Hannu Malinen has hundreds of examples of the importance of wearing the right gear. As product manager at Rukka, a Finnish manufacturer of protective motorcycle equipment, he often gets letters and emails.
In one case, he received a message from a woman whose father was involved in a collision with an SUV while riding one Saturday. Her dad was told by paramedics that if he hadn’t been wearing the right kind of clothing, he wouldn’t have survived.
The correct protection can literally be the difference between life and death. But how much does the average rider actually know about choosing knee and elbow pads, helmets and back protectors, for the kind of riding they want to do?
Some may spot the familiar CE (Conformité Européenne) mark on a product and be reassured by this sign that a garment will protect them. It’s a safety mark applied to a wide range of products in Europe certifying that they’ve met minimum safety standards which were created by a broad group of industry and medical consultants. However, there are situations where the minimum might not be enough.
“CE on its own isn’t enough”
“To us, CE means nothing,” says David Robert, marketing manager at Furygan, a French-based company that has been making safety gear for bikers since the 1960s. “It’s like a big box, where you can find a lot of things, from gardening gloves to safety glasses. But certainly not necessarily what we expect as a good motorcycling garment.”
Even if the pads in your gear are marked with the CE logo, they might only be good for skateboarding or cycling. “The CE on its own isn’t enough because it doesn’t tell the user what it’s protecting them from and to what product standard,” says Chris Meadows, program manager at D3O and a member of the committee which sets the standards for protective motorcycle gear.
“What you’ve had in the past is people putting CE marks on products then, when you actually dig deeper, you find out that they’ve not assessed against the appropriate standard.”
To make sure any product will protect, you need to delve into the detailed standards that sit under the umbrella of rules covering personal protective equipment – called the PPE directive.
“If you’re claiming that your product is protective against the things that are covered by the PPE directive – e.g. impact, flame, cuts and abrasion – you have to assess it against the PPE directive to prove that’s correct,” says Meadows.
This is done through harmonised standards, that sit alongside the CE mark. “In the motorcycle industry we have standards for boots (EN 13634), gloves (EN 13594), and protectors (limb, back and chest under 1621-1, 1621-2 and 1621-3),” explains Robert.
That requires the makers to meet specific standards. “That means a lot of constraints to build the products, and a lot of testing,” Robert adds. “But it also means that the consumer is guaranteed to get a minimum level of protection and ergonomics. Of course, it does not mean that all the products are equal.”
Choosing the right options
To give an example, even two motorcycle back protectors that both have the EN 1621-2 marking may not offer the same level of protection. There are two different levels of impact protection (with a level 2 offering more than a level 1), as well as optional tests that manufacturers can use to show their product works properly at different temperatures.
So for riders, even looking at the label might not be enough – as well as the different impact levels, on items such as leathers it may not be clear which aspects of a garment are covered by a CE rating.
That’s why it’s important for them to investigate further and look at the information that comes with items of protective clothing to see exactly what kinds of things the CE rating will protect them from. Unfortunately, most don’t.
“You’ll obviously get some people that will read everything, go on the website, not put their gear in direct sunlight, not put it in the washing machine,” says Meadows.
“On the other hand, you’ll get some guy who comes in from his ride, throws his stuff in the corner and that’s where it sits until he picks it up next time. You can’t force people to read the product information.”
“Be aware of what you want”
These products are highly engineered pieces of protective equipment designed to shield against high speed impacts, so they do have complexities.
“With back protectors, they’re made to fit a specific torso length which is something that’s a little bit tricky to grasp. The manufacturer and the retailer need to be able to understand the intricacies of that product and sell it appropriately,” says Meadows.
Malinen likens this process to choosing a new car. Even though all cars are certified to meet certain standards, there are still important considerations to make.
“You need to be aware of what you want,” he says. “Minimum doesn’t mean it’s enough for everybody. Common sense needs to be used. When you make your choice, you need to understand whether it’s fit for the purpose you are buying it for.”
For Meadows, it’s about “picking motorcycle clothing that is appropriate to the level of risk that you’re willing to be exposed to”. There’s a necessary trade-off between safety, cost and comfort. “You can have the most protective product but if it’s not comfortable no-one’s going to wear it and therefore it’s not protective,” he says.
Robert agrees. “When it comes to protection, more is always the best,” he adds. “But riding a motorcycle is also very demanding ergonomically, and depending on your ride you can look for products that may be totally different. A leather garment offers more protection than a textile garment. But most of the time it is not waterproof, for example.
“In the end, there is always some sort of compromise to make, based on what you expect from your clothing, as well as the limit of your budget. You should really look into what you get from the different technologies that are equipping your clothing.”
The future of CE standards
The first CE standard for impact protection was published in 1997, and there have been updates to specific parts: limbs in 2012, back protectors in 2014, and chest protectors at the moment.
But sport moves quickly, with those at the boundaries pushing themselves and their machines to new levels and doing things that weren’t even considered by those developing the standards.
Take downhill mountain biking as an example – a high-speed sport full of obstacles where you probably want a lot more protection than your everyday commuter cyclist, but one that may be governed by the same set of standards.
Malinen believes that, for motorcycles at least, the current set of standards are appropriate but that could change in future. “If next year motorcycles start to fly then you definitely need to have some different ideas,” he says.
For Meadows, it’s about striking a balance because updating the CE standards is not a quick process. “You either need to make them flexible or adaptable or update them,” he says.
“You can’t update them every time a new sport comes on stream because things move too quickly for you to be able to react to everything, particularly the rate the standards are developed at.”
The standards need to be clear enough to allow customers to understand what they’re buying, and also flexible enough to allow innovation. “As manufacturers, we want something that allows us to demonstrate the appropriateness of our technology,” says Meadows.
He says it would be possible to develop an “absolutely perfect” standard, but that it would only work in very narrow situations and you’d have to switch to a different standard if the temperature was five degrees lower, or if the rider had a slightly different arm diameter.
“If you continually expand it, you make it so complicated that no one understands it – and then there’s a barrier to entry for new technology.”
The standards are constantly, if slowly, evolving with draft standards for chest protectors being finalised, and new standards covering garments, so it’s more important than ever that consumers know what to look for.
“What’s exciting about the new apparel standard is the level of education it will provide the rider in their choice of gear,” says Jayson Plummer of KLIM, an Idaho-based motorsports clothing manufacturer.
“Like with helmet standards, I expect the motorcycle enthusiast will not only make smarter choices in gear based on their individual needs, but will eventually demand more information about materials and processes that go into a piece of apparel.
“With the veil on performance lifted, the rider will demand more of apparel companies to deliver better quality.”
This article was originally published in Issue 05 of Impact Magazine, which you can download for free from our Resources section.