Hey, Just thought I’d share some info I’ve gathered about back protectors. Hope it provides some answers and insight into body armor and the buying process for protective gear in general.
For me, it takes more than endorsements from paid or poorly informed users to come to a definitive conclusion about the crash worthiness of any piece of protective gear. It seems ridiculous to buy gear based on marketing hype, sponsorship deals, rumors, arbitrary crash experience, looks, feel, and name recognition. Real, scientifically derived numbers should be the first reason for buying a piece of protective gear, always.
In the North America, there are currently no standards or testing procedures necessary to call a piece of cardboard "the best protection system on the planet". However, European CE standards provide us with a means of making a better decision based on some hard evidence that is at least a step in the right direction for our true needs. I'm not convinced that CE provides us with the highest level of protection for the future, but it does provide effective scientifically-based testing for all so-called "protective gear" or "safety equipment". It can be very confusing, but after some discussions and some simple research I have found a number of companies that offer CE certified back protectors and specify compliance with the proper back protector standards and plenty of others that either don‘t claim any crash performance or provide proof of any claims.
The CE standards establish a unified testing procedure to be used by clothing or protector manufacturers who intend to have their products qualified for sale in Europe and who want to offer their protective wear in all countries of the European Union. To gain the CE mark all products have to be tested and approved by an independent, government approved test house. The result of this testing procedure determines whether manufacturers can market the protective equipment as "protectors" or simply "protective padding". All of the certified protectors are only good for a single-use due to the structure and/or crushable materials used to absorb impact, though a few offer better protection for multiple impacts during a crash.
The CE BACK PROTECTOR standard is labeled EN1621-2. The test is performed with a 5kg “kerbstone” dropped from one meter to create the test impact energy of 50 Joules. The standard contains two levels of force transmission performance. 18kN passes LEVEL 1 "basic" compliance and 9kN passes LEVEL 2 "high performance" compliance. So LEVEL 2 protectors allow 50% less force to reach the spine/ribs.
The CE LIMB/JOINT PROTECTOR standard is labeled EN1621-1. It allows joint/limb armor to transmit no more than 35kN of force for all levels. Both of the CE body armor standards(back or limb) use the same amount of energy as a starting point, 50 joules. However, limb/joint armor ratings are based on performance at 50 joules, 75 joules, or 100 joules, leading to 3 levels of performance within this standard. All 3 levels allow no more than 35 kN of force to transmit: LEVEL 1 (50 joules), LEVEL 2 "high performance" (75 joules), and LEVEL 3 "extreme performance" (100 joules).
“Astrene” gel/foam in 8mm non-perforated thickness, “Astrosorb” in 8.5mm perforated form, and T-Pro’s four layers of “Armour-Flex” material are all rated to the extreme performance level (100J), making them the highest-rated materials used in limb/joint armor.
For an explanation of the current CE Standards: http://www.pva-ppe.org.uk/
Here’s an excerpt from that link:
"There has been criticism of the standard from medical experts who consider the transmitted force levels too severe; citing decades of automotive research which indicates 4 kN is the maximum force the brittle bones which form the human ribcage can withstand before they fracture. Four kiloNewtons is the requirement adopted in standards covering, for example, horse riders' body protectors and martial arts equipment.
Attempts to reduce the transmitted force requirement to 4 kN and to correspondingly reduce the 50 Joule impact energy requirement were strongly resisted by industry, who claimed consumers would be confused by different impact energy requirements between EN1621-1 and EN1621-2.
In truth, it was in the industry's commercial interests to test both types of protector at 50J, since they could then extol the efficacy of back protectors which, when struck with the same impact energy as limb protectors, transmitted only 9 or 18 kN compared to 35 kN. The consumer would be unaware that subtle differences in the impactor and anvil were responsible, and still less aware that 9 kN was still more than double the safe limit supported by medical experts. Furthermore, during the late 1990s, some companies had used the wholly inappropriate EN 1621-1 to CE mark their back protectors. Commercial objectives were given priority over consumer safety.
Despite these concerns, EN1621-2 represents a starting point from wholly unsafe products should be rendered obsolete and unsellable. It will be important, however, for consumers to ensure back protectors are marked with the correct standard number, if they are not to mistakenly purchase an old stock.
