The greatest advance in rider safety gear in recent years has been the development of inflatable motorcycle airbag jackets, vests and suits. Based on the same airbag technology used in cars, these vests automatically and instantly inflate in the event of an accident, providing a cushion of air to protect you.
Wearable airbags have been around for a while but have only recently begun to see higher levels of adoption from riders. This is largely thanks to greater visibility of the safety devices in professional motorcycle racing. Several racers have credited airbags with helping them to survive high speed crashes with no serious injury. As with many motorcycle related innovations, once they were tested in the crucible of motorsport, airbag vests became more popular with road riders.
With 4,000 motorcyclists killed every year on American roads, and 90,000 injured (according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) anything which can improve safety should be welcomed. According to a report from Research and Markets, global sales of airbag jackets are expected to increase by over 5 percent year on year between 2016 and 2020.
The report also points out that, at present, the relatively high price of these products are deterring many would-be customers. This is understandable, since even the entry level products cost close to $500. While there’s a clear safety benefit, that’s still a lot of money for many riders to spend on top of what they’ve already sunk into their other protective gear. It’s also worth noting that so far there had been little independent research into the effectiveness of these products, so motorcyclists might well wonder just how much additional safety they would provide.
There are three main types of motorcycle airbag products:
Airbag Vests – these harness-like devices are designed to fit over your current jacket. The main advantage is that you can use the vest with whatever jacket you choose, so you can use it with your summer or winter gear, and keep it when you buy a new jacket. The downside is that you have another item of gear to put on
Airbag Jackets – these are much the same as a standard motorcycle jacket, but with built-in airbags. The benefits are that all of the airbags are concealed from view, so the styling of the jacket isn’t affected, and you only have to put on a single item of gear rather than a separate jacket and vest.
Airbag Suits – full race-suits with integral airbags provide a high level of protection, at a price. Primarily designed for racers and track-day riders they are the most costly option but will give you the greatest chance of survival in a high-speed crash.
How do motorcycle airbags protect riders?
Although there are various designs, airbag vests, jackets and suits all offer approximately similar protection. They all feature a large airbag to cover the rider’s back and spine, another to cover the chest, and an inflatable collar around the neck. This last one obviously helps to guard the neck from direct impact, but also helps keep the head straight and prevents the helmet from compressing downwards onto the body. Some products feature additional airbags over the shoulders and legs.
The vest, jacket or suit is fitted with a small compressed air canister, and tethered to the bike with a lanyard. If you are thrown from your motorcycle, the lanyard activates the canister, which blasts air into the airbags. It takes milliseconds for the pockets to fill with air, so by the time you hit the ground or another vehicle you are cushioned from the impact.
But what if you forget to detach the tether before you get off your bike? Will it inflate as you walk away? No – the airbags will only activate if the tether is pulled with sufficient force, so simply walking away from the motorcycle won’t do it. You’d need to be thrown from the bike in order for it to work.
Some manufacturers, such as Dainese, don’t use a lanyard at all, but instead rely on electronic sensors to detect a crash and automatically inflate the airbags.
Motorcycle Airbag Manufacturers
The main players in this space fall into two categories . There are wearable airbag specialists, who often provide similar products for other markets such as horse-riding. These companies usually only offer vests.
Then there are the established motorcycle safety gear brands, who have added airbag products to their product lines. If you’re looking for airbag jackets, or race suits, these are the brands you need to be looking at.
Hit-Air is a Japanese company which began researching airbag-vests for motorcycle riders in the mid-nineties, finally launching its first product in 1999. The company’s safety products are widely respected and this is reflected by the fact that emergency services around the world use them to provide protection for their motorcyclists.
As well as offering a range of vests and jackets with its own label, Hit Air supplies its equipment to other motorcycle safety gear manufacturers to sell under their brands. The jackets come in a range of different designs, including the sporty HS-5, to the adventure styled EU6, pictured here.
A French company founded in 2001 by an aviation entrepreneur who wanted to improve safety in the light aircraft industry, Helite quickly became one of the early leaders in the airbag vest business. The company now provides wearable airbag gear for skiing, aviation, equestrian and motorcycling applications.
For motorcyclists, Helite offers an airbag vest (either high viz yellow or black) currently priced at $629, or a range of airbag jackets priced between $699 and $999. The company sells through a network of dealers across America, or you can buy directly through the online store.
A Chinese manufacturer which offers airbag vests and jackets for motorcycle and equestrian applications. The company has an official US importer, and its products can also be found on Amazon.
Compared to others in the market, Moto Air seems to be the budget option, with vests starting at under $400, and jackets for under $500.
While we’ve no reason to doubt the quality of these products, we should point out that Moto Air is the manufacturer we were least able to find good information about. When it comes to motorcycle safety gear, trust is important and the company would do itself a big favour by establishing a more professional web-presence with better quality information about its products and technology. Moto Air products come at a good price, but there are certainly some question marks hanging over the brand.
One of the most respected brands in the motorcycle safety gear market, Dainese is widely used among racers and serious motorcyclists. The company entered the airbag jacket market a couple of years ago with it’s D-Air system which, unlike other manufacturers, does not use a lanyard attached to the bike to detect a crash, but instead relies on electronic sensors.
This has the obvious advantage of not having to tether yourself to the bike, it does mean you’re depending electronic systems which need a battery that has to be kept fully charged.
At present, the only such product available in America is the high end Dainese D-Air Misano Perforated Race Suit, designed for racers, track day heroes and road riders with a lot of spare cash. The suit uses such advanced technology that Dainese will require customers to register with them in order to ensure that it is properly maintained and working correctly. Other D-Air products are available in international markets, but right now there’s no news about when American customers will be able to buy them.