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How Textiles Saved My Life

Survivial made possible by technological advancements

By Eric Vonwiller

Editor’s Note: In November 1999, ATI Technical Editor Eric Vonwiller, an avid motorcyclist, was involved in a serious accident in the hills of Virginia. As his motorcycle slid on loose gravel, Vonwiller was thrown from the bike into and over a guardrail before rolling down a ravine. He had to be airlifted from the scene to University Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. He had broken his pelvis in five places. His leg and wrist were also broken. He underwent two major surgeries to repair the broken bones and was in intensive care for more than 10 days. The miracle of this story is that aside from his helmet, Vonwiller also wore a protective, padded motorcycle suit by Consoltex, Canada. The suit absorbed much of the impact. Pads in the knees and elbows of the suit prevented the bones beneath them from being shattered. Because of his high-tech suit, Vonwiller escaped much more serious injury and possibly even death. Textiles saved his life, and here is his story.

W e have all heard stories on TV from fire fighters who went into burning infernos and rescued humans and animals, or the bulletproof vests that saved a law enforcement officer’s life from a potentially fatal gunshot. But rarely do we hear about the survival of people wearing much more “ordinary” clothing. For example, motorcycle suits made of textiles. The textiles used in these suits probably save more lives than any other protective clothing. Today’s motorcycle suit has become the choice for many riders because of its comfort, protection, temperature insulation and water-proofing capability. As a motorcyclist, I’m glad I wore a good suit, or I would probably not be writing this story today.

The Preparation

My story begins with a great weather forecast on a Friday evening in early November 1999. The weatherman promised pleasant temperatures in the 70°F range all through the day, clear skies and absolutely no chance of rain. For somebody with a heart for motorcycles, such a forecast is about as good as it can get — not too hot, and not too cold — just perfect touring weather.

I knew this was my last chance in 1999 to plan a day trip through the Appalachian Mountains before temperatures would become too cold. For this trip, I planned to use one of my classic ’70s bikes, the blue smoking two-stroke 1976 Suzuki GT750 LeMans, also called the “Waterbuffalo” because of its advanced water-cooling system. Just for your information, two-stroke engines in road vehicles were practically banned after 1977, as much more stringent EPA pollution laws were put into effect.

I planned for a long Saturday ride through the North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia mountains. Like a pilot who has to do his ground flight preparation, I too plotted my 400-mile trip onto a detailed map that was specifically suitable for “back-road riding.”

Friday evening I started to prepare my maps, the food and drinks that I planned to take with me, the tools (one never knows what will happen during a ride with a 24-year-old motorcycle) and my motorcycle clothing. The “Joe Rocket Ballistic Series” touring suit was already two years old, but has always impressed me with its protective, comfortable fit. My feeling was supported by the fact that it incorporated tough textile fibers and proper padding. The Canadian manufacturer calls this suit, not without reason, the Ballistic Series — both pants and jacket incorporate Kevlar in high-stress areas and tough polyester double-density coverage on elbow, knee and shoulder areas. Additionally, it features protective padding in the above mentioned areas, which are usually most volatile for injury during an accident.

Day Of Truth

As the weather forecast predicted, Saturday started out with a great sunny morning. I had an early start and at 8:30 a.m., the Waterbuffalo was hauling me toward the mountains. The goal was to take as many curvy roads as possible up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and to avoid major highways. The roads through the foothills of the Appalachians remind me very much of some European roads in Switzerland and Austria that I used to ride in my earlier years. Therefore, the back roads of North Carolina brought back some great memories, especially when riding this ’70s motorcycle.

Around mid-day, I took a lunch break in Boone, N.C. From there I continued through Mountain City to Bristol, Tenn., and eventually cut over back roads to Damascus, Va. I was looking forward to taking Highway 58 which winds over approximately 25 miles into Volney, Va. This highway has true European character and could be mistaken for a road that leads through the Alps. It is a dream for any motorcyclist and sportscar driver, because long line-ups behind trucks just don’t exist.

