It’s a common question for those who are just getting into motorcycling: do motorcycle jackets really protect you in the event of an accident, or are they just bad-boy fashion statements?
The reality is that, while some biker jackets are no more effective than a Kohl’s leather bomber if you drop your Harley at speed, most quality motorcycle jackets can significantly reduce your injuries in an accident. They’re probably the next-most important bit of safety gear behind the helmet.
Let’s learn a bit more about the armor that enables motorcycle jackets to protect you so effectively.
Motorcycle Jackets: Designed to Protect and Serve
We’ve discussed the basic construction of motorcycle jackets in prior articles, but we’ll rehash it here. These jackets are snug-fitting coats whose style is secondary to keeping you comfortable when you’re upright and safe if you go down. For comfort, modern jackets offer a variety of fits and materials. Lighter, more breathable material made of synthetic textiles is becoming more common than leather these days, but the genuine hides still remain king on account of their superior protection if you end up sliding across the pavement in a spill.
The most important part of a jacket’s construction isn’t its material, though: it’s the armor hiding under the fabric. Nearly all quality motorcycle jackets come with some level of armor plating, typically located over the spine, the shoulders, the elbows, and the chest.
Motorcycle Armor: A Primer
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So what is the motorcycle armor exactly? Typically, it’s some sort of lightweight, high-strength material that can absorb and mitigate at least some of the impact following a crash. Kevlar, carbon fiber, and high-density foam are some of the common materials used for motorcycle jacket armor.
With the variety of price points and materials available for motorcycle armor, the Europeans came up with a system to reliably rate and grade different armor so buyers can make objective apples-to-apples comparisons. The scale is abbreviated CE, stemming from the French phrase of European Conformity. It’s also known as the European norm or EN. American armor also follows this same grading system.1
Three different testing tiers and two different levels comprise the scale. The lowest tier, CE Tested, denotes armor that was tested by the manufacturer but not by a third party, so it isn’t accredited by a governing body.
The middle tier is CE Certified, which is gear that was tested by a third party and found to pass all regulatory standards. However, only parts of the gear may have been tested, and testing may not have been as rigorous as the highest tier, CE Approved. This gear has been tested extensively and conforms to all standards.
Motorcycle Armor Grading Standards
What are these standards? It depends on whether the gear is level 1 or level 2. Level 1 gear is typically the more affordable, comfortable option because it isn’t held to as high a standard as level 2 gear. Either way, gear purported to be of either level must meet all expectations of that level. For instance, CE level 1 gear must meet all level 1 stipulations required by the CE governing body.
As part of the grading procedure, armor must first be clear about what body part it is protecting. Different numbers or letters correspond to different parts of the body, so readers can decipher at a glance what part of the body the armor has been rated to protect.2
CE-approved gear also must be clear as to whether its protection is specifically tailored for motorcycle riders. If so, gear will wear code EN1621. Gear not made to specifically protect motorcyclists uses the EN340 designation.
One of the most important grading criteria is the maximum allowable force the armor will transmit to the rider. Level 1 gear, for instance, can transmit a max amount of 18 kilograms of force, and no single value can exceed 24 kg of force. Level 2 is twice as strict, allowing only 9 kgs of total transmitted force and a single instance of 12 kg of transmitted force.
Which is Better, Level 1 Armor or Level 2 Armor?
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Level 2 armor is better, but it also costs more and will be bulkier and more uncomfortable than level 1 armor. If you plan on racing your motorcycle, don’t wear anything less than level 2 on the track – at triple-digit speeds, you want all the protection you can have. Casual riders, however, will be more comfortable and still protected from severe injury with level 1 gear.
Consider your riding conditions, your riding style, and local traffic patterns when assessing your own risk tolerance and accident anxiety. Level 2 armor will always be safer, but that doesn’t negate the efficacy of the more comfortable, more affordable level 1 armor. Just make sure you use a high-quality leather conditioner to make sure it stays as supple as the day you bought it.
Motorcycle armor is critical when riding, and you’ll want to ensure you have a jacket that’s at least equipped with level 1 armor. Having armor in your jacket enables the coat to protect you from impact as well as road rash. Don’t take the risk of riding in a T-shirt, as liberating as it might feel – trust us when we say the hospital visit isn’t worth it. A stylish, armored jacket promises excellent protection and good looks to boot, so you can saddle up with the peace of mind that you’ll be alright should the worst happen.
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- Can you tell me something about CE/European ratings for back protectors and other armor? Motorcyclegear.com Accessed 24 Sept 2021.
- Tim, CE Level 1 & Level 2 Motorcycle Armor Explained. Motorgearexpert.com. Accessed 24 Sept 2021.