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Do I need a wearable motorcycle airbag? Which one should I get?

Aug 28, 2019

Among the marvels of modern motorcycling is the wearable airbag.

While moto-specific airbag devices have been around for years, they are finally becoming attainable for the average rider. Recently, Dainese released the revolutionary Smart Jacket, an algorithm-powered airbag system that works with any gear you already use. And at $700, it’s relatively affordable. We’ve had a ton of recent interest in motorcycle airbags as a result, so let’s take a closer look at this type of protective equipment and the options available today. You’ll want to do your research before purchasing one, and this overview is a good place to start.

What does a motorcycle airbag do, exactly?

Like the airbag in your car, a wearable motorcycle airbag inflates in a fraction of a second to protect you in the event of a crash or impact. A super-responsive trigger makes this possible. The resulting air cushion protects the rider’s spine and ribcage, and often covers the neck/collarbone area, too. The force that would have been applied to the rider’s body is instead distributed across the airbag, effectively reducing or avoiding injury. If you’re looking for the most upper body protection motorcycling has to offer, airbag systems are the pinnacle of what’s available today. (Just to be clear, we’re talking about airbag jackets here, not bike-mounted airbags like those found on some Honda Gold Wings.) 

All of the above is what the airbag does when deploying. During the vast majority of its lifespan, a good airbag system is simply compact and unobtrusive. If you can’t stand riding with it, then you won’t wear it, and what good is it then? (If worrying about an airbag prevents you from focusing on riding, consider other protective gear.)

How effective are motorcycle airbags?

That varies from airbag to airbag.  Effective… at what? That’s a pretty broad term, after all. For example, Dainese claims their Smart Jacket provides as much protection as seven back protectors. While that’s great news for your spine, the Smart Jacket does not reach the neck. So just like any other piece of moto gear, each airbag has its strengths and weaknesses. Taken as a whole, using a motorcycle airbag should reduce your risk of back and ribcage injury. (Again, your neck and collarbone might also be protected, depending on what model you go with.)  Just ask Marc Márquez, who crashed at nearly 210 mph, survived inside his airbag, and was able to compete in the next race. 

With any protective gear, it’s important to manage expectations. An airbag is not a guarantee of survival or an excuse to ride outside your limits. It’s another safety tool, and a very special one at that.

How does a motorcycle airbag work?

An airbag needs a few systems to function.

First, something has to detect a problem and trigger the deployment of the airbag. This could be anything from a simple mechanical device to a complex arrangement of sensors and computers. Whatever it is, the system must be able to react near-instantaneously or the airbag is useless. The airbag system also needs protections against false alarms. In the hands of a good rider, motorcycles are capable of fearsome, violent movements, all while the bike is still very much under control… unless an airbag were to mistakenly deploy. And even Valentino Rossi has surely bumped into a doorway with his shoulder while suited up. An airbag must not create additional danger or fire needlessly while attempting to prevent injury.

A second system actually deploys the airbag by inflating it. Most cars inflate their large airbags with a chemical reaction. Motorcycle airbags are smaller, so they almost exclusively inflate using canisters of compressed gas. Trigger says fire, gas is released, and poof, you’re the Michelin man. Airbags are at their firmest when first deployed. Slowly, the pressure will decrease as the gas escapes. The airbag is then ready to be recharged.

Motorcycle airbag
Alpinestars' Tech Air system, cut away. Alpinestars illustration.

The last thing a wearable airbag system needs is the chassis to hold all the components securely on the rider’s body. The system must stay in place in the event of a crash for the most effective protection. The airbag might be sewn directly into a jacket, built into a removable liner, or mounted in a standalone vest. There are advantages to each. That’s why we have a range of options available today. Early motorcycle airbags could be seen inflating on the outside of the rider’s jacket. That approach has fallen out of favor as manufacturers work to streamline the tech without compromising safety.

What kinds of riders should be using airbags?

Just about any street rider could benefit from an airbag vest. It all comes down to protection, price, and comfort. Airbags certainly aren’t the only way to protect yourself on the street, and if you feel that your current combination of gear is adequate, don’t stress it. You don’t need an airbag to operate a motorcycle… yet. But at $500 to $1,500, they are cheaper than many injuries, so that decision is up to you. Urban riders and those who ride aggressively on the street should be among the first to consider airbags, in my mind.

Airbags really shine in a track environment, where you’re likely to be pushing your limits on the bike. Look on the MotoGP grid today, and you’ll find that all racers are wearing airbag protection. That’s because, as of 2018, it’s required at that level. We aren’t all top-tier racers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tap into the benefits of airbag protection to complement our armor, leather, and other gear.

What kinds of motorcycle airbags are out there? Which one should I buy?

Tell me how you’ll crash, and I’ll tell you what gear to wear, as the anecdote goes. Seriously, each airbag design has its advantages and disadvantages. Motorcycle airbags break down into two main categories: tethered systems and algorithm-based systems. Both systems need to detect danger and inflate the airbag in time. How they do that makes all the difference. If you want to know which airbag system is for you, start with this fundamental difference.

