What's protecting us when we fall off? Our riding kit!

Survival Skills Rider Training

Get in a modern car and you're surrounded by impact protection ranging from safety cells to airbags. But unlike cars, motorcycles don't come with impact protection, so once we part company with the bike, we're entirely reliant on our riding kit. 

Although there are some interesting developments in the pipe line which would improve the way helmets deal with the rotational that cause tearing injuries to the brain, in terms of straight impact protection my guess is that modern helmets have probably reached the point - or are very close to it - where they do about as much as can be done in protecting against head injury.

In cases where riders die from fatal head injuries, they often had fatal internal injuries too - usually ruptured organs and blood vessels with the damage caused by coming to a sudden stop. The head injuries simply killed them first.

So as long as you choose a good-fitting helmet that stays securely on your head, I'm doubtful that the common wisdom that the top-of-the-range helmets offering much more protection than decent mid-priced helmets is actually correct - if it is, I've yet to see evidence.

But the lid does have to fit and stay put. Far too many riders have badly-fitting helmets because they've picked one size too big "because it's comfortable". Others wear helmets long past the point at which the inner lining has started to degrade and compress. And there are cheap helmets that look and feel badly-made. 

If you're worrying about where to spend cash, get a GOOD-FITTING helmet that does up SECURELY. Too many riders also have a dangling chin strap a centimetre under the chin "because it's comfortable". It won't be nearly so comfortable when the helmet comes off on impact. 

And DO watch out for fakes. There are plenty of counterfeit helmets being sold. As well as on internet sites, they've been seized from market traders' stalls. DO buy from a reputable supplier - and if a deal looks too good to be true? Then it almost certainly is. 

Modern visors are anti-scratch, and with a careful treatment and delicate cleaning, can last for a long time. My last helmet had just two visors during its life. But wiping them with a glove when its raining can destroy them in seconds. Use something to make the water bead up and run off in wet weather - I simply use Mr Sheen furniture polish, which is an inert wax product in a non-damaging propellant. 

Scratched visors are a liability at night - so are dark tints. Replace damaged ones and refit clear visors for night time use. 

After that, it's important to have a garment that holds together when we go sliding down the road. How often do you see someone sporting a top-of-the-range Arai or Shoei and riding in a bomber jacket, ordinary denims, no gloves and trainers?

In years gone by, I would have told riders to look for CE-approved kit. I'm still going to recommend that but check the labelling. There are now three standards:

A, AA and AAA.

A is, not to put too fine a point on it, not much use on a bike unless you spend all your time riding in 20 mph limits, no matter what the manufacturer may say. Independent tests by the research scientists (not manufacturers!) at the garment-testing MotoCAP facility in Australia have found that ordinary denim jeans can pass the tests and could be marked with the A level.

So my advice would be to see AA as a minimum standard, and if you can find it, aim for the triple A standard. It's not as high as the old Level 2 CE protection, but is pretty robust.

Years ago I lost a glove in a crash, I spotted it about twenty five metres back up the road from where I ended up. It was just lucky I tumbled and didn't have chance to put my hands down. It's instinctive. So make sure gloves fit snugly and have wrist restraints - test them by doing them up and pulling the fingers. HARD! Then USE THEM when you put the gloves on. Hard impact protection and a panel for sliding on the palm are good ideas. The gloves should also be long enough not to leave a gap at the wrist. And the less said about the fad for fingerless gloves, the better. 

Whether you choose ankle-high boots or full length bike boots is a personal choice but look for robust construction and hard protection over the ankle bones. And a snug fit so they don't pull off. Feet often get stuck under sliding motorcycles and those bones are very vulnerable. Rear zip closures used to be common, but my experience is that with wear, the zip tends to 'bunch up' painfully behind the achilles tendon. I prefer side closures these days.

I think I've made my doubts about body armour known pretty widely. A study on the effectiveness of motorcycle kit in Australia found little evidence that body armour reduced lower leg injuries. What it did do, however, was add a second lay of abrasion resistance after the trouser and jacket material wore through.

Back protectors seem to offer zero to limited protection against hyperextension and no protection at all against compression and twisting injuries. And frankly, if you're going to fall off, only about 1:8 suffer back injuries and they're usually not serious. According to figures I found fractured spines are rare (around 1:1000 of those who suffer back injuries) and neurological damage even rarer (1:5000 of those who suffer back injuries).

So by all means use body armour, and upgrade the Level 1 impact armour to Level 2 if you wish, but don't think it's making you bulletproof. However high-tech it is, and however well it saves a MotoGP rider from falling from the height of the bike to the track surface, it won't be able to absorb much impact if the rider hits something solid. That's why crashes at the TT are so often fatal. 

There are even more high-tech options such as neck braces and airbag jackets. Suffice to say that at the moment, there is no clear evidence from accident studies as to whether they make a difference. Only the latest airbags with remote sensors on the bike deploy rapidly enough to be inflated in a car-bike collision, and there's straightforward explanation of just what kind of real-life impact they can absorb in any case. If you can afford it, by all means kit yourself up with everything you can, but once again, there's a limit to just what they can do.

The best piece of protective riding kit you have is YOUR BRAIN. Ultimately, riding on high alert and knowing where the risks lie, then taking some positive steps to reduce the threat of things going wrong, even if that means backing off on the gung-ho meter will always do more than protective clothing.

Prevent the crash, and you don't need to rely on your riding kit! Simple.

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SURVIVAL SKILLS APPROACH TO DEFENSIVE RIDING? All Survival Skills courses are based on the need to correctly identify hazards, assess the risk they pose, then employ PRO-ACTIVE risk mitigation strategies that deal with the WORST CASE SCENARIO. Will the car pull out? What will we do about it? Will the bend tighten up? What will we do about it? Will the overtake go wrong? And then we need a strategy to stay out of trouble. 

Developing and then using proactive skills to assess and manage threats helps us stay out of trouble - that way, we won't need to rely on our riding kit to prevent injury.

So if you're looking for a course that will genuinely improve your riding, and push your threat awareness and response to new levels, then why not give me a buzz?