Opinion: What a Scooterist Wears. Fashion vs. Protection.

Fashion is a funny thing. What you wear helps define your persona as much as any practical function those clothes might offer. There are many examples. A hard hat and a tool belt can identify you as a construction worker, but the hard hat serves to protect you from materials landing on your head, and the belt keeps your tools handy. A London Fog raincoat keeps the rain off you, but also identifies you as a style-conscious city dweller.

Over the years motorcycle or scooter riders have also developed fashion for both style and functionality. When I see a person clad in black, my first thought is that they’re likely a motorcyclist because of the look. But beyond identification, that gear protects the wearer in case of a fall.

Turns out that motorcycle riding gear has a really interesting history. You can see some of that history in this infographic created by the UK’s Bennett’s Insurance:


That’s all fine and interesting for motorcycle riding history, but what about scooters?

Scooterists have a somewhat checkered past as far as gear is concerned. While I hate to generalize, I’d have to say that scooterists are often “countercultural.” Going back to the days of English Mods and Rockers, the Rockers adopted the leather-clad uniform and the Mods (who were often scooterists) adopted the formal attire of their upper class betters: a shirt and tie, tailor cut coat and dress slacks. While identifying themselves as Mods was well accomplished, their duds missed out on the functionality part relative to their motorcycle riding rivals.

In fairness, they probably felt that the semi-reliable scooters of the day couldn’t go faster than maybe 35 mph. They probably felt that a fall or such wouldn’t need the same type of protection as a Rocker doing the Ton (100 MPH). They also minimized the time spent on cold or rainy weather and even if it rained, a parka was all that was needed for the speeds that they traveled.

Times have changed and so have scooters. Many of today’s scooters are capable of over 100 mph. Many of us use them for commuting and thus expose us to a wide array of traffic and weather conditions. Many of us still don’t think much about protective gear except where laws require a helmet and are still mostly concerned about looking good (whatever that is). Sure, there are plenty of motorcycle riders who never throw on more than a helmet and a pair of jeans, but it seems that scooter riders especially don’t feel much need for safety-conscious riding clothes.

My observations were reinforced when I went on some of the group rides at Amerivespa last Summer. I saw many people wearing helmets, T-shirts and shorts. I felt very over-dressed when I put on my riding pants and jacket in addition to my helmet. You see, I’m an ATGATT kind of scooterist (All The Gear, All The Time).

Two events turned me into an ATGATT rider.

The first occurred while I was riding my bicycle in the neighborhood (yes, my bicycle). I always wear a helmet while on two wheels of any kind, and I feel pretty safe with a lid on. Even the lightweight helmets bicyclists wear are uncomfortable and block the cooling breeze from my head, but I still wear one because it’s important to me to protect my head. I also wear eye protection. I stick mostly to sunglasses, but I have clear lenses for after-dark wear as well. Getting bugs, pebbles or dirt in my eyes makes it tough to stay on course. During this incident, I was also wearing my usual tight-fitting cycle shirt and shorts, and my cycling shoes were securely clipped into my pedals.

What happened was this: I pulled up to a stop light and slowed to a near stop. At the last second I decided to turn left onto a sidewalk. As soon as I turned the handlebars, I fell. Did not pass go. Did not collect $200. I fell instantaeously. I haven’t fallen from two wheels since I was a tyke, and man did that hurt! No broken bones, but I scraped up my arm, elbow and my knee and jarred my head and bruised my hip. I was bleeding. Not only did it hurt — a lot — but I was banged up for more than two weeks. How fast was I going? Exactly 0 mph. All I did was fall onto the concrete, and it banged me up good. Most people think injury danger is directly related to speed, but I learned the hard way (literally) that it’s very easy to hurt myself coming off a bike at any speed — even no speed.

The second incident was more serious and it didn’t even happen to me. It happened to fellow Ann Arbor scooter rider, Owen Medd, but I’ve heard many other anecdotal stories similar to this incident. While riding his Vespa, a pickup truck swerved in front of him to avoid another car. The truck contacted his scooter’s handle bars, turning them hard, which caused the front wheel to lose traction and the scooter to go down.

He was traveling about 35 mph and was thankfully at least wearing a helmet. However, he wasn’t wearing any gloves or an armored jacket. His bike “high sided” and he fell first on his left side, then rolled onto his hands and knees before sliding about 75 feet on his back. All things considered, he got out pretty well. He was alive, but he was battered — contusions on his left leg, road rash on his back, palms and side. His fingers on both hands, and part of his right arm, had all the skin removed. While that doesn’t sound like that traumatic an injury set, Owen actually went into shock. He suffered the after effects of the crash for more than two months. He now rides with a lot more protective gear, learning the hard way that a decent jacket and a pair of gloves would have prevented nearly all of his injuries.

OK, so obviously protective gear can help a lot if I get into an accident. It’s a necessary part of riding. However, I don’t really want to look like a Harley rider or a crotch rocket pilot. There’s nothing wrong with being a Harley rider, it’s just not the image I want to project. It brings us back to that pesky question of fashion. How can a more unassuming scooter rider strike that balance between being protected and not projecting a persona that just isn’t me?

Fortunately, more manufacturers are learning there is a market for scooter-specific riding clothing for both men and women. I tend to lean towards a sport rider style jacket, and a casual style of protective pant made by Slider. I also wear gloves to protect my hands and boots to guard my ankles. I’m not too fussy about the make or style of my gear since they are mostly functional and kind of invisible, but I’ve been able to find gear that I like. Individual tastes vary, but whatever I wear must be comfortable as well as functional. I don’t ever wear just a T-shirt and shorts. Not ever.

Sure, it’s more trouble and expense, but in the end I know that if something out of my control does happen, I’ve got the maximum chance of coming out of that situation in one piece. As more and more riding gear manufacturers produce gear with both fashion and protection in mind, the excuses about not wearing gear get more and more flimsy.

That’s my perspective. What’s yours? What do you wear? What is your relationship to risk? Talk to us in the comments below.

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