Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Motorcycling is a dangerous pursuit. Of this, nobody’s in disagreement. Riders can try to protect themselves, but in that moment when a driver fails to yield and pulls in front of you, or a deer dashes out of the woods, there’s very little that a rider can do.
A lot of people, riders and safety advocates alike, have for years thought about that situation and felt that there had to be a way of providing better protection for the motorcycle rider and passenger in a frontal collision. That diligent and daring thought process has now begun to produce.
In the last 15 years or so, a number of inventors and manufacturers have been developing wearable airbags.
The airbag was a new wrinkle when introduced into automobiles in 1973. GM was the first to the marketplace with an airbag-equipped Olds Toronado. Sensor-driven airbags had been part of the patent world since the 1950s, but until then nobody could come up with a system that inflated the bags fast enough. Since then, perhaps tens of thousands of motorists owe their lives to that pillow erupting from their steering wheel.
While car airbags are proven technology, such devices for bikes have lagged behind. This is primarily because of the differing dynamics between what happens inside a car/truck and what happens on the back of a motorcycle in a front-end collision.
It’s rare these days for a driver or passenger to be ejected from a vehicle during an accident. But ejection of riders from motorcycles in accidents is common in front- or rear-end impacts. In some cases, it’s a good thing, particularly if the bike bursts into flames on impact. Some riders purposefully separate themselves from the bike, preferring free flight to the sometimes violent tumble of a 600-900 pound machine. For those cases, several products have been developed.
Most are similarly designed, using inflatable air bladders. The Armored Air Jacket, HitAir or EggParka, MotoAir, and Dainese all essentially work the same. They connect to the bike with a lanyard and a key. When the rider separates from the bike, the key is pulled, puncturing a CO2 canister that inflates the bladders in about 30 milliseconds. The bags puff up around the torso, perhaps 3-4 inches, and also inflates a collar around the head and neck, effectively stabilizing the vulnerable cervical vertebrae, what Marines call “the stacking swivel.”
But there are accidents, when the bike is T-boned, for example, when the rider stays with the bike. So unless a rider thinks to pull the cord themselves, the suit doesn’t help.
For those occasions, Alpinestars has developed a set of leathers equipped with a complex network of acceleration/deceleration sensors that trigger inflation of the suit in a crash. Right now, they’re only available to Moto GP racers. And they’re not cheap, costing around $2,500 each. Alpinestars hopes to have a suit for street riders in about 18 months, although the price is not likely to change much.
Honda is the first motorcycle manufacturer to offer airbags on a production motorcycle, putting them on their touring flagship, the Gold Wing beginning in 2007. Video of controlled crashes is impressive, as is the story of the first time one was deployed in an accident.
These bags actually do keep the rider from launching off the bike in a head-on collision, but don’t do anything for side impacts, nor does it protect the rider once off the bike. Still, as a first effort, it’s pretty good, and far better than nothing at all.
In the last few years, there have been some limited “motorcycles” that are completely enclosed, some with three wheels. They provide a high degree of protection, but cost well into five figures, so it’s not likely you’ll see many on the street anytime soon.
Riders will always be at risk. But to be perfectly honest, it’s that vulnerability that adds spice to the ride; that calculated risk so dear to the devil-may-care in us all. That’s how we roll.
After all, a life without risk is really no life at all.