Finally, there are a small number of back protectors on the market which have been dual-tested against the requirements of EN1621-2 and also against a 4 kN transmitted force requirement. Reading the manufacturer's technical information will disclose which are the superior products.” (Don't we only wish that was true).
So there are two levels that are considered passing, but both of these levels fall within that 1621-2 back protector standard. However, 4kN is the medically recommended level of transmitted force, but is NOT actually required by the current CE back protector standard. Most protectors cannot provide that level at the 50 Joule energy impact level. Also keep in mind that when a protector is just labeled as CE Approved, and no mention is made of the level of performance, it probably implies Level 1 compliance, but the claim should be verified. European-sold models must comply by law, but a few companies have been found to be improperly using the label, or unlawfully associating their products with the standard.
Here's a list of all of the back protectors I have found, starting with the LEVEL 2 rated protectors, followed by some LEVEL 1 protectors, and finally by those that are NOT RATED and/or offer no performance data or verification of claims:
BKS is the only motorcycle clothing manufacturer that I have found to offer back protectors that meet the medically established 4kN energy transmission level with their Astroshock/Suproflex model protector, according to their website information.
BKS also offers limb/joint armor that meets the CE 1621-1 standard's highest rating, the "extreme performance" energy absorption level (35kN@100J).
They seem to have the right attitude and the highest quality merchandise available, but they are also THE most expensive producer of leather motorcycle apparel on the planet. Should we really have to pay $3000.00 for the kind overall protection we need?
Nobody else claims off-the-rack suits that are 100% CE approved as a whole (abrasion, tearing, seam burst, and impact) . Only a few small, custom manufacturers offer complete CE approved leathers at all. Why are there so few manufacturers willing to meet the baseline testing requirements and apply for certification? It’s a sad statement about level of respect we are shown as consumers by the majority of gear manufacturers. Only a handful of virtually unknown manufacturers are willing to “walk-the-walk”, and the most popular and widely-known brands don’t mention any type of performance information in their product descriptions.
T-Pro offers similar products, their website is full of good info and their products clearly stand-out as the highest-rated in crash protection. T-Pro back protectors and body armor are effective for multiple impacts during a crash event, and are made with no hard plastics which should be much more comfortable and is potentially safer than products made with hard materials.
The most interesting piece of info from the T-Pro Body Armor site:
"Back Protection for Motorcyclists--Only a few motorcyclists receive a direct blow to the spine causing serious injury; more spine injuries are probably due to direct blows to the shoulders and hips. The products commonly known as motorcyclists back protectors, if correctly designed and constructed may alleviate some minor direct impacts on the back, but will not prevent skeletal or neurological injuries to the spine in motorcycle accidents."
It appears that most riders’ assumptions about the use and effectiveness of back protection is more than even the highest rated protectors can live-up to in actual performance. This information won’t stop me from purchasing a back protector, but it certainly gives me a better understanding of what to expect at current levels, so as not to be fooled by stories or sales pitches to the contrary. Is minimizing spinal, scapular, rib, and kidney bruising worth the cost of most of these protectors? I’d say so.
T-Pro's Forcefield back protector is CE certified to the 1621-2 LEVEL 2 standards, making it one of the few that advertises meeting this higher level. They also claim that the "Armour Flex" material will absorb multiple impacts with the same effectiveness. However that doesn't necessarily mean that it should be used again after a crash, but, just like a helmet, it will protect against second or third blows in the same area in a crash.
T-Pro also makes a chest protector/harness system, the 8100 harness, that they say conforms to the 1993 Swedish Off-Road Standards. I’m not familiar with the requirements for that certification. I would assume that off-road standards wouldn’t be ideal for street-speed impact protection, and I would consider 1993 to be archaic in terms of technology and materials advancements. I’ll look into it, and try to find-out just how stringent that standard is, and if it applies favorably for street protectors.
Johnson Leather, in the U.S., sells the T-Pro Forcefield products, as well as what looks to be the BKS "Astroshock" back protector inserts under their own name, and BKS now also sells a re-badged version of the T-pro Forcefield protector as well.
Dainese doesn't tout or even mention CE approval anywhere on their own website, but I did manage to find some info on the Dainese protectors from MotoLiberty's website. Dainese makes quite a few different models, not all advertise the same levels of protection, but most appear to be certified. They use an aluminum honeycomb internal structure.
