10 Critical Pieces of Motorcycle Body Armor

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How safe are you on your motorcycle? 2006 statistics from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that about 13 of every 100,000 cars were involved in fatal crashes that year. For motorcycles, the number was more than 72 per 100,000. The fact that driving a motorcycle is more dangerous than driving a car is no news flash.

What is newsworthy, however, is that increasingly, motorcycle riders can do something about the dangers they face.

High-tech body armor -- and the willingness to wear it -- can dramatically lower the risk of injury and death from a motorcycle crash. Keep reading to learn about the gear that can help keep you safe.

Elbows and Knees

These are the pointy bits that tend to poke into the pavement when you come off your bike. If you want to keep them, armor them. At the very least, make sure your outerwear has reinforced elbow and knee zones. For added safety, or if your leather jacket isn't at least 1.2 millimeters thick, consider mounting armor over or under it to increase the distance you can skid before the skidding cuts through to your skin.

For all the items on this list, the gold standard in testing for motorcycle protective gear comes not from the good old National Highway Safety Administration, but from Europe. Look for "CE-certified" elbow and knee (and everything else) protectors, which means that when the testing body smacked the front of the armor, the force measured at the back of the armor averaged less than 35 kilonewtons (the standard measure of force).

Chest Protector
He may look like a character from "Star Wars," but that chest protector is helping to keep his vital organs safe.
He may look like a character from "Star Wars," but that chest protector is helping to keep his vital organs safe.
Thomas Northcut/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Rather than protecting your chest from bending (like a back or neck protector), chest armor is built to absorb the force of a blunt impact. And while armor that's molded into the appearance of chiseled abs might be awesome, what you want is a solid shell that distributes the force of impact across ample underlying padding.

You can go as high-tech as you like, ranging from what are effectively couch cushions on one end of the spectrum to a honeycomb of aluminum composite on the other.

Again, no matter your price point, make sure your chest protector has two things: a hard shell to distribute force and padding to absorb it.

Neck Collar

Your neck is a terrible thing to waste. That said, it's your collarbone as well as your neck that's protected by most armored collars. In fact, a clavicle, or collarbone, is the most commonly broken bone in motorcycle crashes -- when you extend your arm to break a fall, it channels the impact force directly into your clavicle. Similarly, turning a shoulder into an onrushing car, tree or street sign can break the clavicle from direct impact.

A neck collar can help you avoid the second -- a clavicle break due to direct impact. And this neck/clavicle system is the focus of all sorts of emerging high-tech protection. For example, a collaboration between two motorcycle producers, BMW and KTM, promises to stabilize the cervical spine, which is frequently and unfortunately the weak link between a strong helmet and a strong armored jacket [source: Hanlon].

On the low-tech side of neck/clavicle support is the traditional, neck-roll style collars. This contraption is like an ox yoke, and it can help pad impact and reduce the neck's range of motion in a crash.

Big, sturdy gloves provide the best protection for those fragile finger bones.
Big, sturdy gloves provide the best protection for those fragile finger bones.

Now is the time for an exoskeleton. Even a minor crash can snap your fingers like matchsticks, and it's not hard to find a pair of gloves that offer reinforcement for your fragile bones. That said, you want to ride like a human and not a robot -- a bulky, unwieldy glove could cause a crash that you might otherwise steer out of.

Most of today's high-tech armor gloves combine Kevlar and leather, sometimes with carbon-fiber reinforcements in areas like the knuckles that tend to be slide points. The balance between the burly safety of an exoskeleton and the fast-and-light safety of precision control is one you'll have to figure out for yourself. But imagine tipping even from a full stop -- you're going to want something on your hands.


If you're a rider, you've either seen video or you can picture it: a high-speed crash followed by starfishing arms and legs, with limbs snapping on impact. In the early days of leg protection, designers of motorcycle safety equipment looked to encase the lower body in what was effectively an exoskeleton that allowed the body to bend only how it was supposed to bend. But what they found was interesting: Reinforcing legs could lead to worse overall rider injuries due to rider ejection and torso pitch [source: Sakamoto].

Imagine it: Instead of buckling to absorb the force of a crash, your legs are kept rigid and act as a lever with the ability to throw around your upper body like a rag doll.

Still, there are a couple must-haves of lower-body motorcycle armor. First, it should be made of a material that protects against road rash (duh). Thick leather and Kevlar are good. And second, like the chest protector described on the previous page, your lower-body protection should be constructed of a shell to distribute force and padding to absorb it.

While high-tech plastic boots may come out on top, classic leather boots still provide good protection.
While high-tech plastic boots may come out on top, classic leather boots still provide good protection.
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In jackets and pants, the debate rages as to whether Kevlar trumps leather. And the same is true of whether you should reinforce bones with steel alloy inserts, or whether you should just pad them and allow your flapping limbs to absorb shock that could otherwise damage more important things, like your spine and head.

With boots, there's no question: Big, bad plastic trumps leather. Just look at the difference between racing boots and street boots -- high-speed racing boots almost universally include plastic or composite shells for sliding across the pavement, and a more supple liner to keep your feet comfortable.

