It was a fresh spring day, and I was happy to be out riding for the first time in over six months. My excitement to be back in the saddle was obvious, as I went winding through the secondary roads not far from my home. Knowing the area extremely well, I must have been more focused on the music from my speakers then the road I had driven thousands of times before. Next thing I knew I was lying gasping for air, for what seemed like an eternity. According to the guy who helped me up off the pavement, it had been less than a minute. It seemed my front tire had caught the ditch when I drifted out of the main lane, causing the bike to go skidding into a field, and me tumbling down the road. I am only able to tell this story as I had been wearing the airbag vest my kids got me for Christmas. The vest I had promised them I would always wear.
It is stories like this that change the perceived and impractical view of such safety equipment like motorcycle airbag vests and jackets. An incredible piece of wearable technology that is not entirely new, however, is gaining a lot of support from all types of riders. One online testimonial noted that after attending the fourth funeral of a friend who died due to a motorcycle-related accident, he finally invested in an airbag jacket. Only three months later would it prove to be one of the best purchases of his life, and worth every penny!
What are wearable motorcycle airbags?
Airbag vests and jackets are like a quick-inflate bubble that when triggered, spring into action in under a second. They are attached by a lanyard-style cord, typically to the chest area of your body, then tethered to your bike. When an amount of force greater than the necessary threshold is reached, the vest automatically inflates. It is also positioned in such a way that it can be triggered from any angle. It typically requires a pressure of around 40-65lbs of force to activate, so as not to go off accidentally. When activated, a 'key' inside the jacket or vest is removed, releasing gas from a small chamber that inflates the vest. This inflates various airbags and provides instant stability to your neck & spinal cord, as well as protecting vital organs. Once the vest is inflated, the bags will slowly start to release the gas and the pressure from your body, allowing you to move and breath easily again.
The jackets began to take shape back in the mid-nineties in Japan. A man by the name of Mugen Denko was developing the idea, geared to the diversity of all riders. A man named Kenji Takeuchi would soon patent and develop the idea, but Denko would finally bring the protective wear to market in 1998 with the brand Hit-Air. Originally these jackets were used by police forces around the world, which still holds true today and represents a good part of their market share. Today, however, you can find the technology customized to fit all types of riding styles, even ones aimed at the equestrian rider.
Some current brand leaders include; Helite, which is a France based company with worldwide distribution. It has popular reviews, and enough testimonials to make you feel confident that riders are seeing value in these products. Motoair, with its Japanese roots, now has more of an American feel with its North American product line Motoair-USA, which is based out of Virginia. As well as the aforementioned, Hit-Air, a broadening Asian company who has been steadily expanding its sales to include an American base. The other option, which is a bit more on the extreme end of the spectrum, is a product from the Dainese company which is a full-blown suit. That might help the spouses of Superbike racers to enjoy watching the 200+MPH races a bit more.
The Helite system comes in options for almost every rider. From vests to adventure and leather jackets. The vest is around two-months' worth of payments on a new Harley, or just over $600. It can have you looking like a Leatherback turtle faster than any evolution in history. With an inflation time of 0.1 seconds, it comes with removable back protection, can be bought in black or a reflective style, and has no sensors or batteries that might lead to a failure.
Motoair-USA is spreading its style-wings with options for those who just can’t get enough grey camouflage in their world. If you are looking for the discrete camo look, it can be purchased for just under $300. The jackets can be picked up in most riding styles as well (though I don’t see camo on the list), for around $500. These open with a wheelchair-avoiding inflation time of 0.2 seconds. In the event of use, you can simply replace the Co2 cartridge and use it again. Providing you didn’t end up piercing or compromising the unit.
Hit-Air, with the clever marketing slogan “Hit-Air…Not Ground”, comes in all styles and varieties to cover your biker needs. They also make a kids vest, not recommended for anyone under 35kg, that should be an easy sell for the concerned grandparent that watches their grandchild dirt biking with Mom or Dad. The kid's jackets come in at piggybank-draining $380. The standard adult vest is around $400, and the adult jackets from $500 and up. The inflate times are promoted as “The fastest in the market” at 0.09 seconds and come with the usual safety attachment features and acceptable range of dark color or hi-visibility options.
