March 6, 2013 by Rider Newsletter Staff
Special Note: According to the hosts of the British automotive performance program, Top Gear, in Uganda, motorcycle riders must wear a helmet, unless you are a woman returning from the hairdresser; in which case, you may wear a bag on your head. So far, we have been unable to confirm this.
Can they ever become mainstream?
Automobile air bags were conceived decades before they became optional (and eventually standard) equipment on vehicles worldwide. It took years of development and even government intervention to make them ubiquitous on both foreign and domestic cars. The idea of using airbags to protect motorcycle riders has also been around for a long time. Honda introduced the airbag to the motorcycling industry in 2006. To date, the company’s Goldwing touring bike is the only airbag equipped machine.
Mounting an airbag on a motorcycle is only effective in front end collisions. However, this type of collision accounts for more than half of all motorcycle accidents, so the added safety applies in many cases. Although statistics are extremely hard to find, anecdotal evidence and crash tests seem to confirm front mounted airbags can protect riders who hit something, even at high speed.
To protect riders in falls and other non-front-end collisions, a number of manufacturers have developed jackets, vests and other apparel that include airbag systems. The earliest versions utilize a pull-cord that is attached to the bike. When the rider leaves the seat unexpectedly, the airbag deploys primarily protecting the chest, back and neck. They are designed to remain inflated long enough for the unfortunate rider to skid to a halt. Some newer units are designed for multiple uses with the replacement of a CO2 canister. Nevertheless, pull-cords are considered a weak design element as they may cause the unit to inflate too slowly. Additionally, you run the risk of forgetting that you’re wearing it which can result in the airbag inflating as you get off the bike. To avoid these potential problems, many of the current designs use electronic sensors similar to those found on an automobile or on the Gold Wing. Sophisticated processors and software take into account dozens of variables to ensure an accident is in fact underway prior to triggering inflation.
As you might expect, none of this protection come cheap. A full, professional racing suit with an airbag system can run nearly $3,000. Most jackets and vests for street use will set you back between $400 and $1,200. Style is another potential deal killer. While manufacturers are working to make their designs more appealing and reduce weight, many riders will not find airbag equipped apparel to their liking.
Airbag equipped clothing aside, one has to wonder why Honda is still the only manufacturer to offer the safety device on a motorcycle. No other company has jumped in, but then Honda has not jumped out either. Putting an airbag on the bike severely limits the situations in which it can be effective. So far, airbag jackets and vests are too uncool and expensive to become popular. Perhaps when bikers discover how much fun it is to run around at rallies setting off people’s airbags, their popularity will grow. Perhaps not.
To get an idea of what’s out there, below is a list of the leading manufacturers:
Alpinestars (high-end, originally developed for pro racers)
Motorcycle airbag videos:
This may or may not relate to motorcycles, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Volvo is now putting airbags on the OUTSIDE of their cars to protect pedestrians, and maybe bikers as well. See the story and video here.
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