At around 4 p.m., it was time for a break, and I took some self-timer pictures for that day along a little creek that follows the road. As I know today, they were the last pictures taken before a significant break in my life. At around 4:20 p.m., I was back on the highway, zipping through the curves with smooth slalom actions.

Hour Of Truth

At around 4:35 p.m., I had reached a part of the road that was apparently freshly paved. The road surface was still a little oily, and fine sand appeared to be spread over some sections of the blacktop. This raised a yellow flag for me, and I reduced my speed to adapt to the road conditions. The next few miles went just fine, and it seemed that there were less and less sections with sand on the road. The Waterbuffalo was pulling smooth uphill, taking a right turn over a crest, followed by a steep dive downhill toward a left-curve, hairpin turn. It once again reminded me of a typical “ serpentine curve” in the Alps. I knew I had to apply very hard breaking because the cornering speed in such a hairpin turn had to drop below 20 mph. Due to the fact that I was driving quite steeply downhill under hard breaking, the bike was diving heavily into its front forks with most of the weight being fully transferred onto the front wheel. This was not a true problem, but unfortunately just in this moment I crossed over a section of the fine sand. Even though I managed to keep the front wheel under control, the rear wheel completely lost its traction, locked up and the motorcycle broke out with its rear to the right side. When the bike started to slide sideways toward the curve, I knew that an accident was practically inevitable. From this moment on, I can only “reconstruct” the happenings because (fortunately) I cannot remember the actual moment of impact into the guardrail.

As it seems, in the last moment before the impact, the tires once again gained traction while still side-sliding. Under motorcycle riding terms, the following action is known as a “high-side.”

In my case, it happened that the left-leaning, sideways-sliding bike suddenly gained traction and flipped over to the right with a vigorous action, catapulting me from the bike to the right side.

I was thrown with my right lower body against the guardrail and then flipped over it, while a fraction of a second later, the motorcycle crashed, sliding on its right side into the guardrail. The next thing I remembered was the tumble down a ravine over logs while my entire body took quite a beating. These were the longest seconds of my life, since I was fully conscious. But finally the beating stopped, and I was thrown into a thorn bush that actually provided a soft landing.

When I got over my initial shock, I realized that I was not able to crawl back to the road. My right side hurt severely and my left wrist showed a step where there should have been a straight bone. At this moment, I knew that it was up to the mercy of God that somebody would find me, and fortunately only minutes later a young couple passing by the accident scene saw my motorcycle laying on the road and was alert enough to look for me.

To make a long story short, I was airlifted by helicopter to the University Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C., where I underwent two major surgeries to repair my severe pelvis fracture, broken leg and broken wrist. I lay in intensive care for more than 10 days.

Today, I have five metal plates and more than 30 screws in my body. My biggest blessing was that there were no spinal cord, neck or head injuries that could have disabled me permanently. Seven weeks after the accident, I drove my car for the first time. Three and a half months later, I rode my bicycle. I’ve recently cranked up one of my motorcycles and took it for a spin, but I am determined to fix the Waterbuffalo and ride it again soon.

Textiles That Do Their Job

I am convinced that a high percentage of this luck was to the credit of the protective motorcycle clothing that I had worn during the accident. Even though my injuries were very severe from the force of impact into the guardrail and the 60-ft tumble, they would have been much worse if my clothing had burst under the extreme stress conditions. My specific appreciation goes to the multi-layer construction of textiles and foam padding along the spine area that protected me from permanent disability.

The tough “Rock Tex 600” polyester is mainly present in the outer shell of the woven garment and did a great job to fight off any abrasion from the road and the guardrail.

However, severe heat abrasion could be noticed from the impact and friction along the guardrail without penetrating the fabric. Several Kevlar reinforced areas protected from further impact injuries since they incorporated foam pads and pads made of recycled multi-layer textile materials, which prevented a shattering of my kneecap.

Over all it was truly amazing how the “Ballistic Series” suit protected me from more severe injuries and shielded successfully when tumbling downhill without transferring even a single scratch onto my skin. I guess the only technology that could have prevented the impact injuries may have been air bags incorporated in the suit. Perhaps that’s part of a future design.

April 2000