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The Truth About Motorcycle Body Armor

Motorcycle Body ArmorMotorcycle riders have forever been making important decisions about their protective gear, with little data to guide them.  The 1981 Hurt report remains the standard for investigative data on motorcycle crashes.  Obviously, materials and manufacturing are light years away from the best of what was available when Hurt did his study.

We can thank the United States Government, who is concerned about our soldiers that are being injured in motorcycle accidents.  They published what is certainly one of the best studies to date on motorcycle armor.

The study involved gear that meets the European Standards, and they looked at two main issues:  Abrasion resistance, and impact protection.

One thing that was cool was that the study did not limit itself to the same old police report method, but they also went to repair facilities, and looked at the crashes they were referred to by the shops.

In all, they included more than 200 events, so the data has some tooth.  That’s certainly enough data to draw some conclusions, although I think that certain events need more data.

When Harry Hurt did his report, he concluded that the main determinant of foot injuries was a stiff sole.

The new study found that wearing any type of boot provided a 53% reduction in risk of any foot or ankle injury,and 73% reduction in open wound injuries, but armored motorcycle boots reduced the risk of an open wound injury by 90%.

This is a pretty clear message.  That said, let’s parse the data a little.  the 53% reduction is “any” injury vs “no” injury.  It doesn’t say anything about the severity of the injury.  The “open wound” category refers to skin damage.  This is different than, for example, a crush injury.  Still, this is a big reduction of certain types of injury.

The next finding will be controversial in some quarters.  Motorcycle specific gloves, pants and jackets were no more protective than fashion leathers, unless they had armor.  I suspect that this reflects the fact that abrasion resistant gear does not do much of a job of protecting agains non-abrasion injury.  Road rash is a lot less in most crashes, because the speeds in most crashes are also low.  Further, most riders at least wear denim or something with some abrasion resistance.  Riders who ride in t-shirts and shorts are in the minority.

The findings on back protectors need to be looked at carefully.  The study found that soft tissue damage to the back and side was more common with back protectors than without.  Note that we are talking about soft tissue damage, not broken backs or cracked vertebrae.

Without looking at the actual events, I can only guess at why back protectors are causing soft tissue damage.

My guess is that the back protectors protrude, introducing the possibility of catching and creating rotational forces.  Most of the back protectors limit spine movement in some way.  There is the question of spot loading and where the spot loads occur.

In any event, most riders don’t wear back protectors for soft tissue protection, or, to be correct, most riders don’t wear back protectors to protect from lesser soft tissue injuries.  (Damage to the spinal cord, for example, is “soft tissue”, but it can result in paralysis.  A “whiplash” that only lasts a few weeks is a “minor” soft tissue injury.  It must be noted that some “minor” neck injuries can last a lifetime.)

This study is a terrific start for those who make careful decisions about their riding gear.

At some point, I would like to explore for this blog the choice of hard vs soft armor.  I personally like the Forcefield armor, that is soft.  Professional riders overwhelmingly wear hard armor, but they are not the track, not the street.

Hat’s off to the Marines for moving this topic forward.

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About the Author

Michael Padway is a motorcycle accident attorney with over 40 years of experience in motorcycle cases. He’s been a lifelong motorcycle rider, and fanatic for its culture, advocacy, and safety. If you need assistance with a motorcycle accident, contact him at (800) 928-1511 or visit michaelpadway.com for a free consultation.