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Why I Wear Safety Gear

Mark Kitaoka on Honda sportbike on race track

“Just think how happy you would be if you lost everything you have right now, and then got it back again.” — Frances Rodman

In The Beginning

Rode the streets where I lived in SoCal and before the helmet laws, I rode sans helmet. Heck, I simply rode in a white JC Penny t-shirt, Levi 501s, and Keds sneakers; no socks of course. Since I lived near the beach I rode along PCH dressed that way with the wind in my hair during those 78-degree nights; it was 17-year-old heaven.

During my dirt riding time, I cannot even begin to count the number of times I fell or crashed. The reality of riding in the dirt, be that trail riding or club racing is YOU WILL FALL and in my view, if you never do; well you just ‘think’ you’re fast. 😉 In the days before the original Bell Star was introduced, we all wore open-face helmets and riveted football chin guards onto them. I could not find any pictures of those days with the open-face helmet mods we all did.

White Bell Star helmet

Levi 501s, work boots, and leather work gloves were our ‘safety gear’ back in those days. Europeans dominated the motocross sport so they came out with more protective gear as racing in the USA became more popular. During the entire time I rode my bike on the street I never crashed or fell. Heck, I was a teenager, who of course knew everything AND feared NOTHING. Back then when someone suggested I ‘borrow’ my father’s leather jacket to wear while riding I remember saying; “Look the only person I truly fear in a fight is my father. A brown belt in Judo (this was BEFORE belts expanded from only four to 12 participation belts) AND a Golden Gloves boxing champion. No thanks, plus wearing jackets while riding is for sissies! I’ve never crashed on the street and I’m good enough to not do so.” 

Ah arrogant youth and ignorance, what bliss!

I’ve enjoyed riding motorcycles my entire life. Started in the dirt, then got into motocross in the vintage days, tried my hand at desert racing, took a two-decade break, and after the kids were in college took up road racing and finally taught track skills for Keigwins at the Track. I was one of their original instructors.

Mark Kitaoka with other motorcyclists

That’s me with hair on the right.

So What Changed?

I’d like to think that it was just age. Unfortunately not. Like almost everyone else I rode my sportbike on the streets here in the Bay Area. Highways 35, 84, 9, Swanton Road, etc became our group’s racetracks. Every Sunday we’d meet at Alice’s Restaurant on highways 35 and 84, AKA Skyline and Woodside Road. Our core group would agree on which way we wanted to go and head out. Invariably we’d see/hear/encounter someone who had fallen. Sometimes nothing more than a bruised ego and broken plastic. In other cases, injuries gave us pause. Not enough to make any of us ‘think’ it would happen to any of ‘us’ until it did.

Lance who was the leader of our group, asked us if we’d like to try a track day that he would coordinate. We were all very excited to show our amazing skills on the racetrack so our very first track day he arranged was at Buttonwillow Raceway in SoCal. We had to take shifts being the corner workers and flag wavers in all of the corners. 45 minutes of riding, 45 minutes of corner work. It was then we all discovered that even though we all ‘thought’ we were badass fast folks on the street, the track brought out all of the zits and warts in our riding. The reality was as plain as day!

Motorcycle rider on track

Luckily we didn’t have any crashes that day. Miracles do indeed happen. The miracle ended a few weeks after our first track day. My dad once told me “Boy the most dangerous time for you will be after you have learned something new. (at the time he was referring to boxing and judo) You will feel as if you know enough to be good at it. And then you’ll get into a fight and find out you’re not shit.”

He was so right. Declan had participated in our first track day and like most of us, it gave him a false sense of confidence in his newly found riding abilities. A month after attending the track day, he was riding by himself and broadsided a pickup truck turning left on Highway 84 while going much faster than was safe. He died at the scene.

I want to mention something here that you may or may not relate to. I’d been a smoker my entire life from teen to 2016 when I just quit cold turkey. A pack a day and man I LOVED smoking. I’d see the scare tactic commercials of women or men with only a half face left, using a speech box held to some button on their throat, imagery designed to shock and awe me to quit smoking. But I didn’t. I just felt it didn’t apply to me, the same as wearing great safety gear. Nothing bad happened to me and besides; I have great skills….

Declan’s death brought safety gear closer to home, but we have all heard and know stories about ‘someone’ who died on a motorcycle. Much like the smoking commercials, and even Declan’s death, great safety gear was never a top priority for me.

The beginning of my transition from ‘a regular rider’ to someone who became more aware of the risks involved in either not wearing great gear or rationalizing that the cost was too great happened as I was training people track skills.

The company that insured Keigwin’s at the Track told Lance that only two instructors could take students two up around the track. Myself and Lance. We were able to give students a first-hand feeling of how much bikes can lean, brake, accelerate, and corner while going no more than 80% of our speed with a pillion. It quickly became one of the most popular training exercises for the two-day school. Eventually, Lance could add more instructors approved for two up demonstration rides.

Motorcycle rider with passenger on sportbike Motorcycle rider with passenger on sportbike Motorcycle rider with passenger on sportbike Motorcycle rider with passenger on sportbike

When primarily men got off of the three-lap ride when we took them back into the pits, to a person they were all amazed, but more importantly stated that they now knew the value of the great gear. No, we had not fallen or even come close. It was the hard braking and corner speed for the lean angle that seemed to open their eyes. I say primarily men because none of them had ever been on the ‘b!tch seat’ before, yet were more than happy to have their wives or girlfriends ride with them in some borrowed ill-fitting helmet and fashion jacket. The experience of not being in control seemed to change their view of wearing great safety gear.

What I Had to Face – Crashing

I had my first tarmac crash 32 years after I began riding. All three were on the track. In one I low-sided, in turn three at Laguna Seca, trying my best to catch a mid-pack AMA racer. My right hand got caught under the throttle grip and I could not dislodge it. When I’ve crashed the moment is instantaneous, but after the initial fall, everything happens in slow motion much like in The Matrix! The gloves I was wearing, $450 Held’s (in 2001!) carbon fiber knuckle guards wore all the way down to the Nomex. I was sure that my hand was ruined and the only reason there was no pain was I must be in shock. I rode back to the pits, gingerly removed the glove, and NOTHING. Not a scratch. My custom-made leathers saved all of my dermis and my helmet and back protector prevented any bones from breaking.

Motorcycle gloves with carbon fibre knuckles

These are NOT the gloves that I was wearing at Laguna that day. This is the SECOND pair I immediately purchased the following Tuesday from my Sunday fall.

My next crash was at Thunderhill Raceway in turn 10. I don’t remember anything except waking up in a hospital bed at Enloe Trauma Center in Chico. I was airlifted to that center. I high-sided at 140 MPH. Nothing was broken except my two front teeth from the impact of my Arai chin bar hitting the ground.

Helmet after crash at racetrack

Six months later I was at Pahrump, NV, and going into turn two I low-sided once again. When I got up to push the bike to restart it, it was as if I was pushing against a mountain. The bike would not move. I looked down to see why – my bike’s front rim was not there, it had disintegrated and I was on my brake rotors. I had visually inspected my rims after the Thunderhill crash but found out later that magnesium rims MUST be x-rayed to truly find out if there are structural cracks that compromise the rim. Yet another lesson learned. No broken bones or teeth, no road rash, nothing. I was pissed that my second custom-painted lid was once again ruined!

Aftermath of motorcycle crash and helmet damage

I do NOT plan on crashing my third….

My Tipping Point

I stopped riding in 2004. No more track, no more training others, no more riding. After track time I lost interest in street riding. I watched as the portable phone, later to become the cell phone proliferated. Cars became larger and morphed into SUVs. Driving became secondary to texting, eating, lane assist, backup cameras, and anything but driving. Remember I rode the streets before cell phones existed.

Yet in 2018 I got the itch to ride again. But what kept me from taking to the streets weren’t the drivers, but the lack of things I took for granted at the track. Runoff areas into kitty litter, corner workers with flags and first aid kits in their booths, two ambulances with EMTs on standby at all times, no curbs, no cars, no cell phones, and skilled riders. You get my points. So I was an early adopter of EV bikes and purchased a 2018 Sur Ron Light Bee to do some off-road riding. I still have and love the bike today. His name is Jackson.

On the track, I was wearing the very best safety gear I could afford. Later Helimot sponsored our team and provided me with what I consider to be the best custom-made leathers, involving 32 measurements and 2 full cow hides. When I crashed my crashes didn’t have the chance of hitting a car, truck, pole, curb, fence, pedestrian, bicyclist, etc. All of those things and more are on the streets. So if I want to ride and not become a para or quadriplegic I needed to find the gear that will protect me…. AND WELL.

Never Say Never

Yeah, how many times have I both said and heard that?! After riding my Sur Ron for several years my addiction to riding came back, especially in the world of electric two-wheelers. I then purchased a Cake Kalk&, which turned into purchasing a Zero DSR, and finally returned to ICE bikes when I bought Joy, my 2022 Ducati Multistrada V4S (my review is forthcoming).

What kept me awake at night about returning to street riding was the thought of getting a spinal or neck injury given the elements on the road that don’t exist on the track. I’ve outlined those possible perils above. Yeah, broken arms, legs, and knees would not be fun, but I’d recover from those. So I researched and purchased a Helite Turtle 2 Airbag Vest to compensate for the back protector I religiously wore on the track (It was also required). Ignorance is pure bliss, but once I’ve had experience with crashing and not being injured (I don’t consider my bell being rung…an injury !?) the bliss evaporated.

Helite airbag vest Helite airbag vest rear

Some people, including myself, would believe that something like an airbag is ‘over the top’ in terms of safety gear for a motorcyclist. Had I not crashed at speed and not suffered any serious injury I too would have questioned the need for something to protect my spine, ribs, kidneys, and neck. We all decide for ourselves the level of risk we are willing to take in any given situation. Or we just don’t think about it.

Another Way of Looking at Safety Gear

I ride on the streets like cars are TRYING to hit me. My head is on a constant swivel. In my review of the Helite Turtle 2, I pose the question about law enforcement officers’ second-chance bulletproof vests. If their departments didn’t require them, would officers wear them? If you cannot guess their answers then never mind.

Consider automotive safety technology. Government regulations REQUIRE things like shatterproof windshields, crumple zones, placement of fuel containers, three-point seat belts, door reinforcements, forward-facing airbags, airbag curtains, collapsing steering columns, child seats, and their placement, the list goes on and on.

Besides the bliss of ignorance, I think the next reason for most people’s level of safety gear intolerance is believing they have the skills to avoid crashes. Or “I’m just riding to the corner store/coffee shop/market less than 2 miles away.” Used to make sense to me too back in the day.

So let’s present some new make-believe choices that may relate to price/risk/skill ratios! For a moment, pretend that the government no longer requires automakers to include safety tech, but as an option, the buyer can choose. Here is the list of options available to consumers (not all-inclusive since this is a fairy tale list):

  • Shatterproof glass
  • Seat Belts
  • Air Bags
  • Crumple Zones
  • Impact-absorbing bumpers
  • Supplemental door reinforcements
  • Protected fuel container areas
  • Windshield wipers
  • Defrosters
  • Side view mirrors
  • Rear view mirrors
  • Collapsable steering column
  • Turn indicators
  • Structural rollover roof reinforcement
  • Horn
  • Brake lights
  • Headlight high beams

Items no longer required:

  • Child seats

Most if not all of the items I’ve listed as ‘options’ could fall under the “My skills allow me to avoid any crashes or accidents” mindset. And if you are wondering why items like defrosters, windshield wipers, etc. are included in my ‘options’ list, these all have to do with safety, whether the government requires them or not.

If you have or are transporting a kid, why put them in a car seat or strap them in at all? I remember my dad letting me sit on his lap as he drove around town. We weren’t getting on the freeway, only going to the market or Thrifty Drug Store to get the $0.05 a scoop ice cream cone. And riding in the bed of a pickup truck was a right of passage as a young person. We loved it as well as having our untethered dog in the back with us. Ah, bliss is wonderful and nothing ever bad happened to us!

In the US as far as I know, the only REQUIRED safety equipment for motorcyclists is a DOT-approved helmet, but not in all states. When I visit my cousin on Oahu I am always as shocked to see riders riding without helmets as I would be if the airline I flew on had a smoking section. Yet when I flew back in the day and smoked, we all did and could. And yes, my cousin rides his Harley without a lid. And even though he is the MOST accident-prone person I know, nothing bad has happened to him. I just won’t talk about his dirt accidents when he WAS wearing a helmet….

OK, That’s Enough

I was really pleased when the editor told me that he’d like to have my view since the site is about information to riders, which includes safety. And just to remind you the title is “Why I Wear Safety Gear” with an emphasis on the I. I’m a big proponent of not being told what to do, so believe me, what each of you does is up to you. I just wanted to share the reasons I spend the money on GREAT gear.

When the man who sold me the Held gloves told me the price, I winched. In his thick German accent he simply said “Well Mark, it’s only your hands…” So I will repeat the passage I quoted at the beginning of this piece:

“Just think how happy you would be if you lost everything you have right now, and then got it back again.” — Frances Rodman

Various angles of helmet

  1. Didn’t bother reading as the pre read bit was so full of acronyms I could understand it. I know you Americans have problems pronouncing words and using outdated measurement units, I suppose these acronyms are also from years gone by. Shame, it may have been worth reading. I normally enjoy your articles.

    1. What are you even going on about? What acronyms? Why even make your comment if you did NOT read the article? And, no, you’re not being funny, just being a twit.

  2. Mark, I started riding in the SF Bay Area in 1984 (and I still ride) and roadraced from ’88 through ’98. When I bought my first bike, from a female AFM racer (not Fran Crane) and her AFM pal, they insisted that I put on a jacket and helmet. That’s how I quickly became an ATGATT rider. I can’t even take short rides without everything on, including ear plugs to protect my hearing (and my bike has a stock exhaust system).

    And as so many local street riders and Sunday Morning Riders wore Aerostich suits, I eventually got my own and have been wearing them on the street since around 2000. I’ve never crashed in an Aerostich but had my own share of track crashes while wearing full leathers and there is just no reason to not wear All The Gear All The Time whether one is on the street or the track (of course, on the track one is required to wear all the gear). Full gear protects you at any speed, bare skin (or even jeans) doesn’t. And helmets don’t just protect one a high-speed crash but also just from the vertical fall involved in a crash.

    Also: I met Helmut Kluckner back in 1986 and he told me of a town in Northern Italy (Bolzano) where there were a good selection of motorcycle gear stores (and I in fact bought some Dainese leathers there, before Helimot designed their own). And I can tell you that your memory is a little off on the price of the Held CF gloves. I wore the Kevlar and kangaroo leather ones that were popular from Helimot and they ran about $180-200 in the late ’90s/early ’00s (which was a LOT of money for gloves back then). There’s no way yours were $450, even given the newer hard carbon-fiber technology.

    Also: I’m glad you came away from three big crashes relatively unscathed. Even happier to know you quit smoking. That won’t kill you in an instant but it will almost definitely kill you slowly and painfully over time.

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