Advanced technology is a valuable asset in helping make operation of two-wheeled vehicles safer and less implicitly hazardous. The following material takes a look at one of the most recent innovations in motorcycling safety: the personal air-bag protective garment.
Safety Technology: Air-bag Personal Protection for Motorcyclists
Of all present modes of personal transportation presently used by private citizens, two-wheeled vehicles are most at risk on today’s highways and roads. Due to the fact that both human powered bicycles and motorised cycles (i.e. motorcycles) rely principally on a rider’s sense of balance and stability for safe operation, all two wheeled vehicles must be therefore regarded as inherently (or intrinsically) hazardous transportation devices. Due to their highly exposed profile on a bicycle or motorcycle (i.e. not ‘cocooned’ within the protective body of an automobile) cyclists need to exercise particularly keen situational awareness at all times and must strive to operate safely in the vicinity of larger vehicles (i.e. cars & trucks, etc.).
When operated in close proximity to conventional (four or more wheels) vehicles, and especially on highly congested venues such as freeways and major arterial roadways, operators of all two wheeled vehicles suffer a substantially great risk of sustaining personal bodily injury than operators of all other ground vehicles (e.g. automobiles, etc.). Traditionally, these risks have been addressed through continuing efforts by groups such as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to educate cyclists on proper operation of their vehicles, and the compelling need to use appropriate personal protective equipment (such as approved safety helmets). Thanks to these safety advocates, today most two wheeled motorised vehicle riders acknowledge the need for adequate head protection, although there are numerous dissenters who (illogically) argue that head protective gear interferes with their aesthetic enjoyment of operating a motorcycle. There are still others who elect to shun the use of suitable jackets, eye-protection, gloves, pants and boots, despite the always present danger of an accidental collision that motorcyclists face on a daily basis. Perhaps most worrisome (as an illustration of this) are those younger motorcyclists we often see lane-splitting during congested rush hour traffic, driving high-powered 'sportsbikes' while wearing shorts, sandals and a T-shirt!
Just exactly why these individuals resist wearing suitable protective gear is sometimes a puzzle, given the extensive body of scientific research and evidence that demonstrates conclusively that unprotected riders are invariably severely injured (and often killed) whenever they are involved in an accident. It is probably fair to say that quite often younger individuals lack a sufficient awareness of their extreme vulnerability to crash injuries (owing to both an deficit maturity or simply a lack of appropriate concern and education), just as it is likely also fair to state that most older riders (1%ers excluded!) are usually (but not always) more informed and more appropriately concerned with ensuring their personal safety on a motorcycle.
Organisations dedicated to protection technology equipment have in the more recent decades made substantial progress both in offering thoughtfully designed and carefully engineered personal safety equipment for cyclists and in disseminating awareness and knowledge of the importance of their use while operating a motorcycle. As the number of motor vehicles of all types continues to increase across the United States (especially in and principally near the major urban population centers), with significantly greater numbers of vehicles operating in close proximity to each other at increased speeds, the need for much improved levels of motorcycle operator safety has increased remarkably over the past ten years.
Today, the range of well designed protective helmets available to motorcyclists has expanded substantially, as has the selection of suitable riding jackets, gloves, pants and footwear; proper use of this gear can contribute tremendously to increased operator safety. Today’s motorcycles are also better engineered to reflect improvements in technology that enhance safe operation, although no single advancement in any of these areas can negate the fact that in the event of a collision, however well protected by personal gear, there is still an appreciably great risk of serious bodily harm implicit for the cyclist.
Very recently (within the past 5 years or so), an entirely new form of motorcycle personal safety gear has come into being with the introduction of automotive type air-bag impact protective devices developed exclusively for cyclists. Drawing upon the existing impact air-bag technology that has been evident in automobiles for at least 15 years, wearable jackets and vests incorporating deployable air-bags are now available for purchase by cyclists that introduce a whole new level of protection for motorcycle riders.
At the present time (2011) there are at least four or more commercially produced ‘personal air-bag’ products that are being offered for retail prices ranging from about US$ 300 through $1000. Most resemble the standard inflatable (Mustang Survival Technologies) US Air Force aircrew Personal Flotation Device (PFD or ‘life preserver’) and are intended to be worn very much in the same manner; like these PFDs, impact air-bag garments remain passively uninflated until actuated by a triggering sensor. They then take from 170 to 500 milliseconds (ms) to inflate their various bladders fully, providing impact force cushioning to certain critical areas of the body (that may include the neck, the spine, shoulders, kidneys and chest).
Three of the systems, although quite similar to each other in design and function, employ an actuating lanyard device that the wearer attaches to the frame of the motorcycle via a small diameter braided steel connecting cable. In the event of a collision with another vehicle or any impact that sends the rider flying off his cycle, the actuation lanyard inflates the air-bag device so that the rider is encased in protective air bladders before he impacts another object (such as a car or the roadway). While a very good idea, the only major drawback to this ‘hard deployment’ concept is that unless the rider separates physically from his cycle upon initial impact with another vehicle (or solid obstacle), the jacket or vest may not inflate. Thus, if he dumps the bike but instead of being propelled away from it slides along the pavement next to his cycle in close proximity to it, there is a chance that the actuation lanyard will not trigger the rider's personal air-bag system.
