Monday, 22 August 2011

Why am I so conflicted about ATGATT?

ATGATT, or All The Gear All The Time, is the credo of many motorcyclists. As a bare minimum it consists of a helmet, a good riding jacket – preferably leather, eye protection, jeans, solid boots and gloves. At the extreme it also includes armoured jackets and pants, da-glo green jackets or vests, and reflective tape sewn or glued onto every available surface – everything but a cabin surrounding the rider and passenger. Riding while wearing a do-rag, shorts, t-shirt and sandals does not meet the minimum standard. Nor does this Yamaha-riding-mankini-clad guy.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for any one of a long list of safety-related gear, all based on the assumption that the rider will (not “if”, but “will”) get in an accident and therefore should be protected – for his (or her) own sake, for the sake of his/her family, for the sake of the medical/insurance companies, and even for the sake of the taxpayer who may end up having to support a vegetable for years to come.

But there are also counter arguments, mostly frivolous but some that credibly posit that all that safety gear just make us feel more invincible and therefore more likely to push the boundaries.  Apparently humans are hard-wired to need a certain degree of risk in their lives. Everyone's threshold is different, but what seems to happen is that if we drop below our own risk threshold we tend to then engage in increasingly risky endeavours until our overall risk exposure levels are again in equilibrium. (See Wikipedia: Risk Homeostasis.) Hence more protection = more risky behaviour, and less protection = more cautious behaviour.

That’s certainly true in my case. I used to be an ATGATT guy,  especially during the years when I was teaching motorcycle safety courses – it just wouldn’t do to be seen by a student riding in jeans and a t-shirt when mandating full protection for them. But recently I’ve found myself relaxing my previously non-negotiable standards. Now if I am just going for a short putt over to the golf course (20 miles) on a hot day I may eschew the gloves and jacket and just wear a golf shirt, jeans and sneakers, or a light windbreaker. If I’m going for a longer ride involving temperature changes, possibly some bad weather, and maybe some twisty roads or high-speed highways I’m more likely going to put on all the gear, including wearing my full face helmet. And what’s interesting is seeing how I (instinctively?) change my riding style when so attired. I know for certain that I will ride more aggressively and faster when wearing full gear. It’s not a conscious decision and the thought process is not  “I will be riding hard therefore I will wear all the gear”. It’s quite the reverse, with the clothing dictating the riding style, almost like the way the speed creeps up on you when you’re listening to a good road song on the radio – it just seems natural.

Any of my former students would find it hard to believe I would ever feel comfortable riding in just jeans and a t-shirt but I have, belatedly, discovered there are times when it is right for me. Is it riskier? Certainly, when factors outside one’s own control are considered. But if I wanted to avoid all possible risk in my life I’d wear my helmet while driving the car, hang a life vest on the bathtub, sell my chain saws, and die of sheer and utter boredom years before my time.

No thanks. I’ll take my chances and wear what makes me comfortable.

(A brief word on helmets. I have had very limited experience riding on the street without a helmet and found that I simply could not relax and enjoy the ride. There are probably many reasons for that, but I just was not comfortable riding that way. Others are different. There is also no doubt that helmets do save lives, which puts them into a different category than gear intended to reduce possible road rash or increase visibility. Having said that though I still firmly believe wearing a helmet should be an issue of personal choice combined with personal responsibility for any possible negative outcomes.)


  1. Canajun:
    I was less ATGATT inclined when I was younger but I'm the other way now. Maybe it's because I'm older and keen to hang on to whatever years remain in one piece!

    Your last paragraph is telling and to some extent, legislation is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff for both helmets and other safety gear. I don't have any difficulty with a lack of legal enforcement but I do support your comment 100%about there being personal consequences. I suppose it's in part due to my age, but I do worry in particular about an apparent increase in people doing what the hell they like with the expectation that there will be no consequences. (The UK rioters for example and the do-gooders saying that the sentences are draconian).

    Best wishes from the Kiwi Curmudgeon!

  2. One of the best posts I've read in a long time. I'm with you 100% on this one, except, I've ridden more years without a helmet than with one. I now wear one because the last accident I had, I thought I was going to die. Now I wear a helmet and am comfortable doing so.

  3. You just never know when an accident is going to happen. I don't feel like all the gear makes me any more prone to taking chances, but I sure feel vulnerable without it!

  4. Finally a truly honest see-both-sides of the argument for ATGATT. This is just another way to experience the freedom of motorcycling. Funny part, for me, is the number of ATGATT riders I've witnessed stopping for a smoke break or cooling off at a local establishment with an adult beverage or three. Yep, I guess they are trying to protect themselves from an early demise.

    The mankini thing was just awful, by the way, but at least now I won't consider that option as it is nearing 116 out here in the desert.

  5. Geoff - I agree. We have swung way to far off plumb on the whole idea of personal responsibility in my opinion. As usual with these things it will swing back, but not soon enough in my opinion.

    Mr. M. - Thanks. I knew you had recently started wearing a helmet and the fact you're now comfortable doing so just shows how we can get accustomed to anything given enough time and motivation. Perhaps the fact that I've been relatively unscathed in the accidents I've had has made me a little more complacent.

