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Crash Bars
Believe it or not, they may be MORE dangerous than helpful

By: James R. Davis

Some people call them 'crash bars', some 'case guards', still others call them 'engine guards' -- but, until recently, nobody 'officially' has called them 'leg guards' or 'leg protectors'.

I don't know a single motorcyclist that would argue that they are not a good thing to have on a motorcycle, and I know quite a few that have added them to their motorcycles if they did not come stock.

So, it might surprise you to know the following facts:

  • There is a genuine dispute in the scientific community as to whether leg guards do more harm than good.

  • No government or agency thereof has ever required them.

  • No independent testing or professional organization has ever recommended them. (Until recently.)

  • The motorcycle industry as a whole categorically rejects the need for leg guards.

  • Honda's own testing on their use reached no definitive conclusions.

How can this be?

On May 30, 1995 in the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, an appeal was heard in the case of James Satcher versus Honda Motor Company (No. 94-60492). In the written opinion of that court is found a summary which listed those facts.

You can read the opinion here (

It is an interesting read that describes a case where Satcher lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and sued Honda claiming that since Honda made the motorcycle without leg guards they made a product that was defective and unreasonably dangerous in a crash.

Following are two paragraphs from that opinion that should cause you to wonder:

Honda presented two well-qualified experts, John Snider and Warner Riley, who opined that leg guards should not be used because their safety benefits are outweighed by their safety disadvantages, including the possibility of greater upper body injuries. For example, Riley explained that the problem with unpadded robust bars is that they can cause the cyclist to leave the motorcycle and land upside down, and that padded crash bars increase in-flight whiplash, which can result in a broken neck. They were also of the view that in this particular accident Satcher would not have benefitted from crash bars. There is a disagreement in the scientific community as to whether head impact increases when crash bars are used.

Honda itself conducted certain crash tests in the 1960's. One report concluded that at certain speeds crash bars are effective at reducing leg impact in an angled collision. However, it found that in broadside collisions "there seems to be an indication that each of the various body area impacts is greater in the case of motorcycles equipped with crash bars than in the case of those which are not," and that a commercially available crash bar "has no protective effect or it has a possible reverse effect in broadside collision[s]." This conclusion was disputed by Ezra as not supported by Honda's own experimental data. The report also noted that it was far from definitive.*fn4 A Honda chief engineer testified that "thus far we have created, tested, evaluated various experimental devices; however, we have yet to come up with a ... practical as well as effective device that would protect the leg."

So, I ask the question in good faith:

Since I know no rider who believes that guards are not a good idea, including myself, how is it that the facts presented to the court suggest otherwise? How could our perceptions be so wrong or misguided? Or are they?

[At this point I should like to advise you that several motorcyclists have told me that their perception has always been that these guards are to protect the motorcycle, not the rider. They advise that 'only non-riders' think they are any good at protecting rider or passenger.]

It is clear to me that at least on the GoldWings the case guards (that wrap around the engine heads) provide very little in the way of leg protection. Motorcycles that have larger/wider guards (where you tend to mount highway pegs), therefore, must do something more - at least one thing they do is provide a measure of leg protection. Rear guards are designed to protect the bags, but they are obviously capable of providing some measure of protection to the passenger's legs as well.

On many motorcycles none of these guards exist at all. Engine guards could easily be added that tend to protect the engine, but most riders that add them obtain guards wide enough so that if the bike is on its side the leg is not crushed.

It is understood, at least by me, that none of these guards provide much in the way of leg protection in the event of an accident (at least from impact damage), but if they keep a laid down bike from crushing a leg surely you would agree that is a good thing?

That same court case discussed 'leg guards' and 'crash bars' on police motorcycles:

Police crash bars are used in part to hold lights or other accessories needed on police vehicles. Their efficacy as a safety device is the subject of disagreement. Kenneth Harms, a former Miami police chief with experience on the motorcycle patrol and in investigating motorcycles accidents, believes that police crash guards, particularly those used on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, are effective in reducing injuries. Harms conceded that he had no scientific or engineering expertise in motorcycle design. Harley-Davidson has expressly recommended against the use of crash bars on its police motorcycles.

Once again you see a difference of opinion. A police chief says they reduce injuries, particularly on Harley Davidson's while Harley Davidson recommends against using them.
Odd, no?

Some of you now are prone to argue that what you hear in court consists of lies and misrepresentations - designed to benefit one side or the other. I don't think either side is telling lies. Rather, I think the manufacturers are soooo frightened by litigation that they are forced to take the position that engine guards are not necessary/important in protecting legs from injury lest they be sued by owners of all their products that were sold without them. I think that rather than telling lies they are slanting their testimony with evidence that, in good faith, tends to minimize their liability.

That is a far cry from being unbiased and telling all there is to tell. But they have no obligation to do either, in court.

[I happen to think our judicial system works pretty well - because we have a jury system that allows two sides to present evidence that is biased, by definition, and then the jury gets to decide.]

Not all motorcyclists believe as I do that crash bars are better to have than not. The famous Harry Hurt study, for example, states:

Crash bars are not an effective injury countermeasure; the reduction of injury to the ankle-foot is balanced by increase of injury to the thigh-upper leg, knee, and lower leg.

Note that this was one finding of a study of some 900 REPORTED accidents. I suspect that had the study known about all instances of leg injury caused from a motorcycle being laid down the conclusion would have been different.

On the other hand, a very current study (February of 1995)( performed in England by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) had very different conclusions:

Our research shows that properly designed leg protectors could reduce the severity of, or even eliminate, at least 25% of leg injuries without increasing injuries to other parts of the body. In some cases, they could save lives.

Contrary to the arguments of the major motorcycle manufacturers cited earlier, TRL went on to say:

An important factor in this research has been to ensure that if leg protection is to be of benefit not only must leg injuries be reduced, but the potential for injuries to other parts of the body, particularly the head, must not be increased. In all the tests the potential for leg injuries and head injuries has been carefully analyzed. At no time has leg protection worsened the potential for head injury, or injury to other parts of the body, and in some instances there has been a significant reduction in this potential.

Further, the British government has proposed a European Commission (EC) Initiative that may someday result in a requirement for these devices.

Below is a picture of a Houston rider who is walking away from a very serious accident in which he low-sided his '97 Magna at about 35 MPH and rode it to a stop. He claims that the guards that he added two days after he bought the bike saved his right leg. I believe him. (Note also that he rides with full leathers and a full-face helmet. He knows how to be prepared.)

So, I want to add an observation that I have made many times, especially to cagers who suggest that they would not ride a motorcycle because they provide 'no protection' in case of an accident.

No motorcyclist has ever had to be extracted using the 'Jaws of Life', nor has an airbag decapitated him. Think about it...

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(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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