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I'm about to start daily bike commuting again after a long hiatus and want to go all out on safety. My fear of an accident is extreme enough that I am looking into regularly wearing body armor and a full-face helmet just for commuting. When I commuted previously, I felt like I was having near-death experiences on a weekly basis. Anyway, I'd love tips and recommendations on body armor and helmets that could maximize my safety in case of a big crash - especially stuff that comes in womens sizes. I know next to nothing about what is out there and have never done any mountain biking or the kind of sport biking for which people normally use the heavy duty safety gear. Putting on separate knee pads, elbow pads, etc. etc. seems like a huge pain to do twice a day, so I want to find something more like pull-on long-sleeved or short-sleeved top, and ditto for shorts or pants, that has the padding sewn in that I could wear under t-shirts & skort/skirt for summer. And solutions for winter as well. I'd love to get any tips. I'm considering just getting a padded waterproof motorcycle or ski outfit for winter.

Oh, and on helmet safety - are the skate/multisport helmets like Bern safer or less safe than traditional cycling helmets? Could one of those potentially be a better choice for commuting than a full-face MBX-style helmet?

A little more info about my commute: I live in Washington DC and go about 4.5 miles each way, and it's fairly steep downhill (going) and uphill (coming back). My bike is a very heavy electric assist model. Because of the electric assist, I don't have to worry about overheating as much as on a traditional bike, and I also have much quicker acceleration from a stop. Biking on my route is fairly dangerous, because cars constantly whip around right turns without even looking whether there are pedestrians or cyclists in the way (hence my many near-death experiences). Due to the heaviness of the bike and the speeds I reach going downhill, braking hard can also be dangerous. In addition, I will also be biking throughout the winter when my homeward leg will be in darkness. I was once rear-ended by a cab, and another time I had a braking problem and had a sidelong collision with a car as a result - thankfully no injuries those times, but given past experience I do not want to take any chances of orphaning my daughter!

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Helmets and protective gear don't make you safer. They only provide a probable amount of injury protection. –  Ritch Melton Jul 29 '12 at 17:31

3 Answers 3

While you can certainly wear BMX armour, or possibly even use motorbike armour and wear full face helmets, I would put much more emphasis on changing the way you cycle to reduce the risk from cars.

You say cars turn without seeing cyclists- well, you have two options:

  • become more visible. It isn't high fashion, but wear colours and lights, flashing and bright. Use your lane- own it, don't hide over at the side.
  • become more aware of other vehicles and make sure you are not where they will be.

If you wear a full face or motorbike helmet you will not be able to hear as well, so your awareness of other vehicles may suffer.

Especially on such a short commute cycle, you should be able to take care at each junction.

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Adding to this some things to help you survive (I used to ride "street" in San Fran, tricks in the street, usually requiring navigation through bad traffic conditions. 1) assume that no cars can see you 2) assume the 1 or 2 cars that CAN see you will try to hit you!! This will get you in the mind set that you should not be anywhere that a car could hit you even if they wanted to. –  BillyNair Jul 27 '12 at 22:15
Absolutely. That's even my approach in a car or on a motorbike- assume they are out to get you. –  Rory Alsop Jul 27 '12 at 23:16
Also, many full face helmets may restrict your peripheral vision, and restrict you from turning your head is quickly, which can affect how you can see cars behind you. –  Kibbee Jul 28 '12 at 16:51

I ride a motorcycle on the freeway (interstate for those back east) and you have to live with the fact that if you are hit by a car there is really nothing you can wear to protect you the way you would like. A helmet will protect your head from the impact of you falling 6 feet to the ground going 20 MPH, but I have yet to see one that will fully protect you from a car or running head on into a barrier on a motorcycle. Even then, you are more likely to obtain serious injury or death from neck injuries than a cracked skull. My son plays football and even using the Xenith Helmets (best anti-concussion helmets) you still hear of concussions. I am not trying to scare you, I am trying to let you know that there is nothing guaranteed to keep you safe on a bike from cars. As long as you understand the risks and still agree to riding, there are a few things to help keep you safer than spandex.

There are motocross style shirts with thicker pads in them. The material is designed to breathe really well so it doesn't get hot but still good for a hard fall/slide at speed (80-90 mph). Or are body armor that you can buy to go over your clothes. The stripped down "spine only", the MX style chest plate, and the integrated arm and chest (similar to the shirt I first mentioned but wearing the pads on the outside.) Chest Pads

For the lower body, you can get racing leathers. They are the motorcycle pants that MX riders wear. They protect the hips, thighs, knees, and shins. You can find some pretty light weight ones (and they look frekn SEXY on women!!)

I wear Lizzard Skins Shin Guards. They are by far the best shin guards out there! Their plastic inserts are thick and bent into a V-shape to distribute the impact to the sides of your legs, where the meat is, rather than the shin bone.

Breaking down to the Kneepads. You can pick up some good ones from any skate shop, and if you decide not to get a fully integrated chest protector, you can get your elbows there too.

While you are at it, don't forget that a GOOD pair of gloves will protect your hands from road rash is you are sliding. I have used some pretty crapy ones, and found that Mechanix make some really good gloves! I use them for my motorcycle as well as my BMX in the skateparks, they hold up against everything I have put them through.

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Frankly, what you want is impossible. A good bicycle helmet provides substantial protection from head-impacts-pavement and head-impacts-vehicle events, but basically only those where the velocities involved are small. The helmet functions by slowing the skull down slowly, avoiding the skull-brain impact which often does the most damage.

But, where the helmet is effective we're talking about impacts which, if they involved another body part, would only result in a bad bruise or maybe a relatively minor fracture -- impacts not much worse than slipping on the ice and going down hard. Yes, body armor would help with such impacts, but the cost (in terms of weight/comfort)/benefit(in terms of reduced bruising) ratio is very low.

Getting broad-sided by a car is an entirely different situation. If, eg, the car strikes your body at the hip, your spine will be subjected to enormous torsion and a spinal injury is very likely. Body armor (short of the stuff used in Iraq) will not stiffen the spine. If the impact is at the knee, similarly no practical body armor will prevent the knee from being torn apart by the impact.

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Ditto. Add into that if you are wearing a full face you will not be aware enough of your surroundings. If you are wearing full armor, you will not be nimble enough to ride safely. In most cities you can commute safely on roads, trails, talk to your local bicycle advocates and "test" some of the routes on weekend or non-peak times. –  Ken Hiatt Jul 28 '12 at 3:14

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