Some months back, Motorcyclist magazine did a two part story on motorcycle helmets and how protective various helmets were, measuring impact forces transmitted to the head while comparing their findings against the rating standards such as DOT and Snell. If you haven’t read these articles, you really should. Of course, there’s a lot more of you exposed to possible injury than just your head and the January issue of Cycle World has an article on body armor, those products that attempt to give the rest of your body a better chance of surviving the impacts and abrasions common to motorcycle accidents.
As with a helmet, there is a dramatic difference in injury levels between those wearing some protection versus the shirt and bluejean crowd. Even regular denim wears through quickly in any slide and we know what’s left after that, goodbye skin, muscle and bone. However not all areas of your body are equally vulnerable. Based on the work of Dr. Robert Woods, who analyzed clothing from numerous motorcycle accidents, the body has been divided into four zones. Zone 1 areas get high impact and abrasion, Zone 2 less and so on until Zone 4 which receives practically none. Protect the vulnerable areas and you’re far more likely to survive and lessen the injuries compared to the less protected rider. Most vulnerable areas are no surprise: elbows, shoulders, knees and hips. Chest and back need both abrasion and impact protection and don’t forget your hands, knuckles need protection as do palms during any slide. The repeated findings in any test show heavy leather to be the most abrasion resistant material followed by the newer synthetics like Kevlar and then thin leather.
Unlike helmets, there are no U.S. standards and the European CE standards are open to some disagreement as to how they apply. And, as we saw in the helmet study, standards aren’t always the best way to judge protective qualities.
What’s a rider to do? Use your head. Realize, any protection is better than none but no protection can make you invincible. Unlike a car, you have no crush zone to absorb high impact and your deceleration will be extremely rapid if hitting a solid object, armor or no armor. Body armor can offer a lot of extra help in the sliding and tumbling accidents bikers may experience. It can help a lot in the bike to ground direction in lower speed accidents that are very common. If you insist on riding aggressively at high speeds, a full on racing suit like racers wear along with great physical conditioning gives you a fighting chance.
The same companies that make armor for the racers, offer it for the street, too. Also, Icon, a street rider oriented company, makes a nice line of body armor, including vest, elbow , knee/shin guards and shorts. All of these products are in addition to the jacket and pants you normally wear, many of which contain armor of their own.
Few of us will wear all of the protective products available but take a realistic approach and judge the type of riding you do. Some of you are far more likely to need this armor than others but even the less aggressive rider will wish for the best protection possible in that instant when they see a crash is inevitable. Body armor is more comfortable and high tech these days so don’t dismiss it entirely. There might be a day you’ll be very glad you have it.