Tethered airbag system
The Merlin system uses a simple tether. Merlin photo.

Tethered airbag systems

Tethered airbag systems were the first to appear in jackets and vests, mostly because they’re a simple, effective solution. Put the trigger on a cord, fix the cord to the bike, and if you fall off, pop goes the airbag. Easy. This tech has been around the longest, and it’s pretty well refined at this point. It’s also fairly affordable, since the trigger is not exactly rocket science. Some riders prefer the tether for its simplicity. They can usually be recharged by the rider at low cost, due to their basic design, and they don’t have batteries to recharge. For basic airbag protection without frills, a tether fits the bill.

Downsides to the tethered system are few, though they’re worth considering. First, you have to actually separate from the bike for the airbag to go off, which doesn't happen in every crash. Second, a tether isn’t a good choice for forgetful people. Hop off the bike without unclipping and you could waste a gas cartridge. If you’re the type who forgets that you have a disc lock, you’re probably not going to want a tether. 

Smart airbag vest
Airbags aren't just for racing. Street riders can reduce impact with a stealthy vest. Dainese photo.

Algorithm-based airbag systems

An algorithm-based system does not use a physical connection to the bike. It uses you, the rider, to determine when to deploy. These advanced airbag systems use an array of sensors (gyros, accelerometers, GPS, and more) to detect impacts and deploy the airbag. A small computer monitors the rider’s condition up to 1,000 times per second! They’re constantly learning, updating, and watching.

Complexity comes at a price, as these airbags tend to be more expensive to purchase and service. Many of these airbag systems can’t be recharged at home. (On the flip side, airbags that must be sent away for recharging are inspected by techs before being returned. Good to know they will fire correctly next time.) Another thing: Any computer’s batteries will need to be recharged occasionally. Forget to charge, and the airbag can’t go off. And finally, algorithm-based airbag systems might only fit into a limited range of jackets, depending on how the manufacturer has designed them. Alpinestars' Tech Air system, for example, only fits into their own jackets. The industry is slowly moving away from specific-fit airbags, fortunately, giving riders more choice than ever. 

Some of these airbags come in street and race versions. Which one should I get?

Well, are you riding primarily on the street, or primarily on the track? Each manufacturer designs their system to best suit its application. That’s not to say that a race vest won’t work for your commute, though the airbag will likely be more focused on preventing common track injuries (ribcage, collarbone) than street injuries (shoulder, collarbone, spine).

Major players

Within the airbag space, you’ll find a few big names, each with their own unique approach. Let’s start with Dainese, since their new Smart Jacket sparked this conversation in the first place. (Confusingly, the "jacket" has no sleeves, and is really a vest like other airbags.) Dainese is an algorithm-only company at this point. They offer the Smart Jacket, DAir Race, and DAir Road. For a long time, Dainese’s airbag was attached to the armor in the jacket, but they’ve recently moved away from that. Their new direction, for the street, at least, is a standalone vest that fits any brand, and can be worn over or under whatever jacket you have. I'd recommend wearing the vest inside your jacket, since the Smart Jacket does not provide abrasion resistance. Some might choose to wear it on the outside for convenience. Just zip it off and stow it once you reach your destination.

Alpinestars offers their Tech Air system for Street and Race, and Tech Air only fits select Alpinestars jackets and suits. Another company using an algorithm-based approach, they use an exclusive system that boasts three gyros and three accelerometers. Tech Air doubles as a CE2 back protector, so it’s good for something even if the battery dies. Tech Air must be returned to Alpinestars to get recharged. On the bright side, Tech Air can actually fire twice before it needs to be recharged, so you get a second chance.

Helite has been making tethered airbags for years, and they also make an airbag for Held. Helite’s airbags are easy to use, rechargeable by the user, and they can be worn with any motorcycle jacket. They’re very popular at the track, especially because they immobilize the neck and protect the collarbone. Helite recharges are inexpensive and take minimal time, so you can get back to riding. Basically, you just need to screw in a new air canister, and you're good to go. Wear the vest over or under the jacket you already have — it’ll deploy in 0.1 seconds either way.

Merlin offers a fairly unique airbag. It’s a universal vest, tethered, and available for under $300. That’s as affordable as airbag protection gets, and it'll work with whatever you're already wearing. The Merlin would be my choice if I just wanted basic airbag protection. If you come off the bike, Merlin’s setup deploys the bag in 80 milliseconds. Another nice feature is the back plate to cover your spine.

This is an emerging market for everyone, and only recently has CE been certifying airbags for motorcycles. The parameters will continue to be defined as manufacturers keep innovating. On one hand, we see the decline of brand-matched jackets and airbags, and the rise of algorithm-driven universal systems. On the other hand, tethered protection is cheaper (and better developed) than ever.