You don't need your boots to be supple and flexible all the way around. You need them to take a licking and keep your feet and ankles pointing in the right direction. Go big. Go bad. Go high-tech composites and plastic.

Hip Armor

In the forums of a popular motorcycle site, the question, "Do I really need hip protection?" is answered with the response, "You only need to protect the pieces you want to keep." That advice is especially true with your hips, second only to collarbone fractures and broken pelvises in injury statistics. This is partly because a hard hit to anywhere in your lower body channels itself into your pelvis, and partly because we tend to bounce and slide especially well on the parts that usually sit in the saddle.

Take a look at any online video of sliding motorcycle crashes and you'll see that in far more than half, the rider ends up skidding on his or her derriere. Another quick Internet search returns pictures of the consequences: road rash that eats through jeans as if they were mist.

So armor up those hips -- either make sure your riding pants include hip padding or layer up your own padding with hip-specific inserts.

Put that leather jacket on even when it's warm out -- it's some of the best protection you can get.
Put that leather jacket on even when it's warm out -- it's some of the best protection you can get.
Steve Mason/Photodisc/Thinkstock

This is a no-brainer. Every motorcyclist is going to own a jacket, and to varying degrees that jacket will be armored -- whether simply a denim jacket with leather elbow patches (not recommended) or a thick leather jacket reinforced with carbon-fiber supports and molecular armor (recommended).

What's that, you say? Molecular armor? Added to the mix of hard armor (like a plastic shell) and soft armor (like memory foam) are materials that are flexible and soft like a liquid until smacked with pressure as in a crash, at which point they turn rigid. It's like that trick with cornstarch and water: Push it gently and it's a goopy liquid; smack it and it's suddenly a solid that your rebounds your hand.

It's a very cool material, and it's available today.

Back Protector

Arms heal. So do legs, hips, collarbones, wrists, fingers and the myriad other bones that make up your skeleton. But your spinal cord is not so resilient. (At least not yet.) And until the day regenerative technologies exist to repair your ripped spinal cord, you're going to want to protect it.

Start with the cervical spine (neck) protector described earlier. Then consider additional armor to beef up the rigidity of your back. And the key word is rigidity. Don't mess around with soft armor -- go for the hard stuff.

A 2002 study found that the thoracic spine is the most common spinal injury point for motorcycle crashes [source: Robertson et al]. This stretches from your upper back to just below the rib cage. So consider additional armor here.

This back armor can be a strap-on backpack, or it can be built directly into a jacket.

Never get on a motorcycle without a helmet -- it's the No. 1 piece of safety gear for bikers.
Never get on a motorcycle without a helmet -- it's the No. 1 piece of safety gear for bikers.

While technically not "armor," was there any doubt that a helmet would be No. 1 on the list? Just look at the numbers:

  • Wearing a helmet reduces the risk of death in a crash by 37 percent.
  • Riders with serious head injuries paid an average of $43,214 for hospital care, compared to $15,528 for riders with minor head injuries.
  • As helmet laws were repealed, motorcycle deaths jumped from 2,897 in 2000 to 5,154 in 2007, a 78 percent increase.

[sources: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Wald, Workman]

It's a no-brainer. Your helmet is your most important piece of motorcycle armor.

To learn more about motorcycles, check out the links on the next page.


10 Cold-weather Motorcycle Accessories

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  • Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "Fact Sheet: Motorcycle Helmets." February 2008. (May 6, 2011)http://www.saferoads.org/issues/fs-helmets.htm
  • Hanlon, Mike. "Cervical spine protection system for motorcyclists." Gizmag. Sept. 26, 2005. (May 6, 2011)http://www.gizmag.com/go/4782/
  • Motorcycle-Accidents.com. "Motorcycle Crash Accident Statistics." 2006. (May 6, 2011)http://www.motorcycle-accidents.com/pages/stats.html
  • Motorcycle Safety Foundation. "Personal Protective Gear For the Motorcyclist." September 2001. (May 6, 2011)http://www.msf-usa.org/downloads/Protective_gear_REV.pdf
  • Robertson, Angus et al. "Spinal Injuries in Motorcycle Crashes: Patterns and Outcomes." The Journal of Trauma. July 2002. (May 6, 2011)http://journals.lww.com/jtrauma/Abstract/2002/07000/Spinal_Injuries_in_Motorcycle_Crashes__Patterns.2.aspx
  • Sakamoto, Shinichi. "Research History of Motorcycle Leg Protection." SAE International. Feb. 1, 1990. (May 6, 2011)http://papers.sae.org/900755
  • Wald, Matthew L. "Rise in Motorcycle Deaths Renews Helmet Law Debate." The New York Times. Sept. 12, 2007. (May 6, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/us/12helmet.html
  • Workman, Danny. "Deadly motorcycle accident statistics." Examiner. May 28, 2009. (May 6, 2011)http://www.examiner.com/insurance-industry-in-national/deadly-motorcycle-accident-statistics