All the gear, all the time

  • Published
  • By Air Force Safety Center Public Affairs
  • Air Force Safety Center

Riding a motorcycle brings a sense of connection to the world that you don't get in the car. For many it is a passion to be free, but it comes with responsibility. Riding requires focus and awareness for what is going on around you all the time. It also calls for a commitment to wearing protective gear.

Dr. Craig Martell, recent DoD chief digital and artificial intelligence officer, described his experience out on a group ride where he lost control of his motorcycle and ended up shiny side down. He credits his protective gear for keeping a bad situation from turning out worse.

“I was participating in the annual ARCH motorcycle owner’s ride last October in Sonoma County, California and I made a mistake,” said Martell. “My fundamental mistake was that I moved from the medium speed group to the fast group, and that was a stupid idea because as soon as I got in that fast group I realized they were going too fast for my comfort.”

Martell continued, “I should have pulled back to the medium group to make sure I was riding at my own comfort level.”

The ride took the group from the mountains down onto the California coast. A beautiful ride entailing lots of windy roads along the coast, with cliffs dropping off into the ocean.

During one of those decreasing radius corners, Martel squeezed the front brake while leaning pretty far over, and the bike slid out from under him.

“I wasn’t going fast … probably 25 or 30, maybe 35,” said Martell. “The bike has an anti-lock brake system, but not mid corner ABS and so anybody who rides knows if you squeeze the front brake the back is going to continue to go.”

As he recounted the experience of going down and hitting the ground, Martel described his philosophy on the importance of wear the right gear, “I am an all the gear, all the time person.”

“So I always ride with all the gear, even if I'm just going for a short ride, and I had just bought the airbag vest the day before,” he added. “I always want to make sure I have maximal gear and I knew other folks on the ride also wore that vest.”

Martell bought a version of airbag vest that is more like a jacket. It sits under the leathers and the user takes out back padding and shoulder pads, and it expands on your shoulders, your chest, your back, and then  comes up under the neck. It has accelerometers and a gyroscope so if the rider leans too far or starts tumbling, it goes off.

Studying his gear before the ride he singled out his leather boots as the weakest point in the attire. The pants he wore were chosen specifically because they had the right slide coefficient with good hip and knee pads.

“So, I go down on a low side,” Martell said. “I thought, OK, I'm going down, and to be honest with you, I have no idea what to do. I was nervous. I was scared.”

“The vest worked perfectly. It poofed up, and I didn’t really feel it at all,” he said. “I thought ohh that kind of felt like a mattress. That wasn't so bad … then I hit my hip and I thought oh OK, well, that's what the pain is supposed to feel like.”

The bike slid for a while with Martel hanging on until he let go and the steering turned and the bike fell on his foot crushing all five of his metatarsals. It was so bad that doctors weren’t sure whether his foot was going to heal to full capability for a long time.

The airbag vest worked flawlessly. He didn’t suffer a single injury to his torso, shoulder or collarbone area. As designed the airbag vest even kept his head stationary and in place so well it didn’t hit the ground.

“It worked perfectly, just perfectly, but my right leg was completely purple from the knee to my hip, so as soon as I can buy some airbag pants, I'm going do that too,” said Martell.

To accompany the need for good gear, Martel emphasized training and practicing rider skills as important advice for new and existing riders.

“One of the big things we push with our Department of the Air Force riders is practicing and building skills actually going out to a parking lot and working on your low speed skills because our entire program is wrapped around the idea,” said David Brandt, motorcycle program manager for the Air and Space Forces. “PPE is really for when your skills fail, and you should be using your skills as often as possible before you need them.”

“I simply wasn't aware of the fact that the bike I was riding needed a different kind of handling,” said Martell. “I didn't even realize the dangers of squeezing the front brake mid corner until it happened to me, and now it makes perfect sense to my physics perspective. You have to train – train – train with your equipment.”

The DAF Rider program encourages all riders to seek the right training at the right time and with the right bike.

More information on the department motorcycle program can be found on the Safety Center website.