How does it work and is it worth it?
We recently got an email from a new rider named Elliot, who is shopping for gear and had a number of questions. The most important of which was this: "In the description of the Alpinestar Viper Air jacket, it says CE Certified armor. In the description of the Pro Air jacket it says Lightweight CE Certified Armor. The Pro Air is more expensive, but is it somehow less safe because it has "lightweight" armor?"
Right off the bat this rider is showing how smart he is by shopping for name brand protective gear and not just a fashionable leather jacket. Also, good taste for coming to RideApart for help.
Just looking up the two pieces in question, as well as the current European CE standards, and the Alpinestar website, this is an easy question to answer. There is only one CE standard for shoulder and elbow pads – EN 1621-1 – so Alpinestars referring to it as lightweight is only their description, not an official standard.
The less expensive jacket, the Viper Air, has bulkier armor. It is made of 600 denier fabric, not a 400/600 mix like the T-GP, so it should have more abrasion resistance. In my mind that makes the lower-cost item better, but if the bulkier armor makes you even think of riding without the jacket on, then the more expensive one is the way to go.
Various armor, some CE approved some not
But what does it all mean? And, how do you know what you are getting?
As with anything involving government regulations it is about as interesting to read and understand at a tax form, but translations are out there. Most name-brand gear will come with brief explanations as well, as is required by regulatons.
CE chart designating which areas should have what sort of impact protection
As seen in the above diagram, one of the first things they safety officials did was study which areas of your body need protection in the event of a crash.
Zone 1 is usually where you'll find armor because those are the bits that tend to hit the ground first and suffer the most abrasion damage from dragging. The knees and hips are also included in Zone 1 when talking about pants or one-piece suits.
Back protectors are a separate standard and category. The standards for these pieces of armor are EN 1621-1 and EN 1621-2 respectively. EN stands for European Norm, and for that matter CE stands for Certified European, which makes it odd when pieces are referred to as CE certified.
The simplified label seen above is what you will find on most gear. The picture of the motorcycle rider makes it obvious what it is for. An E would indicate an elbow pad, S would indicate shoulder, H for hip, K for knee. Type B pads are the typical size coverage, and Type A are smaller pads and obviously less coverage.
The temperature tests are not all that important, and the #1 or #2 to the left of them indicates the level of protection (for standards that have more than one protection level), with the higher number being better protection. As I mentioned before, elbow, knee, shoulder and hip pads only have the single rating, but back protectors can be rated 1 or 2.
If you look at these examples of armor pads you can see it all labeled clearly, in accordance with the regulations, in a way that will remain legible for the life of the pads. You can see the pad on the left meets the CE EN 1621-1:1997 standard 1-EPS (I think) which is the type of foam, "E" for elbow, Type B which is the size of the coverage.
All CE-compliant armor should be marked with the manufacturer, a part number and what standard it is supposed to meet. Also be aware that some armor can be CE tested, or CE certified, but not necessarily CE approved, which means every zone passed all the tests and was verified by an independent lab multiple times.
Beware of claims that something is CE tested, especially from a brand name you don't recognize. Also beware of anything marked with just a CE EN 340:2003, because though that is a protective standard it is for other things, like construction work, or bicycling.
Lastly, after going over all this fine print, what does it really mean? Well, in order to pass the CE testing for 1621-1 an armored pad hit with 50 KiloJoule of energy should only transmit 35 KiloNewtons to the wearer. Simple, right?
The layman's explanation is that they drop a 6-pound brick on it from about 6 feet, and measure how much force gets through the armor. My high school physics is too rusty to give you a good idea of what 35 KiloNewtons feels like, though. Back protectors use the same test, but can only transmit 18 KiloNewtons to the rider, or just 9 KiloNewtons for a level 2 protector.
Level 2 back protector on left, compared to level 1 on right
Some other relevant standards are EN 1938:1999 for eye protection (goggles), EN 13634:2002 for boots, EN 13594:2002 for gloves, and EN 13595-1:2002 (as well as 13595-2, 3, and 4) for race gear.
In fact, except for the eye protection, all these other regulations are specifically aimed at professional racers, but if you see them you know you are buying pro-quality gear. The Australian office of road safety has a page with them listed here. Force Field body armor also has a great explanation of all of this on their FAQ page, which can be found here.
Powersports retailer Canada's Motorcycle shot a short video which also tries to explain it all, and you can watch that here. If the United States had a 75-percent tax rate, and stopped worrying about who was using what bathrooms, we could have relevant safety standards like this, too.