"The new Dainese folding back protector--Paraaschiena Ripegabile is made with a hard plastic tortoise-shell type construction. It has an optimum shock absorption capacity which easily superceded the tough test at the highest level, EN1621-2 LEVEL 2." It also has the added convenience of being foldable for storage.
The Dainese Wave 2 protector (a version of the Backspace) is CE rated LEVEL 1.
The Back Space and Gilet Space models are also CE approved to the LEVEL 1 standard, passing with 15kN of transmitted force in tests according to a European distributor.
The BAP protectors also appear to be CE approved, LEVEL 1.
Knox was the first company to apply for CE approval for their KC protectors back in 1997, under the previously established limb/joint protector standards(EN1621-1). For a while, Knox was the only company that offered a certified protector.
All of the Knox protectors are approved to the current and proper 1621-2 standard (Level 1). They claim to surpass the basic requirements by 50%,which would equal the Level 2 requirement, but for some reason they do not claim the higher level compliance in their advertising literature. They also offer the largest coverage area of any of the protectors available with all of their models, with a plastic-honeycomb internal structure.
The new Ricochet model advertises multiple-impact effectiveness and LEVEL 1 compliance.
The Stowaway model is flexible enough to roll-up for convenient storage, and comes with its own storage bag and is still approved to the LEVEL 1 standard.
Alpinestars states that their Tech Protector is EN1621-2 approved (LEVEL 1).
The RC back pad inserts are also CE approved. The RC is probably the least expensive CE approved back protector available($25).
Spidi offers two families of back protector options, the Airback and Warriors.
The Airback protector is CE Level 1 approved according to the Italian Spidi website. However, SpidiUSA doesn’t mention any of this info. Spidi touts the Airback protector’s effectiveness because of its shoulder blade coverage and the nature of most initial crash impacts hitting the shoulder blade region.
The Warrior “mid” and “low” options are LEVEL 1 approved, but offer very little coverage area, focusing on the lumbar region with no shoulder blade coverage. If you are looking only for simple lumbar protection, these are the only approved options I have found.
The information is confusing with regard to the regular and “compact” Warrior protectors. The US website shows a Warrior protector that looks different than the Warrior protectors on the Italian website. I was told that the European version is updated and not yet available in the U.S which would explain these differences.
Both Spidi websites state that the regular and compact versions of the Warrior are compliant with the CE Directives for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), which have nothing to do with the actual testing performance or standards for the equipment. The Directives are simply an ethics code and basis for testing procedures and standards operations. This is a very misleading statement regarding the effectiveness of these products. Have they been properly tested and certified to the EN1621-2 standard? It certainly doesn’t appear that way.
The Giali protector claims CE approval. No mention of level. It is a European model, so it is probably properly approved to the LEVEL 1 standard.
Clover, another European brand, has a couple of models specified to meet LEVEL 1 standards, no word of availability of Clover protectors in the U.S.
Kobe back protectors claim CE approval as well, but no mention of which standard or level.
Fieldsheer makes claims in their marketing copy for the X20 back protector that leave the specifics to the imagination by not directly referring to the standard that their protector has passed.
"The X20 back protector provides protection internally using a new "honey comb" plastic core, proved to exceed all European CE standards."
Maybe I'm over-analyzing, but if you read it carefully, what is that really saying? Has it been certified? Has it been tested as a whole? Is the design or the final product proven to CE levels? All CE standards?
I have received confirmation from an X20 owner that it is properly rated to the 1621-2 LEVEL 1 standard. Not the best, as they make it sound, but properly rated and certified nonetheless. It would have been easier, if they just would have stated that in their ads.
My most recent look at the Fieldsheer website shows the 2004 line-up, which doesn't look like it includes the X-20 model anymore, however the protectors listed are all properly CE approved to the basic requirements.
Helimot carries a German brand of protectors, Erbo. The models on Erbo’s own website are shrouded in a Cordura cover, and appear to be shaped quite differently than those on Helimot‘s website. I don’t know if they are the same models sold by Helimot, but Erbo states that the models on their website are CE LEVEL 1 approved.
