in place, and brace yourself for sticker shock; the high-end ones can be $500 or more.
Hybrid Gloves: Dual-sport and ADV riders need gloves that are comfortable at high speeds, low speeds, on road or off road that are as crash-worthy on the cruel black asphalt as they are on soft Mother Earth. As such, they’re a compromise between durability and flexibility, light weight and ventilation, but better than carrying two pairs of gloves on a trip.
No dough or time to find motorcycle-specific gloves? Don’t worry too much; studies show riders wearing $6.94 Walmart leather work gloves still suffered significantly fewer injuries than ungloved riders. Wear gloves! Or get degloved.
Think of boots as gloves, but for your feet. Motorcycle boots are primarily for protecting your legs and feet, and though your hands are vulnerable in a crash, your tootsies and lower extremities (hello, pants!) are statistically the most-injured body bits. And those injuries don’t just happen in a crash; your ankles can burn on hot exhaust pipes, scalding oil can burn your toes, and road debris can bounce up and hit you, too. And yet folks ride in flimsy sneakers or even…flip flops (another shudder).
Motorcycle-specific footwear is the best, as it’s primarily designed to keep your feet and ankles protected from injuries in a crash, where you’ll be flip-flopping along the pavement. Decent boots start around the same price as fashion sneakers, so why not pick up a pair? Here are some categories of moto-footwear:
Race Boots: These are the most protective, and also the least comfortable and most expensive. Terrible for walking and quick to wear out, they’re a great choice for racers, who tend to crash at high speeds and need a high level of protection.
Tour Boots: These are a compromise between safety and comfort, and are usually waterproof. Cruiser boots fall in this category – modern ones have classic looks concealing modern safety features.
Commute/“Urban”: Styled after casual or office shoes, these can look like sneakers or fancy hipster boots. They usually have less ankle protection and lack other safety features but look “normal” and are comfortable enough for all-day wear off the bike.
Offroad/Dual-sport: Many riders wear these on pavement rides because they believe the high shaft and stiff ankle provide the best possible protection. This may be true, but they are also heavy and uncomfortable, and will probably require you to adjust your gearshifter to accommodate the giant toebox.
Your boots: You may have a pair of heavy, durable leather boots with a stiff sole, high shaft that goes several inches above your ankle and laces securely enough so it won’t come off in a crash. They’re probably better protection than the cheaper motorcycle-specific “urban” styles and are much better protection than heavy, stiff, uncomfortable race or off-road boots that you don’t wear.
Remember: All the gear, all the time! Ride safe.
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