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Human Factors: Personal Protective Equipment Table of ContentsHomenhtsa

Motorcyclist Attitudes

Rider Education & Training


Crash Avoidance Skills

Motorcyclist Alcohol & Other Impairment

Personal Protective Equipment


The protective apparel worn by a motorcyclist provides the only defense against injury in a crash. This apparel includes a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218 compliant helmet, heavy-duty jacket and pants, boots, gloves, and eye protection. Because of changes in technology and use of protective equipment, additional research in this area is needed.

Motorcyclists usually separate from the motorcycle at some time during a crash. It stands to reason that protective apparel is far more likely to be effective than protective equipment attached to the motorcycle (Ouellet, 1990). In the event of a crash, no existing strategy or safety equipment offers protection comparable to a FMVSS 218 compliant helmet. There are no compelling medical arguments against helmet use. Detailed analysis of 900 crashes found that “helmeted riders show significantly lower injury frequency in all types of lesions” (Hurt, 1981). A recent analysis from the Crash Outcomes Data Evaluation Systems (CODES) from six states demonstrated that helmets were 35 percent effective in preventing death and 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries (NHTSA, 1996, 1998). In other words, unhelmeted injured motorcyclists are three times as likely to suffer a brain injury compared to helmeted injured motorcyclists. Motorcyclists who do sustain fatal injuries while wearing FMVSS 218 compliant helmets typically have one or more additional fatal injuries, so that the limit of the helmet to protect them is rarely an issue (Ouellet, 1990). Head impacts that would otherwise cause death or permanent injury can often be attenuated with little or no injury to a motorcyclist wearing an FMVSS 218 compliant helmet.

FMVSS 218 compliant helmets do not contribute to crash causation (Hurt, 1981). However, it is proven by research (Hurt, 1981) that increased coverage, particularly increased coverage of the expanded polystyrene liner, increases protection from injury. Helmet use has not been shown to increase the risk of spinal injuries (Orsay, 1994, Thom, 1995).

Mandatory helmet-use laws have proven an effective strategy in increasing helmet use (Peek-Asa, 1999, Kraus, 1995), and in reducing head injuries and fatalities (McSwain, 1984, Kraus, 1994). However, mandatory helmet-use laws are controversial with some motorcyclists. Research shows the number of motorcyclists wearing non-compliant helmets is increasing in states with mandatory helmet use laws (Peek-Asa, 1999). Recent research has found that as many as 40 percent of motorcyclists in Florida, which at the time the research was conducted had a mandatory helmet-use law for all riders, wore non-compliant helmets (Turner, 2000).

Recently, a number of states have modified helmet laws to permit motorcyclists to ride without a helmet if they carry specific health insurance coverage or pass a rider training course (see Appendix I). Other “partial” helmet-use laws, such as those requiring only certain age groups to use helmets, have unknown effectiveness because of enforcement issues. These approaches dilute the original reasons for the law and may raise confusion about the usefulness and role of helmets.

FMVSS 218, also called “the DOT standard“ was promulgated in 1974 and was revised in 1980 and 1988. Helmets sold for motorcycle use in the United States are required by law to meet the minimum performance requirements set forth in FMVSS 218. Helmets qualified to other standards, such as the Snell Memorial Foundation or American National Standards Institute must also meet FMVSS 218. NHTSA is evaluating several issues including:

• Increased test impact velocity to improve impact absorption of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets

• Retention system positional stability tests to ensure helmet retention in crashes

• Improved labeling so motorcyclists will know more about the qualification and care of their helmets and so law enforcement can identify non-compliant helmets

• Revised pass/fail test criteria for harmonization with international helmet standards

• Chin bar test performance qualification for full-facial coverage helmets

• Eye protection test qualification for helmets so equipped

Eye protection plays a dual role: first, eye protection significantly reduces crash involvement (Hurt, 1981a, 1984) because it prevents vision degradation caused by wind blast and foreign objects in the eyes. Eye protection also reduces eye injury, both while riding and in crashes (Hurt, 1984). The Vehicle Equipment Safety Standard No. 8 (VESC-8) for motorcyclist eye protection is widely referenced and applied by the 36 states with motorcyclist eye protection-use laws (see Appendix I).

