Protection Racket

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

There are two kinds of riders, it's said: Those who are going down and those who have been down.

Falling off a motorcycle is something that almost all of us will experience at one time or another. RoadRUNNER readers, being well above average in intelligence, experience and perspicacity, therefore understand the importance of getting good impact protection from their riding gear. And with age, impact protection becomes more important: Bones will break more easily and take longer to mend.

So what are you looking for in impact protection? Britain's Auto-Cycle Union first drew up impact protection requirements for racing motorcyclists, requiring double thickness leather and 8mm protectors at the elbow, shoulder, knees, hips and spine. But the ACU didn't attempt to specify how efficient these protectors should be or how they were constructed. And, being aware of the legal ramifications if an injured competitor claimed his 'ACU specification' suit had failed to provide adequate protection, the ACU decided to hand the problem to the European Community standards committees.

In 1991, the German standards organization, DIN, under contract to the EC, started work to formulate a Personal Protective Equipment Directive. The first standard they produced, EN 1621-1, addressed joint/limb impact protection inserts and became the standard most often invoked by the mark 'CE' (for Communauté Européene) in motorcycle gear. Impact protectors bearing the CE mark must have been independently tested to meet the requirements of EN 1621-1.

Essentially, the armor must be capable of resisting an impact of 50J (joules), roughly equivalent to dropping a 5lb weight onto it from 6 feet, while transmitting a mean force of less than 35kN (kiloNewtons) to the wearer. (EN 1621-1 also includes 'high performance' and 'extreme performance' standards, based on 75J and 100J impacts, but these are rarely applied to consumer wear.) Spine protectors are covered by a different standard, EN 1621-2, which requires a transmitted force of less than 18kN (or 9kN for higher performance 'level 2' protection) from the same impact.

So all you need to do is look for a garment with protectors marked 'CE' and you're OK. Or are you?

The 'CE' standard is for the protectors only. If the protectors don't stay in place, or if the garment disintegrates, the protectors may not be able to do their job. Aware of this problem, the EC turned to developing specifications for complete garments that would include impact protection, abrasion resistance, burst strength and other factors. The standard is known as EN 13595. DIN also developed standards for gloves and footwear, EN 13594 and 13634 respectively.

Ever seen any garments that mention these garment standards on their labels? Neither have I, though some European makers (BKS Leathers, for example) sell motorcycle suits that meet EN 13595. It's unclear whether the paucity of full CE spec. gear is because few garments are able to meet the specification, or whether manufacturers don't want to spend the money for independent testing, or because the EC has been lax in publicizing the standards. But a standard that has no clout, either in legal or marketing terms, is hardly worth the work that went into preparing it.

Highway or runway?
Another factor that clouds the issue is the confusion between fashion garments and protective wear. In Europe, if motorcycle clothing is sold as protective wear, it must meet the appropriate EC standard. For that reason, manufacturers are careful how they talk about protection, usually limiting claims to the 'CE' armor. Garments sold as fashion wear don't have to meet any standard; but, for example, fashion motorcycle jackets are often sold with protectors in the elbows and shoulders. The implication is that the whole jacket is a protective garment - not necessarily so.

It also seems unlikely that the lightweight textile mesh jackets and pants that are becoming popular as summer riding wear in North America would meet the EC standards, especially in abrasion resistance or burst strength. However, the mesh jacket hanging in my garage claims to be 'safety equipment.' Maybe not, but it's certainly better than shorts, sandals and a tank top.

Many types of materials can be and have been made to meet the CE impact protector standard, including expanded polystyrene, polyurethane foam and PVC/nitrile gels/foams. And though some manufacturers claim that their impact protectors can be re-used many times, they will only provide optimum protection the first time a rider takes a spill. EPS in particular is strictly a one-use-only material, but any type of impact protector should be replaced after a tumble.

CE or bust?
Though CE has become the accepted standard for impact protection inserts, some manufacturers have taken things a stage further. BMW's NP visco-elastic integrated polyurethane foam protectors, announced for 2006, handily exceed the CE standard, says the company, and they supposedly offer additional benefits. BMW claims their NP material delays transfer of the impact by 5-8 milliseconds, compared with 2-4 ms in competing protectors. This delay, they say, allows the impact energy to be dissipated more slowly, like an automobile's crumple zone. BMW also asserts that NP will reduce peaks in the impact transfer and eliminate rebound effects. All of this comes as a result of collaboration between BMW and medical, biomechanical and accident research experts.

The CE standard for spine protectors has also come under criticism. Many experts claim that the maximum allowable energy transfer to the spine should be 4kN. BMW's NP spine protector comes close at a claimed 4-6kN. Of course, BMW isn't the only company involved in developing better protection; but of the larger North American garment suppliers, they do seem to be one of the few taking the subject seriously.

CE has become the accepted standard for protective inserts, and protectors meeting the standard will be so marked. But what does 'CE rated' or 'CE type' (as I've seen in some promotional material) mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

So what should you look for in protective rider wear? It's unlikely you'll easily find street gear that's been tested and approved to EN 13595 in your local motorcycle store, so look for CE protectors and examine the general quality of materials, design and construction - especially stitching and seam strength. Also, 'CE rated' or 'CE type' on the swing tag doesn't cut it: Look for the CE mark on limb/joint and spine protectors, and make sure they're securely located in the garment. Check the manufacturer's website for safety information or test results.

And while any protective wear is better than none, better is always good.