Helimot has an interesting theory behind their TLV protector, but makes no claims of protection (Its an American market product). I have heard stories of the owner of Helimot performing "real world" tests with a hammer for skeptics. I’m sorry, I'd rather have repeatable measurements than seat-of my-pants guesses at what crash forces are going to feel like or infomercial-styled demonstrations. Dramatic exhibitions should be saved for differentiating the meaning of the data, rather than basing your presumptions of efficacy on them. A non-certified product could be the best performer available, but without proper testing data we can’t take that chance, not when proven options are known and available.
An article on the British Motorcycle federation website makes reference to improper use of CE claims by some clothing manufacturers. While this is clearly illegal in Europe, Bohn has been successfully attaching a “CE” label on their products in North America, without actually being certified and apparently without any repercussion. Shady marketing practices? To say the least.
Bohn's website offers no specific information regarding which CE specs are being met or how it is being proven. Any company that tries to tag-on to safety standards and markings without actually providing open evidence or paying for the right to market its products using the standard is obviously not selling in good faith. These claims are not only blatantly deceptive, but speak to the level of respect of us as customers and to the significance of the standard as a meaningful statement of credibility.
Bohn does not specify which standard they are referring to in their marketing statements of "exceeding CE specs" or "made to European CE standards". None of the Bohn back protectors have been tested or approved to any standard, and they are not made of the same materials as any CE approved protectors. Notice the lack of reference to the actual standard or levels in their literature. This claim was not only made years prior to the existence of the 1621-2 back protector standard, but they have still refused to submit for proper testing and certification. They hope you won't know the difference, or won't care.
Specifically, Bohn lists the Pro-Racer model as being "made to European CE standards". It is fairly obvious that Bohn has directly copied the appearance of the venerable Knox protectors that they once had exclusive distribution rights to in the U.S., a product with which they built their name and reputation. Since their relationship with Knox dissolved, Bohn has campaigned their own products, using a simpler, less-expensive foam internal construction as if it is essentially the same as the Knox. Attempting to downplay the obvious internal construction and performance differences between their product and the CE approved Knox protectors in a sort of conspicuous-confusion marketing approach.
As they back-track from the statements of CE approval, Bohn claims that all armor materials are the same, thus their protector will pass the tests without needing to be tested. Of course, the materials are not the same, nor is the construction. The tag-line is "made to European CE standard", not "passed" nor "approved". An extremely sordid use of semantics and misrepresentation. But they don't stop there, they actually attach that phony CE label. Do they make Rolexes and Oakleys too?
The other claim by Bohn is that their protectors can be used for multiple crashes. This goes against all other information about the only materials in use that will absorb the necessary amount of energy to meet the 1621-2 standard. So far, there are no companies that meet the proper standards without using materials that permanently deform after a crash impact, or multiple impacts during a single crash, just like helmets.
But they do offer-up some gems, like this quote from Eric Bostrom:
"After testing at the Jan 2000 Laguna Shakedown Eric reported: '...really comfortable, and made me feel safe on the bike' "
Boy that was convincing. And yes, that is the entire testimonial.
Bohn makes no claims with any of the Carbon/Kevlar (named KC, just as the Knox) models or the Pro-Racer Motard version, and offers no performance data or levels or verification of protection for those models either.
The Bohn X-Ploit chest and back harnesses claim to be "made to the Scandinavian Off-road Protection Standard." No word on whether these protectors are actually certified to that standard either. I don't know too much about the Swedish(Scandinavian) off-road standard, but it was instituted in 1993 and is probably not at the current level required by CE for street use items.
Impact Armor also claims their protectors are ""Designed to exceed ALL European CE specifications for armor", but they are NOT actually CE certified and do not provide any performance data either. The CE had not introduced the 1621-2 back protector standards at the time that statement about the "design" was originally published. There is no reference to the proper standard, and the lack of open proof leaves that statement worthless.
They rely on testimonials from “unpaid”(not paid, but certainly freely supplied) professional racers, but nothing in the way of actual proven results of crash worthiness or protective levels in their marketing or correspondence. And similar to Bohn, a few tall tales of survival that don’t discuss anything resembling data.
I had email correspondence with Michael Braxton, owner of Impact Armor. He seemed friendly, but unwilling to divulge any real information about how his Impact Armor protectors have performed in tests. In fact, I got the gist that they haven't been tested at all or at least in the current form. He focuses on theory and a “patented design“, but the design and theory need to be proven by repeatable testing of a final product to be worthwhile.
