Inflatable Airbag Vests and Jackets

Sep 28, 2018 View Comments by

Inflatable air vests and jackets

Airbag technology has come a long way. The idea of absorbing impact with air goes back to the 1950s, but only in recent years has it become feasible and affordable for motorcycle usage—not just for racers, but for any rider. While helmets have proven their value with excellent head protection, the spinal cord and especially internal vital organs in the upper body are still vulnerable to impact. Airbags reduce the damage by providing a layer of cushioning between the body and the hit surface.

How does it work?
Essentially all products offered today use the same physical principle: A CO2 (carbon dioxide) or Argon cartridge is punctured by a triggering mechanism and then the non-toxic and non-flammable compressed gas quickly expands and moves through tunnels in the vest and inflates them, thus transforming the vest into an air cushion. There are two main classes of products today and they differ by the triggering mechanism—mechanical versus electronic.

Mechanical
Mechanical airbag vests are activated by a cord pull; the tether is attached to the motorcycle on one side and to the air vest on the other side. When an accident happens, the rider is assumed to be separated or thrown from the motorcycle. The tether keyball holds a spring-loaded piston. When detached, the released spring pushes the piston which punctures the cartridge cover and allows gas to expand through the opening. It is a simple and reliable system that doesn’t need batteries and works well under most conditions, but there are few issues with this approach. In some falls the rider may not get thrown immediately, or at all, off the motorcycle and the triggering would not occur, or the tether could be pulled only late into the fall. In terms of operating convenience, the tether has to be manually attached and detached for every start and end of ride, which can be cumbersome, but not much different than buckling up a car seat belt. Conversely, if the rider forgets to attach it then the system is inactive. Most mechanical vests are separate pieces of gear worn over an existing jacket, but some are fully integrated into a jacket. The cost of these vests has come down over the years making them more affordable. Replacement CO2 cartridges are about $25.

TESTED:
Point Two ProAir MC Hi-Viz Vest
The Point Two ProAir Hi-Viz vest is meant to be worn over a non-inflatable jacket. It provides a good layer of protection yet comes at a reasonable price compared to a fully inflatable jacket. The bright high-visibility color can be seen for miles. I’d even consider using the vest when leading or sweeping groups, just for its hi-viz value. There are removable passive foam protection pads inside the back and the front chest straps. The back has good mesh ventilation, which is important for hot summer days. Several chest straps allow for easy customization and fit. The entire CO2 canister is hidden behind a zipper pocket on the outside front right side. When inflated, the vest became very firm within 80 milliseconds in the front, back, and on the sides, and provides a strong sense of security, as if the upper body is wrapped in thick Styrofoam. Replacing the air canister is simple, takes one minute, and can be done with an Allen key, which is located inside the vest. UK-based Point Two makes vests for horse riders and has wide experience with upper body protection, since falling from horses is quite common. The ProAir MC is $675.00 from www.pointtwoairvests.com.

Helite
Helite also has roots in the equestrian sport, and at one time supplied its airbags to Point Two. The company offers several choices including vests, touring and leather jackets, and race-specific vests. The brand’s key feature is the comprehensive coverage: neck immobilization, semi-rigid protection covering the torso front and back, down to the hips, pelvis, and tailbone.

Helite turtle vestHelite Hi-Viz Turtle Airbag Vest
Helite’s Hi-Viz airbag vest is a similar solution to Point Two’s vest. At first sight they look almost identical in size and material. There are some differences though. The back also has passive protection that is removable, but there are no front passive protection pads, however, as only the GP Air Track Vest has armor in the front. On the flip side, the Turtle vest feels a bit lighter than the Point Two vest, probably due to the weight of the front armor. The bottom of the triggering mechanism—a hard, black plastic piece—is exposed instead of contained in a pocket and can potentially scratch the tank, especially on a motorcycle with a tall tank. There is no mesh venting in the back. The tether shows a noticeable difference. It is adjustable in length, comes with a loop on one end and a plastic quick click mechanism, whereas the Point Two vest has a non-adjustable tether with a metal shackle. I found the Helite tether to be easier to operate. The collar has a nice touch—it bends to the sides to avoid rubbing your neck.

It required significant power to activate the airbag in the Turtle—60 pounds to be exact. This will certainly reduce false activations. It takes only 80 milliseconds to fully inflate. Smaller size vests use a 60cc CO2 cartridge, and plus sizes use a 100cc cartridge. The Turtle retails for $649.00 from www.helitemoto.com.

