Why do some choose to go unprotected?
Experienced, smart motorcyclists know that proper gear, worn all the time, is essential to safety. But it’s apparent that not everyone buys into the concept (we see too many riders wearing little more than beachwear). Assuming they know that crashing is possible, and that surfing asphalt could erase their favorite tattoo, why do some choose to go unprotected?
Summer heat is one of the most common excuses. You certainly don’t want to become overheated while sitting in traffic, but crashes happen in all kinds of weather so you have to be prepared. Fortunately, apparel manufacturers have figured that out, and today’s selection of vented gear—ranging from jackets and pants with simple venting to fully armored mesh suits—is the best ever. You really don’t have to sacrifice a lot of safety to get gear that will flow enough air to keep you reasonably comfortable.
The human need to fit in is another factor that influences the type of gear people choose to wear (or whether they wear protection at all), with style being one of the most powerful influences. For example, a high-viz Aerostitch may be comfortable, protective, and visible, but it doesn’t play well with the “bad boy” cruiser image where chaps and a leather jacket or vest are in vogue. Sport riders, sport-tourers, tourers, and ADV riders are at an advantage, since wearing full-coverage gear tends to match the sport/travel/adventure image. No matter what type of bike you ride, you can find reasonably priced riding gear with the right styling points to mesh with any genre.
Alright, enough of the “wear your gear” message. Let’s discuss a couple of weird unintended consequences of wearing protective riding gear. Common sense suggests that it’s smart to wear protection to reduce injury, and we would hope most motorcyclists have some common sense. Gear gets better every year. So why haven’t motorcycle fatalities changed much in the last decade?
According to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration numbers, there were 4,586 motorcycle fatalities in 2014, which is plus or minus a few hundred from the stats every year since a peak of 5,312 in 2008. Injury rates have also been steady from a peak of 103,000 per year in 2007.
One possible reason is the controversial theory of “risk compensation.” The idea is that people tend to feel safer when wearing safety belts, sports padding, bicycle helmets, or motorcycle safety gear. That’s great, but this unconscious feeling of safety can trigger a false sense of invincibility and an increase in risky behavior. And the more safeguards introduced, the more risky behavior increases.
“Risk homeostasis” is the idea that if riders reduce risk in one area, they will automatically increase it in another area to avoid feeling “too safe,” unconsciously maintaining a risk exposure target. The level of risk is determined by the individual’s need for a thrill. Some people thrive on living on the edge and need a regular adrenaline fix. Others do not.
Some say that risk compensation and risk homeostasis is nonsense, but enough practical evidence exists to warrant a warning. You would be smart to monitor whether wearing protective gear may be influencing your perception of risk. This awareness can help you resist the tendency to compensate for a sense of greater protection.
Please, please, please—do not interpret this as a suggestion that you should not wear protection every time you mount your bike. There is no doubt that riding gear improves your chances of surviving a crash unscathed. Just be careful not to adopt a false sense of confidence because you feel less vulnerable. As always, the trick to a long and healthy life on two wheels is to ride smart enough so you never have to test the effectiveness of your riding gear.