Dainese, the makers of the full riding suit, bills itself as… “intelligent clothing, able to protect the wearer, even without their intervention, when they are unable to control what is happening”. Making them sound like a self-driving car, where you just hand over the responsibility to the clothes and sit back, worry-free, enjoying a good novel. This new world of innovation will set you back more than a used dirt bike. With a retail price tag for the high-end line of around $2500 and a few other design options for less. Depending on how many 'close calls' you’ve had on the track, it might actually be cheaper than a life insurance policy. Suits like the D-Air Misano do require more technology maintenance, the system's batteries need to be charged every two months, and the suit itself needs to be sent back to the manufacturer every five-years for a full overhaul.
For those with a more diverse range of weekend activities, the equestrian model springs into action at 0.18 seconds and can be picked up from $500 and up.
Questions that might keep you up at night...
Like a fifth-grade student with his hand waving at the teacher like it’s on fire, you’ve probably got a list of questions longer than a set of chopper forks. Let’s touch on a few of the popular ones.
Will this thing accidentally go off causing an accident rather than protecting me from one?
When used properly, you’ll be just fine and won’t have any mishaps. Depending on the model, it takes between 40-65lbs of force to set off the Co2 cartridge that fills the jacket or vest. If you go to jump off your bike still tethered in, you’ll feel a pretty significant force tugging you back
This is quite the investment if I use it, can it be re-used?
If you like to get your money out of things and want to use your life-saving vest or jacket again and again. You will be happy to know that as long as you don’t compromise the jackets airbags, structure, or safety features, you can crash as many times as you would like, you'll just need to replace the gas cartridge. Riders have stated that they have been able to re-use them even after serious crashes.
Can I wear it with a backpack or water-pack like a Camelback?
Yes, you can. Just ensure that the bag straps do not interfere with the tether strap and that you have your backpack straps loose enough that the airbag can fully inflate for proper use.
I’m a little concerned about my look, who is this gear for?
In reality, an airbag set up is for anyone who enjoys being alive! Although this is not for everyone, it should easily target a majority of the population. Online comments and reviews have given an overall positive response. The older crowd, who no longer sees themselves as invincible are drawn to the high-visibility options and obvious safety features of protecting their aging bones. New riders, including specific female feedback, has shown that it gives them more confidence on the road.
Where they once were feeling too vulnerable to motorcycle drops at low speeds or cornering, it takes off some of the grinding edginess in the backs of their minds. Children will indirectly offer the same reassurance to their parents, as they usually have no reference points for injury ramifications and may ride carelessly. You probably won’t see too many patch-wearers decked out in a high-visibility vest tethered to a set of ape-hangers, but who knows, eventually everyone comes around.
How to choose?
Though easily purchased online, the airbag set-up is probably not something you are going to want to buy like a one-size-fits-all t-shirt. The units need to have a proper fit to cover a certain amount of your tailbone, comfortably work around the clothing you are wearing, and naturally, it needs to work effectively. Most manufacturer's websites will have a fitting chart online outlining how to measure your height, chest, waist, hips, and back length. These can be adjusted, however, with the vest having a large opening for your arms and the jackets fitting like regular motorcycle jackets do with a bit more bulk around the collar and back.
You are likely going to want to go to a reputable retailer and try on a few sizing options to determine what’s right for you, and also get some quality feedback from someone who is trained in the sale of airbag units. Too small could prove ineffective and too loose might have you rolling around on the inside. Like a good motorcycle helmet, the right fit can make all the safety difference.
Airbag vests and jackets don’t always top the list of cool looking gear for your bike, but it’s probably cooler to wear than a wheelchair. If you're new to the sport, it’s a nice confidence booster that allows you to focus more on the ride and less on your worries or concerns. These items are available in about as many style options as a regular jacket and even offer options for the little rider in your world. It’s obvious there is a growing demand, and like your insurance, hopefully, you will never get the opportunity to try it out. When it comes to motorcycle gear this one is definitely expensive, but less expensive than a funeral!