Zen and the art of not dying on a motorbike

by Tina Holmboe 22nd of October 2011 (archive)

Many people fancy riding a motorbike. Few give much thought to the dangers involved. Style often override sensibility; posture knock out sanity: the beautiful corpse is an oxymoron; the stylish quadriplegic a misnomer. Pontificating? You betcha!

The following is not meant to prevent you from getting into motorbikes. It is meant to make you stop, think, and do it properly.

Let’s look at some facts.

Firstly, understand that those around you, in cars and trucks, will not see you, and should they see you, they will ignore you.

Secondly, when they do, you will — sooner or later — fall down. When this happens, the damage you sustain will be directly proportional to the sort of protection around you.

Third, in a fight between yourself and gravity, you. Will. Lose. In a fight between yourself and the ground, you. Will. Lose.

At this point people will say that, oh, well, in a car you are much better protected. After all, if an articulated lorry hit you on a bike you’re dead!

To which, alas, I can only reply: what the heck do you think will happen to you if you get 24–ton–moving–at–speed in the side of your car? You think, you really, really think those few millimetres of steel and plastic will offer any sort of protection?

But, let’s face it, there are a few unique problems with a bike. It is rare that you fall off your car and slide along the road, and if you do … ’tis very likely you had other difficulties to start with.

Am I scaring you yet? Good! That’s the plan. Riding a bike is not like dusting crops — there are dangers, yes, but they can easily be exaggerated. You are safer on a motorbike in traffic that you are on a bicycle; there are accidents which would be lethal in a car which you’ll likely live through on a bike, and overall — done sensibly – there is not reason for anything to go wrong.

Here’s a few other facts:

Between 1990 and 2009, the number of motorbikes in Sweden doubled. The number of deaths, however, have remained between 36 and 60 for the same period.

60% of those deaths spring from driving too fast, overtaking too poorly, turning poorly, drinking, wearing no helmet, or having absolute no training on a supersport bike.

Wearing, and wearing a properly sized, helmet will up your chances of not dying by 24%. Not drinking will cut it by 28%. You’ll win 70% by sticking to the posted speed–limit.

Am I getting to you yet? Good.

Roughly 37% of those killed die from driving supersports–bikes, and they die alone after hitting something they shouldn’t — normally a tree, a rail, or similar — while wearing poor safety–equipment and often drunk.

Noticing a pattern here? Let me be explicit:

  • Do not drive a bike you cannot safely control. Humility saves your life.
  • Do not drink and drive. One drink is one too many. Yes, that include wine.
  • Do not drive like a maniac. Speed limits are often there for a reason and that curve might just be too steep.
  • Do not overtake unless you know you have enough room and really, really, really need to.
  • Do not overtake just before a hill or a turn. You have no X–Ray vision. Neither do the others.
  • Do not think that others know what you’ll do. Position yourself and signal; explicitly, properly, and early.
  • Do not forget your blind–spots. Cars will but it ain’t their hide. It’s yours.
  • Do not neglect proper safety equipment. See below.

The very first thing I did after deciding to again ride a bike, was look for protective equipment. At a minimum, this consists of a helmet, a pair of gloves, a jacket, and a pair of solid boots. Each have different criteria.

Helmets

A helmet is without doubt the single most important accessory to riding a motorbike. Those who do not wear one, has little enough to protect. Most everything else that can happen to you may be repaired; all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men can’t do much to fix a shattered skull. Crack that egg, and you are — with some luck – dead. On a bad day you’ll end up in a persistent vegetative state. On a really bad day you’ll be stuck, immobile, but conscious, for the rest of your life.

Give that some thought.

Personally I’ve always preferred what is known as an «integral» or «full face» helmet. This springs from a desire to avoid having bugs crash into my face while driving, and from having seen what a so–called «open» helmet leave you with should you fall off and bounce/slide along the asphalt with your face down. It’s not a pretty sight. The Wikipedia link below has some examples of helmet damage you should be able to translate to face ditto.

