Motorcycle Safety Then and Now

by Jeff on January 6, 2013

Words By Noble McIntyre
Photos By Jeff Cobb

Motorcycles have always evoked an image of freedom, individuality, and as the case may be, rebellion. With that freedom, there is also the possibility of an injury.

Motorcycle safety has evolved significantly over the years and the rudimentary helmet and classic leather jacket have been replaced by modern materials.


Interest in developing motorcycle helmets began in 1935, when T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) suffered a fatal motorcycle crash. His neurosurgeon, Hugh Cairns, began the research that would eventually lead to the development of the motorcycle crash helmet. The first patent for a motorcycle helmet was submitted in 1953 by Professor C. F. “Red” Lombard.

Riding is risky enough and racers know not to take excessive chances with their gear; their tech is continually trickling down to street riders. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

The earliest helmets were made of leather, which didn’t do much in the way of impact protection, but did prevent abrasions and “road rash.” Later helmets changed radically in design and materials — in the 1960s, safety helmets had exteriors made of fiberglass, and interiors lined with polyurethane foam or cork. Most modern helmets are made from plastic, carbon fiber or Kevlar, and are designed to be impact and puncture resistant.

While the earliest “three-quarters” helmets had an open face, and were designed primarily to protect the skull, later helmet designs incorporated full face protection, and “flip-up” visors. Some helmet designs, like those used by motocross racers, cover the head entirely.

Protective Gear

The right gear is considered one of the most important aspects of motorcycle safety, next to awareness, and rider training. The earliest motorcycle “gear” grew out of the use of motorcycles in the military during World War I. Short coats replaced dusters so they wouldn’t get caught in motorcycle spokes, and heavy boots and pegged breeches protected the legs. While it might have been functional, it wasn’t terribly stylish.

The most recognizable motorcycle gear is probably the leather jacket, first made famous by Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One. While a simple leather jacket can help protect from abrasions, modern protective gear may be made of sufficiently thick leather or with ballistic nylon or Kevlar, and some have carbon fiber armor on major impact points, such as the shoulders, elbows and knees. Some high-end motorcycle jackets and race suits even have a built-in airbag system, which inflates to protect the neck and torso. There are also street oriented airbag vests that inflate when a rider has a sudden get-off from his or her machine.

Full abrasion-resistant and armored textile street gear (Lee Parks Total Control street riding instruction shown).

Believed by some to be even more durable – but with limited actual lab tests to back up assertions – is motorcycle armor, which is usually constructed of foam or hard plastic with foam laminate on the inside, or hard foam plates designed to protect the shoulders, elbows, and knees. Motorcycle armor was specifically designed to increase the chances of survival in an accident.

In the U.S., unlike in Europe, there remain no actual regulations or certification bodies to verify manufacturer safety claims for rider protective apparel such as jackets, pants, boots, and gloves. While helmets must at least meet DOT standards, it is more of a free-for-all in the realm of gear to protect the rest of the rider’s body.

Some gear makers that sell their goods in the European market do test their goods to the CE standard and make claims accordingly. However, just because a protective piece does or does not have CE protection is no guarantee of its ultimate efficacy. Further, we’ve seen some brands that do not jump through the hoops of verifying by Euro standards, but base their designs on actual race experience, and having seen what holds up and protects riders after a crash.

In all, choosing gear in the U.S. is more a case of caveat emptor, but without a doubt the gear has come a long way.

The Evolution of Safety Laws

In 1966, the Highway Safety Act required states to pass mandatory helmet laws in order to receive federal highway funding. In that same year, the American National Safety Standard for Motorcycle Helmets was introduced, which set obligatory performance standards that manufacturers were required to meet. However, Congress withdrew this requirement in 1975, and as a result, many states repealed their mandatory helmet laws. Now mandatory helmet laws now vary from state to state.

Beyond gear, the other development in rider safety is formal instruction on how to better control the bike.

The Hurt Report, published in 1981, showed that most accidents involving a motorcycle occurred as a result of car drivers failing to see motorcycles. The study also showed that helmets significantly reduced the chance of death or debilitating brain injury. The MAIDS (Motorcycle Accidents in Depth Study) Report, published in 2000, showed that motorcycles were “over-represented” in traffic accidents, and that most motorcycle accidents involved collision with a passenger vehicle.

These studies have left organizations like the Governors Highway Safety Association to encourage the implementation of helmet laws and motorcycle operator training. Many states require testing for a separate motorcycle operator’s license before they can ride on a public highway.

The Future of Motorcycle Safety

Motorcycle safety gear has grown dramatically in sophistication over the last century — full airbag suits, durable materials, and even virtual heads-up displays are being developed to increase the safety and survivability of the motorcycle enthusiast. But technology can only go so far. Just as important as gear is the training, awareness, and skill needed to stay safe on a motorcycle.

Noble McIntyre is the senior partner and owner of McIntyre Law, and an experienced Oklahoma Motorcycle Accident Lawyer.


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