By June 2, 2011

Does Gearing Up Make You a Safer Motorcyclist?

A much younger friend of mine used to ride a motorcycle. Several years ago, his friend got in a fight with his girlfriend. Angry and emotional, my pal’s friend jumped on his motorcycle and sped off. He suffered a very serious wreck and was injured. When my friend got the call about his buddy, he buckled on his helmet and jumped on his own motorcycle. Emotionally charged, my friend wasn’t in the right mindset to ride and crashed on the way to the hospital, also becoming seriously injured.

When I ride my motorcycle I wear “all the gear, all the time” (ATGATT). That means specialized safety gear: gloves, jacket, body armor, pants, boots, and helmet. I believe that wearing safety gear helps a rider in the event of a crash. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Wear protective gear, reduce injury during a crash.

There may be some statistical evidence that those who wear motorcycle gear are inherently less prone to accidents than those who wear less (or no!) gear. I believe ATGATT motorcyclists “self-select” into a higher safety bracket because they have thought enough about safety and avoiding injury to buy gear in the first place. I’ve been pondering lately if the act of putting gear on in the first place makes one a safer motorcyclist.

I definitely go through a mental and emotional transformation when I put on my gear and prepare to ride my motorcycle. It takes a few minutes to put all of my stuff on. When I wear foam earplugs, putting in each plug takes 40 seconds alone.

Put on boots — five loops per boot.

Then overpants — two zippers and a belt buckle.

Then body armor — two clips and a waistband with three attachment points.

Jacket’s next — two cuff zippers, then the main zipper. I might have a liner in the pants and jacket, so that adds another round of snuggling and zipping.

If it’s raining, I have extra rain pants and a rain jacket.

Then out to the bike.

Put the key in the bike ignition, open the top case with the other set of keys.

Put on my helmet, adjust canalphones if necessary, put on gloves.

Put my bag in the top case.

Do a quick check on the bike. Mount up, take a deep breath, start the bike.

Ride.

That’s a lot of stuff, and I have gotten shit from motorcycle owners and non-owners alike. “You look like a stormtrooper,” people have said. “How do you enjoy riding with all of that crap on?” “Hurry up, it takes you forever to suit up.”

However, this does something very important for me besides the obvious safety factor of wearing gear in the event of a crash. It’s a ritual that slows me down, and greatly reduces my chance of riding while emotionally charged. I have to think about riding, and the time it takes me to put everything on also gives me enough time to get into the mindset of being a safer motorcyclist. You might die out there. Screw up, not pay attention, get clipped by a minivan on the highway, and Evel Knievel your ass into a hearse.

Motorcycling is fun, but it’s not a game. Physically gearing up gives me time to mentally gear up. By the time I snap my visor down, I’m a different person and all of the usual joking stops.

Does this make a difference? Is this one reason I’ve been accident free in nearly six years of riding and approximately 50,000 miles in the saddle?

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10 Comments on "Does Gearing Up Make You a Safer Motorcyclist?"

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  1. Hank says:

    I think you are dead on, Mr. Faulken. I don’t go as far as you do with the gear, but I always wear a helmet, gloves, a jacket with armor, and appropriate shoes. Ride safe man.

  2. Jenner says:

    Like you, if it’s there for my safety I use it. It takes me 10 minutes to get ready for a 5 minute ride to the 7-11 for a Dr. Pepper. One thing I’ve not seen you mention (but I miss things)is a GPS emergency locator beacon. The one I use is SPOT and I know there is at least one other popular brand out there. Living in the urban areas of northern California it’s surprising how fast you find yourself out of cell service. My riding is mostly pleasure, mostly alone and usually out of cell service. SPOT fills a big need for me. Have you ever had the urge?

  3. DrFaulken says:

    Thanks, Hank!

    Jenner, I have considered the SPOT, as sometimes I take longer highway trips and I’d like a backup emergency notification system in case the bike breaks down or I have a minor accident.

    My one reservation with the SPOT is that the coverage is … spotty … according to some owners. My father, who does wilderness search and rescue in Colorado, also said that they have problems with SPOT devices giving bad information or not sending/receiving signals at all.

    Do you have the original SPOT device or the second generation one? I’d be curious to see a few of your riding maps to see if you get consistent reporting.

  4. Jenner says:

    I have the second generation. I also opted for the plan that provides for “tracking”, sending and recording a GPS location every ten minutes. The idea, if I had a wreck and couldn’t activate it because of breakage or not being able to activate because of injury, that it would at least tell people where I had been within ten minutes and usually be able to tell by my past readings some idea of where I was headed and where to start looking and if the beacon kept sending where I landed all the better. In reviewing my tracking history after each ride I don’t see any lapse in readings being sent. I can also press a button to “check in” and that never fails. That function, in my case, is set to send my location to my Facebook page along with a link to a map of my movements during the time period I set for (2 days), that can be set for public or private. I use another button to send a text and an email to a friend if I am in trouble. The device has worked flawlessly. The only failure are things that would be common to any unit or even satellite radio in your car, an extremely thick canopy of trees or buildings blocking the satellite. But as I said, the tracking function is the best possible workaround as usually somewhere in ten minutes you go in and out of a obstruction. To respond to your specific point, I am in northern California, in Colorado the location in relation to satellites may greatly impact the results.