When I got my license, all those years ago, there was one particular type which tempted me above else: the model which could open in front — known as the «flip up» or «modular» version. Back then the only people I knew who could afford them were police–officers; their use of them are obvious enough.

Today the situation is different — and development has progressed at speed. When looking around I soon found that not only are modular full face helmets available, but affordable. Once you’ve decided on a style, look around for deals, but keep in mind that you want a certified product. This means either BSI 6685:1985 (UK), ECE 22.05 (Europe/EU), Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218 (DOT/US), or — for the USians — Snell M2005/M2010. There are others; not much difference exist in the protection they «guarantee».

Other things to remember:

  • Try it on. A helmet is of no use if it is uncomfortable, because it will without fail lead to you not wearing the thing.
  • Try it on. The helmet need to fit your head shape, and be tight — but not too tight.
  • Try it on with your glasses if you require them to drive.
  • Try it on with your sunglasses if you don’t pick one with an integrated sun visor.
  • Try it on. Get it?
  • Pick the design you like. There’s no evidence today that a HiVis helmet will help others see you better, so pick one you’ll enjoy wearing.
  • Be aware of the weight. Remember that, at speed, moving your head will require work to fight the wind.
  • Learn to wear it properly — in particular, learn to use the chin–strap. If it fall off you are not doing so well.

This time around I fell for the Italian Nolan N90. See references for reviews. Very happy with it so far.

And, finally: If you believe that wearing a helmet is against your «personal freedom», remove your lack of a brain from my blog and my life. Yes, seriously.

Earplugs

«Earplugs⁈» — I hear you ask. Yes — ear–plugs, or rather: noise dampening. This, granted, is not a life–saving exercise, but rather one in damage control: riding a motorbike is still not like dusting crops. You’re sitting outside, on top of an engine, with only the foam in your helmet between you and engine, wind and tire–noise.

It can be substantial. Unless you can afford something like the BMW noise cancelling helmets, and unless wearing ear–plugs is so uncomfortable for you that it makes the ride physically unpleasant … get a pair of suitable plugs.

An alternative is in–ear headphones, but remember that these may poke out a little. Also, keep in mind that music — in particular loud music – may prevent you from hearing sirens other other warning signals. Regular ear–plugs designed for use on a motorbike will not cancel out high frequencies.

Then there are active noise–cancelling in–ear headphones such as the Philips SHN2500, JVC HANCX77, AKG K390NC, Panasonic RP–HC55–S, Sony MDR–NC33, Denon AHNC600 or Sennheiser CXC 700.

«Active», as opposed to passive–let’s–block–the–ear–canal headsets, uses a microphone to record ambient noise, and play back a 180–degrees–twisted frequency to drown out the sounds from outside your ears. This works very, very well with over–the–ear sets like Nokia BH–905 or Sennheiser S1 Digital; not so well with in–ear plugs. Whether they work well under your helmet is something only you can answer.

And, finally, there are the hi–tech finalists such as the Nokia Essence bluetooth–driven, active noise–cancelling, in–ear stereo headsets. That’s a mouthful for anyone, but it gives you reduced noise, music, a lack of wires and handsfree capability all in one simple package. Other contenders in this group are few and far between, tho Sony–Ericsson HPM–88 compete with a wire.

Note that active noise cancelling techniques does not prevent you from hearing voices or sirens. Combined with music you may not be able to ride safely, however, so use with caution — and pay attention to your mirrors. Sirens are not directional.

Buffs

No, this isn’t about riding in the buff. Do that and you have only yourself to blame. Wearing a buff, however, might just be the thing to do.

At this point some will wonder what the heck a Buff is. Think of it as an ultra–flexible scarf. Many prefer having something covering the gap between helmet and collar; some prefer jackets that go all the way up.

Some wear scarfs. Long scarfs. This looks amazing in movies; not so much when watching the after–action replay from your hospital bed: do not wear anything lose what so ever.

It’ll get into the wheels, or chain. Don’t. Ever. Do. That.

A buff is functional, will give some weather protection, and won’t unwind into your back wheel.

Jackets, trousers, and suits

At this point, hopefully, you’ll have gotten the idea that travelling at high speed atop two wheels and an engine, often laying down on a tank full of highly flammable liquid, has the odd danger to it.