The other type of wearable air-bag system does not rely on a lanyard type actuation principle and instead incorporate a highly sophisticated micro-processor that uses inertia and mass displacement sensitive sensors to deploy the system. On this system, a master deployment sensor component is installed on the motorcycle and the inflatable garment component (worn by the rider) is triggered remotely when the 'smart sensors' detect unnatural dynamic motions that conform to a certain crash profile in its memory. Understandably, this type of system is more complex and more costly. The only company selling such a system currently (Dainese) has not made the device available to the general public, limiting its use instead to professional motorcycle racers for the present time. Given its complexity, this system will likely undergo a protracted study and functional field assessment period before a suitable commercially salable system is finalized and produced for general public retail purchase.
If it helps to visualize what a personally wearable air-bag system actually looks like, think of the concept of a wearable air-bag system as a sort of dry-land inflatable life preserver. The two garments look quite similar and naturally they really are both intended to ‘preserve lives’. The only real difference lies in the manner in which they are activated and the fact that one is used for dry-land crash protection while the other is intended for water flotation survival.
Another type of motorcycle inflatable air-bag system has been developed for use on the motorcycle itself, functioning much like an automobile’s steering wheel mounted air-bag system (activation is achieved using motion sensors that detect an impact), but there are a number of still not fully resolved issues with this type of ‘vehicle fixed and attached’ air-bag system and to date no commercial company has offered technology of this type as an add-on accessory for motorcycle use.
Of the lanyard deployed systems presently being sold, there are two principal variant options to consider. The first is a motorcycle jacket version, made from abrasion resistant material (generally a heavy gauge Cordura type nylon material) and incorporating industry approved soft ‘armor’ in shoulder, elbow and spine areas, into which the inflation bladders have been installed. The other of the two general variant models is a vest-like garment, made in the style of a water buoyancy PFD that enables it to be worn over an existing motorcycle jacket. Both types are usually available in a range of colors, with one of the colors being vivid high-visibility ‘safety green’ or ‘safety yellow’. The vest style system has the advantage of being capable of being used with existing gear, naturally, and it apparently offers the same level of protection as that of the fully integrated jacket style system.
Although almost all of these protective air-bag systems are offered in a black color, it is our considered opinion that black (and any darker color) does not stand out sufficiently to seriously merit purchase, as a great number of safety studies and research projects conducted on the positive safety factor associated with bright (highly visible) colors in motorcycle personal protective gear strongly supports the selection of hi-viz ‘safety green’ models over darker colored options. Unfortunately, there is still some reticence on the part of many motorcyclists to wear highly visible colors for enhanced personal safety. Some cyclists even feel that highly visible and bright colored gear is somehow ‘unmanly’ or contrary to the self-perception that one is a righteous ‘biker dude’. This is of course rather unfortunate, since the whole purpose of wearing bright ‘hi-viz’ colors is to be seen by other motorists and it is far better to have people volubly puzzling over the sight of an ‘outlandish’ figure thus garbed in the traffic lane next to them than to be overlooked and/or remain unseen by a motorist who has become visually distracted, close at hand, at a critical moment on the road, and absently veers into the cyclist.
One area of possible concern regarding inflatable air-bag systems such as these under discussion is the care and maintenance requirement for relatively intricate and sophisticated safety systems like these, that use sophisticated technology to protect riders. Drawing on the military aircrew life support arena I am familiar with, in aviation operations highly trained and skilled personnel are responsible for making sure that aircrew personal safety and survival systems are cared for in the appropriate manner, and that the articles themselves receive regular and appropriate attention (both to assure functionality and to prevent damage and/or functional degradation). In the civilian sector, these specialised tasks fall upon the individual purchaser of privately acquired personal safety gear, placing the onus of full responsibility for their care and maintenance on the user himself (who may be negligent or unmindful of the need to properly maintain personal safety items like this).
Given the wide variability of knowledge, maturity and awareness that characterises any cross-sectional representation of the ‘average public’, there is no way of fully assuring that personal air-bag protective systems will receive even the minimal care they require in private hands. Equally unfortunate is the fact that there is simply no present process by which to monitor and adequately assure functional integrity of this type of sophisticated personal safety gear item once it has been privately purchased. In view of these concerns, the efficacy of personal air-bag protective garments remains subject to a great degree of uncertainty in terms of functional effectiveness in assuring personal safety. In all likelihood, only those individuals with a heightened interest, perhaps some appreciation for risk-management concepts, and increased sensitivity to the significant hazards implicit in riding a motorised two-wheeled vehicle will even avail systems of this sort; it is further probably safe to say that a certain percentage of the motorcycling public will deliberately eschew personal air-bag systems for the same reasons that they resist wearing helmets and other gear intended to assure motorcyclist safety. To quote that oft-repeated aphorims, "...you may lead a horse to water, etc."
For further information on personal air-bag impact protection systems, the following links have been provided for your reference, but it should be noted that no amount of advanced safety technology can fully compensate for a lack of appropriate caution, applied common sense and prudent defensive driving practices. Technology may help augment rider safety, but nothing is as effective in the overall area of rider safety issues as basic rider awareness.
Sources for retail purchase of personal air-bag systems for motorcyclists:
Articles relating to personal air-bag systems for motorcyclists: