The Future of Safety

Story by David Booth//
February 9 2021

As you can read elsewhere in this issue, I’ve been spending a lot of time wearing airbag-equipped jackets of late. In fact, during last year’s COVID-infused riding season – which actually had me riding, given nothing is quite so self-isolating as riding a motorcycle solo while wearing a full-face helmet – I did not once sally forth sans supplementary inflatable protection device even once. Not to the corner store. Not to the gym. Not on any of my long rides to my wife’s cottage north of Montreal. If my butt was on a motorcycle seat, an airbag was protecting my back.

One of the reasons I could do that is because airbag garments have come such a long way since they were introduced about five years ago. I’ve always been impressed with their ability to prevent/minimize/reduce injury. Unfortunately, they have not always been comfortable. In fact, the first versions I tested were – to quote my main story – “a mobile sauna.” Imagine wearing your thickest wool winter sweater under your motorcycle jacket under the hottest of July suns and you have some idea of how sweaty you would get wearing some of those early jackets.

But you can read about all that beginning on page 24. What you should not doubt is my reasons for insisting on wearing airbag-equipped garments. Airbags are the biggest boon to motorcycle safety since the helmet was invented. Airbags are so far and away superior to the passive armour so many of us rely on that the improvement almost beggars belief. For example, compared with Level I shoulder armour, an airbag reduces impact by some 95 per cent. That means that for the same impetus, the load on your shoulder is reduced some 20-fold – the difference between a pat on the shoulder and the shattering of a clavicle. Indeed, since MotoGP mandated airbag-equipped suits, broken collarbones are virtually a thing of the past.

Perhaps more impressive – at least, if like me, you like your information first-hand – is the time I had an editor smack me on the back with his best why’d-you-miss-another-freakin’-deadline-Dave Babe Ruth impression. Thanks to the (fully deployed) Helite airbag vest I was wearing, all I felt was the momentum of his (sultan of) swat, not the impact. I may have stumbled forward, but my back and upper torso felt no pain at all. Now, I am not suggesting you attempt anything similar – that’s me pre-empting the editor’s need to include the requisite “Professional rider. Closed course. Do not attempt this at home” waiver here – but if you do try something as silly, I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll be as big a fan of airbags as I.

But that’s the present. A more important question for this column: what is the future of airbags for motorcycles and motorcyclists?

Well, first off, I think they will shortly be commoditized. In their first iteration, airbag garments were horribly expensive, full suits pushing five grand and jackets, over $2,000. Now, you can get airbag vests from Dainese or Alpinestars for less than a grand and one can be worn under any existing jacket. More manufacturers have jumped into the market – most notably, In&Motion – and numerous garment-makers have begun building airbags – again, notably In&Motion’s – into a wide variety of their garments. I suspect it won’t be long before a stand-alone electronically-controlled airbag vest will retail for less than $500 and a fully integrated system – again, not the less expensive tether-cord variety – with jacket included will be less than a grand.

What is not in the future is airbags built into motorcycles. Honda tried it, and it was a complete market failure. Not that the technology wasn’t effective. Indeed, I talked with one person who slammed his Gold Wing into the side of a Hyundai and he was amazed how his bike’s airbag completely protected him from becoming one with the car’s driver-side door (something even an airbag jacket can’t do). But the take-up rate was minimal and, so far, no one else has followed Honda’s lead and, increasingly, no one is likely to.

But soon there will be airbag pants. Research has already started on lower-limb protection for racing suits. And I suspect that unlike the long delay between the first use of an airbag suit in racing – way back in 2007, by Dainese – and the introduction of mass-market airbag jackets, I don’t think it will be long indeed before we see commercially available pants with integrated inflatable armour. Indeed, there’s an ongoing GoFundMe for CX Air Dynamics, which hopes to begin production of an airbag-equipped overpant. The design uses a basic, mechanically triggered tether cord – much like another design, by Airbag Inside Sweden. However, look for more sophisticated versions from the established players within the next 12 to 24 months.

Buy a pair. Your legs can thank you later.

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