    Anon - I can see that. I do feel somewhat more vulnerable without all the gear, but not enough to counter the enjoyment of riding in a tee shirt on a hot day. Besides if vulnerability was rated on a scale of 1 to 100, simply riding a motorcycle would probably be in the 80th percentile and all that gear might only move it down a couple of points.

    AZHD - Thanks. And your comment about having a smoke and a few drinks struck a chord - see As for the mankini, that was just a test to see if anyone clicks on links. Sorry you had to see that. LOL.

  6. Canajun,

    I agree. I try, I really try to gear up before I go out every time, but when it's 95 degrees in the middle of an all-day ride, sometimes the jacket comes off. And sometimes in Minnesota or South Dakota, I head down the road without a helmet - though I usually turn around pretty quick, I chicken out for the same reasons. Shame on me, yeah, but sometimes it just feels right to bomb down the road on an old honda in a ripped shirt and jeans. Just saying.

    Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

  7. Canajun:

    sometimes ATGATT is based upon peer pressure and personal risk assessment and how hot it is. I have a general rule to always wear a riding jacket, and lately boots. A helmet is mandatory here in British Columbia. If I am snapping photos I need to ditch the gloves, and I make it a rule to wear riding pants on the highway. With cooler temps I usually wear ATGATT.

    In Kelowna during a rally most riders only wore Helmets and t-shirts and sneakers. I was the only one with ATGATT, so I relented and ditched the riding pants, but still wore the Jacket and was the only one who did.

    Last year in Bend,OR temps were 100°F but I was with seasoned riders and we had to wear ATGATT.

    see what peer pressure does, it can make you toddle back and forth.

    Riding the Wet Coast

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  9. Brady - "sometimes it just feels right". Exactly. And that's okay in my opinion.

    Bob - It's certainly easy in cooler temps because the comfort factor, and peer pressure is also a big issue - you'll tend to wear what everyone else is. The only exception I've noted there is with helmets. Most people either do or don't beased on their own preference, and not what others are doing.

  10. ATGATT is one of those things that may mean different things to different folks. I have met people who take it to mean Jeans, a jacket of any kind, and a helmet. Others interpret it as full-face helmet, fully armored jacket, armored pants, etc.

    Like most of motorcycling, there seems to be a continuum. If you wear more protection, but ride 20000 miles per year are you more or less at risk than the guy with the DOT beanie helmet that rides 500 miles per year on rural roads ?

    I like your comment about risk and personal responsibility. I don't think we are there yet, but it will be good when we can ensure that those two go together. Nice post.

  11. CV - Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  12. Nice coverage on a very debated topic. Personally, I wear what I can. If it's hot I still wear my boots, but no jacket, small pair of gloves and my shorty helmet. As the season draws to a close I'll slowly move over to my leather jacket and gauntlet gloves and full face helmet.

    I'm fine with wearing all the gear, but when I'm sitting on that bike in full leather (or textile) sweating my ass off, the last thing I'm thinking about is being safe. I'd rather have the ability to focus on what I'm doing which is riding my bike. I'm safer that way.

  13. Giest - That's a good point as well. Being distracted because you're too hot, too cold, or too wet is also a safety hazard.
    Thanks for the comment.

  14. Dear Canajun:

    This is one of the rare ocasions when I beg to disagree with you, based on my own experience. As you may have suspect, rational decision-making does not play a big role in my life. If I am on a lice stretch of wide road, with good visibility and an absence of authority, I will hit 110 mph, passing through the timre barrier that makes me 17-years-old again. And I would do it wearing the Kevlar, of just the best wishes of a topless dancer.

    Yet it was 94 degrees (F), at 25 miles per hour, when Tilly Shitforbrains made a point-blank left turn and hit me head on. The stupid gloves, the stiffling full-face helmet, the ghastly armored mesh jacket (that weighs 25 pounds) all did what they were supposed to. The jeans I had on exploded like a kids' pinata, and my knees got a good grating.

    At a recent MOA Rally I was surprised to see legions of BMW riders going about in their underwear, as it was hotter than bloody hell (103º F.). I just decided not to even mount the bike that day.

    I put on the bullet-proof stuff to move the bike around in the driveway. And yes, it does dramatically take zaway from the eperience. I'd rather ride in 40º weather than 90º stuff.

    But you're right about the risk... Technically speaking, since so many drivers are isolated from the reality of the road in cars, they become bigger risks to themselves and everyone else.

    And while my last accident was caused by a dizzy old dope, the next one could just as easily be me wiping the sweat from my eyes, and missing the dark spot of grease on the curve. In which case, my Joe Rocket Jacket, with it's six acres of mesh, will probablt come in handy.

    Fondst regards,
    Twisted Roads

  15. Jack - Thanks for throwing your $0.02 into the ring.
    That's a perfectly legitimate and rational response based on your own experience. Like I said in one reply the fact that I have never really had much road rash to deal with, or life threatening accidents (all have been single vehicle - mine - for which I was solely responsible) certainly colours my views on this topic.
    Bottom line is I believe there is no "right" answer, just one that works for you.

  16. Dear Canajun:

    You are so right... And that's why we ride. To surf the element of chance.



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