Helite Adventure Airbag Jacket
Helite’s Adventure Airbag Jacket is indistinguishable from any top-quality touring jacket sold today, with all the expected bells and whistles: waterproof material, a detachable cold weather liner, many useful pockets, and passive armor protection in the critical areas, such as the back, shoulders, and elbows. Feature wise, it should be considered a touring jacket even before considering the inflatable safety system. The airbag is concealed cleverly between the armor and outer layer, but it is designed similarly to other Helite products, with an inflation bladder and a CO2 cartridge. The jacket is very comfortable and can be adjusted for a tight fit. Even though it’s marketed as an adventure jacket, it’s a better solution for road touring. I wouldn’t recommend it for riding off-road or any adventure-style riding that requires standing up and moving around the seat since the mechanical cord would limit body movement. Also, it’s not uncommon to drop the bike at slow speeds when riding over obstacles, which might eventually cause an unintentional inflation. The jacket retails for $899.00 from www.helitemoto.com.

Helite Cafe JacketHelite Brown Leather Airbag Jacket
Helite has designed a stunning vintage leather jacket with a chic café racer style and the intoxicating smell, look, and feel of a quality 1.3mm cowhide leather jacket. It is very fashionable while utilizing the same shell and mechanism of its sibling, the Adventure jacket. Even motorcyclists will have a hard time noticing the CO2 cartridge, as the leather conceals it very well. The jacket is comfortable and functional with a thin yet warm removable inner liner as well as several pockets. Fitting and adjusting are not available, but I had no issues, even with my tall basketball player-esque body. It’s not waterproof, and that’s fine, because it’s not meant for extensive touring. Of all the mechanical jackets reviewed, this is my favorite and the one I’d pick for short city rides or day trips on a nice sunny day. Retails for $999.00 from www.helitemoto.com

Electronic
Electronic jackets are the successors to mechanical jackets. Their triggering mechanism is driven by a sophisticated microcontroller that uses multiple sensors, specifically accelerometers, and GPS combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning software in order to accurately identify that an accident has happened. The solutions are completely wireless; no cables, mechanical or electric, are needed. Once the system decides to trigger itself, the jacket is inflated precisely at the right moment with close to zero false positives (that is, incorrectly inflating when not needed) and false negatives (not inflating when needed).

AlpinestarsAlpinestars Viper Jacket 
with Tech-Air Street
Alpinestars offers two electronic airbag vests, the Tech-Air Street, which we tested, and the Tech-Air Race. Riders have to buy a Tech-Air vest and then select a compatible jacket, which means more choices, even some for hot weather. I tested the Tech-Air with the most economically priced compatible jacket, the Viper, which is more or less a fabric shell. Not a whole lot of features here. While it’s useful that the Tech-Air can be easily swapped between jackets, it doesn’t fit as well inside the Viper. The Alpinestars’ Viper always gave me trouble and I had to fight to get inside. Once on, the protruding back protector made me look like Quasimodo. I’m confident enough to rock that look, but my riding friends continually reminded me about the hump. To activate the airbag system, it first has to be plugged in (vest to jacket), then turned on at the vest. LED indicators on the left sleeve provide information about battery life and status. The battery lasted two riding days as well. While some airbag systems partly rely on a GPS signal, Alpinestars’ solely uses information from the sensors located on the shoulders and in the middle of the back. Neither have the large CO2 cartridges used in the mechanical vests. Instead, the two electronic solutions I tested use Argon gas, which takes up less space. The Viper jacket costs $469.95 plus $1,149.95 for the airbag system. Find it at www.alpinestars.com.

Dainese Cyclone D-air Jacket
Dainese has been working on its D-air system since the 90s, and it’s the most advanced airbag solution for riders on the market today. It has gone through continuous testing and refinement thanks to racing, but everyday riders like us can greatly benefit from the D-air Street series. There’s no tether to remember to attach, but the D-air system inside the Cyclone jacket does have to be turned on. How? By simply closing a magnetic button. System armed. Since it is electronic, the battery must be charged. During testing, I was able to ride two days on one charge. Dainese’s system is designed to work above six mph (so it won’t inflate if you trip over your own feet). Incidences like head-on collisions, highsiders, and lowsiders, both with or without tumbling, activate the D-air. Not all crashes will cause the system to inflate, according to the user manual, but I’m left wondering what other type of crash exists. My biggest concern was that it would inflate when doing harmless stunts, but after a week of riding that concern vanished. It is a street system, and the fine print says it’s not recommended for off-road riding. Just like the mechanical systems, Dainese’s airbag is designed for secondary impacts. In case the system is activated, the jacket and D-air vest have to be shipped to Dainese to be rearmed. It’s not as simple as screwing in a new CO2 cartridge.

The Cyclone jacket weighs quite a bit when holding it (9.6 pounds for a size 54 compared to the Klim Blade jacket at five pounds). Wearing it, the weight isn’t noticeable, but how unobtrusive the vest is becomes apparent. My fellow riders couldn’t tell I was wearing an airbag-enabled jacket. One con for the Dainese D-air line is availability of jackets. You can choose between one-piece leathers, a leather jacket, or the fabric Cyclone. None are very pleasant to wear in the heat of the summer in North America. The Cyclone is definitely a fall to spring jacket for most riders in the U.S., and it retails for $1,599.95 from www.dainese.com.

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