Research and new technologies are continually bringing new types of protective gear to the user, although their actual capabilities need to be researched. The environmental extremes confronted by motorcyclists are also addressed by protective apparel, making riding more comfortable in extreme temperatures and inclement weather. There is a variety of apparel offering various degrees of protection for motorcyclists involved in a crash.

The most frequent injury to the crash-involved motorcyclist is abrasion. A wide range of apparel provides proven protection from abrasion (Hurt, 1981a). Leather, used in garments to cover virtually all of a motorcyclist’s body, can prevent abrasion including serious deep abrasions, has a traditional appeal to many motorcyclists and is currently fashionable. A variety of leather grades, construction, and styles is available, and many leather garments offer extensive features to accommodate motorcyclists’ needs. Not all leather garments, even all of those styled in a manner that suggests motorcycle use, are sturdy enough to provide significant abrasion protection (Woods, 1994a, 1994b). Various types of effective synthetic materials have been offered in recent years.

A variety of approaches is being taken to provide motorcyclists with impact protection for body areas besides the head. These involve some type of impact resistant material, or armor, incorporated into jackets, suits and even gloves and boots. Armor is being designed in an attempt to protect the motorcyclist from everything from bruising and fractures of the extremities, to averting life-threatening injuries to the torso, and reducing spinal injuries. The European Union has devised testing standards: CE EN 1621-1 for elbow, shoulder and knee armor and CE EN 1621-2 for spinal armor. No such standards exist in the United States, and there are no armor standards for the torso area, which is critical for protection from life-threatening injuries.


All motorcyclists should choose to wear protective apparel because they understand that such apparel can reduce injuries in a crash. All motorcyclists should want to wear FMVSS 218 compliant helmets while riding to reduce head trauma resulting from a crash. Motorcyclists should understand the critical nature of apparel and how it provides comfort, in addition to protection, while riding. Their choices in apparel should be based on promotion from all motorcycle safety organizations, groups, clubs, other stakeholders, and the motorcycle industry. In states where there are helmet laws, law enforcement personnel should know how to identify FMVSS 218 compliant helmets.

A wide-reaching platform or forum is needed from which motorcyclists can be informed about the benefits of protective gear and provided with information about various available technologies (see Conveying Research Information to Users, page 13). At these forums, motorcyclists would gather information about new technologies and their effectiveness to aid in making informed apparel choices. This is an area where the technology is changing rapidly.

The motorcycle community and other stakeholders need to create more education programs for motorcyclists to understand the benefits of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets. This information should also include facts to repudiate misinformation about unfounded dangers of helmet use. Stakeholders should find ways to more effectively communicate the benefits of helmet use and work toward making voluntary use of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets more widely accepted. The dangers of non-compliant helmets should also be communicated by similar means.

Mandatory helmet-use laws should specify the use of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets. Motorcyclists and traffic law enforcement officials should be educated in how to determine if a helmet meets FMVSS 218. Revisions to FMVSS 218 should aid in identification of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets and elimination of non-compliant helmets.

Additional research is needed into all of these issues. Standards should be developed based on research to help consumers make informed choices. The effectiveness of personal protective equipment would be investigated as part of any crash research.


• Use effective strategies to increase the use of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets.

• Educate motorcyclists about the value of protective apparel by providing an information source on related research and a forum for the exchange of information.

• Find ways to more effectively communicate the benefits of helmet use and work toward making voluntary use of FMVSS 218 compliant helmets more widely accepted.

• Use effective strategies to ensure that all helmets in use meet FMVSS 218.

• Revise FMVSS 218.

• Conduct research regarding protective apparel effectiveness, and consider development or adoption of existing standards, if research justifies.


As noted in the Introduction to the National Agenda, in order to maintain harmony between the groups interested in motorcycle safety, the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety has consciously refrained from making any legislative recommendations, including any regarding mandatory helmet-use laws. This exclusion should not be interpreted as support for, or opposition to legislative initiatives.

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