We asked Les Smith, ex-motorbike traffic cop, BikeSafe observer, IAM member and off-road god for his take on the inflatable protective kit now on offer. After all, the MotoGP guys use this technology so there must be something in it…
What do I think of the inflatable air-bag style body protection systems? asked the editor. Are they good, bad or just a lot of wind’n’bluster? Think of it as a life jacket for a motorcycle rider; after all the technology is very similar to the kit used on water by sailors.
Air-bag safety systems in vests and certain jackets have been with us for some time and, in fact, the whole air-bag safety vest/jacket thing has been used by road riders and in sport for a few years now. Their popularity has spread in the equestrian world as well. MotoGP riders all have these systems in their leathers now and they seem to do a good job. Mind you, these riders don’t have kerbs, lamp posts and oncoming traffic to worry about.
I like the idea of an inflatable safety device built into my jacket. Anything that can protect me in the event of a crash has to be a good thing and, reflecting on my experience and involvement in road collisions over the years not to mention my own contacts with the tarmac, I have some insight into what happens to a rider unlucky enough to be in a crash. Looking at the way they work, and what they protect on the rider, the effectiveness certainly depends on the dynamics in certain types of crashes. Although they will no doubt give some protection in most crashes, the main protection is centred on the spine and core body areas. Legs and arms can be left vulnerable to injury in some situations, kerbs and such like, but vital organs are well protected from many impact types.
What I don’t like are the more basic aspects. I don’t like the look of some of the vests and gadgets. And the cost; they are very expensive. I can already hear some of you saying “you can’t put a price on safety”. Well, sorry to have to be a little subversive, but you can and people do all the time. I feel this is an important issue, especially if riders are to adopt these devices and other safety equipment. Safety kit has to be readily affordable.
Many a time I’ve been in a bike shop listening to riders chew over the price of kit and especially on issues such as leather vs textile. Just look at how crash helmets vary massively in cost and who is prepared to pay for what.
I’ve heard blokes say things like “I got the wife a cheaper lid because she only comes out on the back now and again” or “it’s only for commuting”. Although we may take the moral high ground in theory, in practice money is important.
There’s no getting away from it, the air-bag vests and jackets are expensive, and some systems are even one-use only essentially. If it’s activated, even in a slow speed spill (i.e., fall off in a car park while parking), it sometimes has to be sent away to be reset. Although, in fairness, there is kit out there that can have a new gas canister fitted (£20+ per canister) and, in seconds, you’re off again.
Good or bad
Do I think they are a good or a bad thing? Good overall, any safety kit that is proven to work is worth using and, having read up on the tech and some of the reports and anecdotes from racing as to the effectiveness of the systems, this information is encouraging. The technology differs slightly between manufacturers, but in essence a fall activates a super quick inflation of an air filled “cage” or “external skeleton” protecting the user’s body.
…the air bag inflation is aimed at the prevention of spinal and core body injuries.
From what I can tell, the air bag inflation is aimed at the prevention of spinal and core body injuries. Back in 2005, I suffered a crush fracture to my thoracic spine (T6) in an off-road crash. I can vouch for how worrying it is when the consultant says “Mr Smith, you have fractured your spine”. You would think that I would be the first in the queue to buy and wear one, even when walking the dog. Perhaps.
I don’t have one, (yet) and that’s for several reasons, and it’s not just that I’m a tight Yorkshireman. In the basic form, sadly the vest type protector looks awkward and a bit cumbersome, and just like some other yellow high-vis kit it looks a bit nerdy. Bikers are, whether they admit it or not, often conscious of what they look like.
The ones I’ve seen built into bike jackets work better than the over-vest type for me visually. I understand the idea some vest type units can be used over any jacket, whereas the built-in stuff is not so versatile.
Also, from a safety point of view there is a large gas canister on the front of the vest type, and I’m not sure I feel comfortable with it in that location. I would worry about injury if it were to dig in during a fall. Then there’s the weight of the garments as a whole. They are heavy; add this to riding in high summer temperatures and the resultant discomfort (heat) would be more distracting and I reckon therefore more of a risk to safety than the kit I’m wearing. Dehydration and tiredness being a possible factor.
If these air bag protection systems can save riders from serious injuries or worse as a result of a crash then I’m in favour.
Bikers take time to accept new stuff, especially “safety” kit. This is partly because buying safety kit is just not sexy is it? More often than not bikers don’t wear this sort of thing because their peers would take the p***.
Air (peer) pressure is a very powerful thing!
Check out www.lovelifeandride.com for more information and great deals (using code SEB19) on airbag jackets and vests.
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