Categories: Editorial
September 8, 2020
| On 3 weeks ago

Why I’ll Never Ride Without A Motorcycle Airbag Again

Three weeks ago today, I got hit by a car while testing a bike for a future comparison story. While on a two-lane canyon road, I was approaching a left-hand bend. In the opposing lane the car driver misjudged his speed for the right turn, crossed over the double-yellow lines, and nailed me. Airborne I went – over the hood of the car, doing my best Superman impression.

On the totem pole of things you never want to happen to you on a motorcycle, getting hit by a car has got to be pretty high up there. While midair I distinctly remember my chest and shoulders suddenly feeling tighter – like someone was giving me a weak hug. “My airbag!” I thought, just before making impact with the ground. I landed on my right shoulder, did a barrel roll, then came to a stop in the kneeling position. As scary as it sounds, I walked away from the accident, and other than some general soreness I’m completely fine.

Literally minutes after this picture was taken, my stance on airbags was solidified.

My safety gear clearly did its job – most importantly, my Alpinestars Tech-Air 5 smart airbag protected me from the impact with the ground. Obviously this accident could have been so much worse, but the fact I don’t even have any bruises on my upper body (the airbag’s protection zone) and just a tiny bruise on my knee, to me, says everything you need to know about the effectiveness of airbags.

Types of airbags and how they work

We’re going to do a deep dive into airbags, especially smart airbags, in a future story. In short, there are two main kinds of airbags. The version you may be more familiar with are the tethered airbag systems. Initially these were vests you wore externally with a cord tethered to a fixed location on your motorcycle. Some manufacturers are producing jackets with the airbag built in, but still using a physical tether to the motorcycle.

The Klim Ai-1 airbag vest is representative of all the current airbag vests. Visually, well, it’s a vest. The real magic happens inside the vest, where the sensors and ECU are located.

The second kind are what’s called “Smart Airbags” and if you watch MotoGP, this might be familiar to you. There are a few companies making these, but the general idea is the same. Here, the airbag vest resides inside the jacket or suit, however unlike the tethered airbags, there is *not* a physical tether at all. It is completely wireless and independent. Accelerometers and gyroscopes located throughout the vest communicate to an ECU built into the vest, and when it senses a crash (whether on your own or with an assist by somebody else), it’ll deploy the airbag to protect the upper body.

This graphic of the Dainese D-Air Road system gives a brief overview of how the system is meant to work. In short, whether you get tangled up with somebody else, or you find a way to separate yourself from your motorcycle all on your own, an airbag will deploy and help protect your upper body.

Comfort

A popular question I get is about the comfort of wearing another piece of protective gear. That’s fair: there’s no denying airbag vests add another layer separating you from fresh airflow. Still, these smart airbags are built with mesh materials to minimize air blockage – and it’s not like they cut off all air circulation. A non-vented jacket will do far more to block air.

Most (but not all) electronic airbag vests are worn inside a riding jacket, which creates another barrier between the jacket and fresh air. However, in our use, this only became uncomfortable on extremely hot days.

That all being said, there’s always the tradeoff between comfort and protection. To me, on most days, the additional layer isn’t much of a bother, and even on the hottest of days like the triple-digit day of my accident, the heat was bearable as long as we were moving. Nonetheless, I’ve always maintained that I’d rather sweat than bleed.

Price/Worth

I think we can all agree about the efficacy of airbags, tethered or not. The technology has saved countless numbers of lives in cars. So, it’s only right to assume the tech has huge benefits to motorcycle riders, no matter what form of motorcycling you do. Inevitably, the question of price always comes up. Tethered airbags typically run a couple hundred bucks, while the smart airbags range from $600 to $1200, depending on the model.

Helite, long known for its tethered airbags that are worn externally, or, over your jacket, has now released an electronic airbag with a sensor placed on the fork that communicates with the airbag. Pricing is still TBD in America. However, you can currently find the tethered vests roughly in the $500 range.

Is it worth it? Just like an expensive helmet (or even a cheap one), an airbag is another piece of safety gear you never want to test but will be absolutely grateful for if you ever do. Again like a helmet, an airbag can make the difference between life or death – and that’s not hyperbole. That alone should be reason enough to wear one, but if it really is a matter of dollars and cents, then consider the cost of your deductible should you hurt yourself or your bike in a crash and need to rely on your insurance. Odds are a few hundred bucks for an airbag, even a tethered one, is less.

Then there’s the invaluable downtime should you have an extended hospital stay…

So, why am I writing this?

Because it’s human nature to disregard impactful events until it happens to you or someone you know. If you’ve been on the fence about getting an airbag – any airbag – let my real-world experience convince you not to wait anymore.

Remember that photo at the top of the page? This is the aftermath of what happened minutes later. Full credit goes to my airbag for keeping me injury-free.

For me, the decision is clear. In fact, I never ride on a racetrack without one. But I wasn’t so vigilant about airbags on the street. In the back of my mind, I’ve always known that having an airbag would be safer than not having one, but sometimes I’d get complacent – or just downright lazy – before heading off on a street ride and wouldn’t put it on. I count myself lucky and grateful that I was wearing one this time, and I won’t be riding a motorcycle again without one.

I suggest you don’t either.