  5. Jenner says:

    I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to pull this up. I haven’t had the thing on in over 7 days and I can’t show tracking longer than that, but this my actual location on a random day, at Alices’s Restaurant, a local bike enthusiast hangout. This shows not only my location, but the area in the parking lot where I was parked. Extremely accurate

    Though I prepared the link in Firefox, I checked and it did work in IE and Chrome. If you have any trouble I’ll compose in IE for you.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=37.38669%20-122.265&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&hl=en&tab=wl

  6. EdH says:

    I think there is a happy medium. I never ride without gear, but I don’t look like a stormtrooper. My boots are steel toed, leather with serious tread, but they take 5 seconds per boot to put on. Just a quick zipper up the side of each. I put on a jacket, which is thick leather and has a buckle and zipper. Then my helmet. I’ve gone from full to 3/4 to half lately. Won’t argue half is safer than the rest, but it is more enjoyable. Easier to communicate at lights with other riders and I’ve even been able to shout at another rider when their saddlebag came loose, something impossible with a full and a 3/4 would make it difficult with the screen in place.

    Then I put on the gloves. If it is a long trip, over 50mi, I usually put on leather chaps, unless it is cold then they go on for 5 miles. Regardless, I always wear jeans.

    I could put on more, but I find it starts to restrict vision, comfort and/or movement, all of which work against safety.

    Is my setup safer than AGTATT in avoidance? I could argue that. Is it safer in an accident? I wouldn’t try to argue it is and would concede the more cocoon-like you are, the safer you are once you have lost control of the situation.

    Coming up on 20K miles in 22 months of riding, accident free. 50% weekend trips and 50% commuting in Orange County, CA. I don’t use a car anymore.

    That is important for time too. I couldn’t go to the grocery store in a full body suit with armor, or stop off at the pharmacy or run out to meet someone for lunch.

    Everything is a tradeoff. I do think the act of putting on what I do gets me ready to ride as opposed to the chuckleheads around here that put on the smallest thinnest DOT beanie allowed and go riding in flipflops and shorts.

    It isn’t your gear that keeps you out of an accident, it is your mental state and training to be aware of your surroundings. In both wrecks cited above, neither should have been controlling any moving vehicle.

  7. DrFaulken says:

    Hi EdH,

    Just wanted to say thanks for your thoughtful post. I am not sure how you mean about safety gear restricting vision or movement.

    In regards to vision, the only time I’ve noticed my full-face helmet interfering is while looking down at feet level. I have yet to encounter a reason to look at my crotch while riding; even when my BMW decided to spray gas all over me (while running) I was able to clearly identify the danger.

    I think I understand where you are coming from regarding “comfort,” but that is also a matter of interpretation. I pass by guys in open-face helmets in the rain, as I imagine it sucks to get pelted in the face while doing highway speeds.

    I totally hear you that full-face helmets make things more difficult. We relied a lot on hand signals when riding (I made a post about that somewhere on here), and otherwise stayed silent.

    Would you please explain more about not putting on more gear when you go to the store / shorter trips? I am probably acclimated to budgeting more time to gear up and check the bike and don’t notice it much any more.

    The only things I leave the house without may be my body armor or secondary vision protection. I suit up fully to go to the grocery store or go out to lunch. I believe that while the stakes are lower at non-freeway speeds, my chances of getting into a wreck are higher on surface streets. The jaunt to the grocery store has a much more complicated and unpredictable traffic pattern than a four lane highway with known on- and off-ramps.

    I was almost run over at my last job by a woman driving a minivan through the parking lot, across all of the parking spaces.

    Thanks again for posting. I know we don’t agree on everything, but I do agree motorcycling is a complicated, personal system of trade-offs and risk management. Keep the shiny side up :)

  8. EdH says:

    On the helmet and comfort, it is as you say, personal preference. I do have a visor on my half-helmet that comes right to the tip of the nose, so it keeps the brunt of the wind off of my eyes (I wear glasses most of the time), and I have a beard, so for most riding, my face is shielded from the effects of wind. I have a Harley Road King Classic with the big windscreen and that keeps a lot of the wind away from me as well. Rain really isn’t an issue for me. The combination of the windscreen and visor keep most water off of my facial area directly. Sure, my beard gets wet, but I am not being pelted. And I’ll be honest here too, I feel raw when riding in the rain, like I am not as insulated from the experience as someone in a car is. As long as it is above 45-50 degrees (and it almost always is in SoCal), i am cool with some level of wetness. Rain pants, rain jacket and I am good to go.

    Part of the ergonomics I spoke of regarding the full face may be the design of my bike. The instrumentation is tank mounted. With a full-face, you cannot see ANY of it without moving your chin down – way worse than just glancing down a bit with my eyeballs. Part of my riding and being aware of my surroundings is what is going on with my actual speed, is the turn signal still on (sometimes when I weave to get in the turn lane, the self canceling turn signals will think *that* was the turn and deactivate before I have done the real turn), fuel levels, etc. At first I thought it was a stupid ergonomic design of the bike to have that way down there, then I realized very few on an HD rode full face, and the appeal of the Classic is its retro design, including tank mounted instrumentation, so why should it work with a full face, right?

    As for suiting up to run quick errands, I personally don’t do any more or less. My gear is jeans, gloves, boots, helmet, thick leather jacket, and chaps if a long ride. My point was, I couldn’t see doing more than that to go to the store, so body armor, boots that take as long as yours to get hooked up, over-pants, etc, would do one of two things for me. 1) just say forget it, it isn’t worth suiting up for a 3mi trip or 2) I’d start taking shortcuts in the gear.

    As I said, I wouldn’t argue my gear offers more protection. That would be a stupid position to take. I do feel though that it offers sufficient protection that I am being prudent, it is at a level that I can don every time I ride.

    Not mentioned here, but it applies, the bike offers some level of protection. I know you ride an FJR. I would think going down on that in a slide would be a potentially painful experience as there is nothing but your leg holding the bike off the ground as you slide. I have the crash guards. Yeah, i know, they are supposed to be called engine guards, but that is legal mumbo jumbo. My wife went down on her HD Super Glide last year with a crash guard installed and she had a slight bit of road rash where her jacket rode up on her but the bike slid on the guard, not her leg. Bike was totaled because the guard bent the frame when it hit the ditch. We didn’t know that at the time as we and the group we were with picked the bike up and she rode it home! I’ve known one other person in the last 12 months that bent the frame too when going down but they were undamaged as the guard kept the bike off of them.

    Not saying one is better than the other or anything of the sort. Just saying it is different, it is a factor, and I think the guard plays enough of a roll that I have some comfort in not gearing up to the extent you do.

    You are right that the stakes aren’t any lower around town versus the interstate or some canyon road. So why do i not put on leather chaps when going to the store or even commuting to work but i do when doing a 50mi trip or longer? {shrug} can’t give a logical defense for it. It is just the way I do it.

    Keep up the good work on the site. I especially look forward to any motorcycling post. Whether I agree with it or not, it always gives me something to think about, and that alone makes it worthwhile.

  9. Cap'n says:

    Just wanted to thank you, and to second a couple of your thoughts. I am at 7 years and 51k miles with no accidents, most of which has been in and around Boston on an FZ6. I too wear everything all the time, minus riding pants until recently. I owned a pair, but only wore them on long trips, in the rain, or when it was cold. I got a better pair this year that unzip way up the legs, so I can get in and out of them much easier. I too feel that taking 3 or 4 minutes to get on the bike makes for a better prepared rider, regardless of the added fall protection.

    The two tip-overs I’ve ever had were in parking lots when I was in a hurry, with the bike not moving. Once on gravel, once on asphalt (last week.) In both cases it was being in a hurry that did me in, thinking the bike was properly set onto the kickstand when it wasn’t (in a different way each time).

    When I was a kid, I rode ATV’s and dirt bikes with my dad and brother. Dad got us all the gear, and made a big deal about it – this was _equipment_, this was a tool, this was a necessary part of the experience. Putting on that helmet, boots, gloves, and chest protector turned me into a superhero who could pilot fun equipment. Gearing up meant “it’s time to go RIDE!” Some of that is still with me… it says “I take this seriously.”

    And lastly, I rock the pants and jacket with pride in the grocery store, as I carry a Givi E21 in with me and fill it with stuff to buy. It doesn’t make me feel self conscious. When a clerk asks “why do you wear all that stuff?” I generally respond “this is my windshield, seat belt, and air bags.” That or “because crashing sucks.”

  10. Stokester says:

    “You look like a stormtrooper”

    Have you been following me around? I hear this all the time.

    I found your site during a search and came upon this conversation.

    Apparently I’m much like you Dr. I gear up all the time and feel uncomfortable if I ride across the area at a rally without my gear. I have a great Hein Gericke Timbuktu jacket with Dainese pants for winter/spring/fall riding and a good Fieldsheer mesh jacket and pants for the summers. All are very comfortable and with my full-face helmet, Rev It! gloves and HG boots makes a full riding outfit for each season. Many will ask ; “but it’s so very expensive to buy good gear” , yes that is true but I searched the discontinued and last year model sites for bargains.

    Your comments about a routine stuck a chord. I spent 28+ years in the Air Force with the last 22 as a career enlisted aviator. My job was all about routine and following a checklist to ensure safety and mission accomplishment. This is how I approach riding. My daily commute is only 25 miles round-trip but is along very congested roads full of commuter traffic. My morning routine includes putting my work pants and shoes in the Chase Harper tail pack and donning all my gear. It come back to routine and it helps me get my mind into the riding ahead.

    Frequently I stop by the grocery store on the way home and do get asked “Isn’t it hot?”. The answer is yes but actually cooler in my mesh pants than would be in blue jeans because of the air flow.

    We all know that there are two types of riders, those that have and those that will take a spill. I’ve done it a couple of times and fortunately all that was injured was my pride and a signal stalk.

    Cheers,
    Nick

    This is a great conversation.

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