Next to a helmet, what you wear to cover your upper body, arms, back, and legs is possibly the single most important aspect of motorbike gear. In this area you are looking for shock absorption and abrasion protection.

Keep very carefully in mind that falling off your bike while travelling at speed can be compared to resting your hand or other part of your body on a power–sander. Asphalt is not kind to unprotected skin.

What, subsequently, you want is easy: a jacket, and a pair of trousers, alternatively a one–piece suit which protect against abrasions and shock. More specifically one or more garments marked «EN 1621–1». In addition you will require a back protector marked «EN 1621–2».

Take careful not that it is the garment itself that needs be marked with the CE–symbol and standard; not the marketing spiel in the store you buy it.

My choice was a Rix-2 HiVis jacket from Belgian Richa. The neon green should be a clear indication of why it is called «HiVis» — this is a high–visibility jacket, eliminating the need to wear a similar vest. It is also water–proof, eliminating the need for raingear, and has built–in CE–tested back protection — again, reducing the need for yet another separate unit.

Here’s another list:

  • The more armour you wear, the less of you will be left on the road in an accident.
  • No, jeans doesn’t offer much protection against abrasions.
  • Don’t even think about shorts and a t–shirt. It’s cheaper to jump off a cliff.
  • Black is cool. It’s the colour of mourning here in Europe. Pick something more visible.
  • Wear either a high–visibility jacket/suit or a vest.
  • Drivers don’t see you. Wear something bright, visible, and in–your–eyes–impossible–to–miss.
  • Did I mention that drivers don’t bloody well see you?
  • Absolutely MUST have jeans? Pick up a pair of steel– or kevlar backed. Better yet, don’t be dumb.

Gloves

When falling off something or other, us humans tend to try and stop what is about to happen by stretching out and putting our hands in the way. This may, or may not, be a good idea.

When what is in the way is asphalt, and what is about to happen is a direct impact at speed, bare hands is a bloody dumb idea. This, among other things such as avoiding freezing, is why you wear gloves when riding a motorbike.

It is also why you don’t pick those nice kid–skin gloves you saw at the mall last week. Ideally you want something marked compliant with the EN 13594 CE standard, but regardless you want something with suitable padding on the inside of the hand that you can, in fact, slide a little without damage. The standard specify a minimum of 2.5 seconds on the EN 13595 «Cambridge» sander.

For myself I picked a pair of Richa Eco Sport. These may be too flimsy; I’m not yet quite sure.

And, finally: footwear

Did I mention riding a bike is not like dusting crops? Let’s get straight to the point: do not ever even think of riding a motorbike wearing flip–flops.

Again: don’t ever wear flip–flops.

It can’t be said too many times. Too many people get hurt, or killed, by wearing too little protective gear while riding a motorbike. Among the single most idiotic thing to do, is wearing flip–flops. They provide no protection against anything what so ever. The same can be said for sneakers, cowboy boots, and high heels.

Yet again you want something which is CE–marked, this time following the EN 13634 specification. If this is impossible, make sure the boots are sturdy and have a solid rubber sole. These are the feet you will support yourself and your bike with, the feet that may have to go down to slide along the asphalt in a tricky situation, and the feet that’ll manoeuvre gears and back brake.

Pay some attention to the upper of the left foot. This part will get more worn than normal, while riding a bike, as this is where the gear–shift is located.

Here my choice were a pair of Dainese Nighthawk Gore–Tex. They are not as tall as my previous boots, but provide a reasonable mix of protection and ability to walk …

So:

  • Don’t wear flip–flops.
  • Don’t wear high heels either. Looks stylish, breaks feet.
  • Don’t wear cowboy boots. The soles are designed to be, duh, slippery.
  • Don’t wear anything that can easily fall off, period.

Once you’ve stomached this, I can warmly recommend you go out and get «The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Motorcycles». The title is misleading indeed; the book is a fine reference and teaching manual for regular idiots as well as the complete ones among us…:)

Best of luck!

References