In fact, in Mr. Braxton’s allusions to CE, the website states that “prototypes were submitted for testing to the Cambridge Institute in Britain”. Results of these “prototype” tests are not shown, and the assertion is qualified by a statement about a 6-year long “wearability program” as if they were the same issue. Also, the “patented design” is not in reference to a protective feature, but a convenience feature that allows disposal and replacement of damaged components after an impact-use. Of course a patent doesn’t say anything about the design’s effectiveness (as Thomas Edison would attest).
This all amounts to a lot of hype without actually saying anything substantial about the actual crash-worthiness of the product . I inferred that these theories were tested in the early '90s while working with T-Pro. I don't know the complete history of T-Pro and Impact Armor or Michael Braxton, but I am leery of his evasiveness and lip service to safety and standards in our correspondence, though his intentions did sound sincere at times. However when it comes to my safety, somebody's sincere intentions won't buy a cup of coffee. Alas, one statement he made really bothered me:
According to Braxton, “Frankly, the cost, time and bureaucracy to obtain CE certification is just not worth the hassle... And if you did subject your self to the process, the quality of your product is treated no differently than the others.…”
Frankly, I think that the “quality of your product” would be revealed by performance testing. What does he really mean by that statement? Apparently it’s less of a hassle to claim something meaningful without paying for its use, but he is certainly willing to reap the benefits of the association.
According to Paul Varnsverry (www.pva-ppe.org.uk), an authority on protective clothing, “It actually costs less to test and certify a motorcycle suit than it does the average pair of safety shoes - as proven by the fact that the first companies to achieve EC type approval were the small, UK manufacturers of bespoke motorcyclists’ clothing.”
Teknic makes no specific claims of protective levels or performance results with their 4 or 7 link protectors. However, they also sell the CE approved Knox protectors.
Joe Rocket's website says very little about their GPX back protector. It is NOT shown to be CE certified. It is, however, made of the same material that BKS uses in their body armor, "Astrosorb", one of the highest-rated foams used in LIMB/JOINT armor, but make no reference to the thickness used or performance results, just that it is one-piece. It resembles the BKS protector and materials, but BKS has pointed-out that Astrosorb alone will not meet the back protector standard.
The NJK, another American model that offers nothing about protection levels or certifications.
The Italian made UFO back protectors. I don't know about their availability in the U.S., or certification.
There are plenty more out there, the important thing is to know what to look for before you spend any more money thinking you have the safest possible piece of equipment. In the end you have to ask yourself just how much limited personal experience, limited arbitrary crash experience, limited knowledge of the real forces at work in any crash story, and the beliefs of others in what they have heard through the grapevine will get you the right answers. The problem with any of that information is that it is never complete or accurate, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. Is any of this sort of speculation going to satisfy your motivation to part with your money? What information will provide you with the safety expectations you have decided are appropriate?
CE approval may not be the end-all-be-all answer by any stretch. However, proper testing itself is the only real way to know how crash worthy a product is and how much that means to your expectations. Arbitrary crashes are all similar in one way, they involve forces in a direction acting on the equipment. It is simple rudimentary physics that decides how you come out of an accident, and simple impact and abrasion testing that is 100% repeatable is the only practical way to determine actual differences in products that may save your life or leave you for dead.
Trying to figure-out safety and protective differences, which are the only qualities that truly matter in the end, is WAY too complicated. You and I should not have to go to great lengths to find or understand the safety differences in any piece of so-called "protective equipment“. The need for a Snell-type standard in North America that is clear, comprehensive, and concise is evident, and we need to make it happen now. Without standards for motorcycle gear, anybody can slap a high-quality piece of cardboard together, and call it the world's best protection system. I'm also sure that you could find many racers or average Joe's to swear by it as well. Perpetuation of poor information and marketing hype leaves too much to our own speculation and assumptions as the basis for our protective measures. Personally, I’m sick of paid plugs and emotional attachments being used as appropriate reasons to purchase safety gear. Snell labeling for helmets has been successful and we need to demand something similar for the rest of our body.
Sorry for the length. Hope this can help in your decisions though. I also hope the entire motorcycling community can make it a point to be more thorough in the buying process when it comes to so-called protective gear. All of these questions, and any misinformation, marketing hype, and rumors can be avoided with a simple testing procedure. If "something is better than nothing" then "something better" can be just that.