Strapping on a leather suit can protect you from a nasty case of road rash should you wipe out on a motorcycle, but that’s about it. For more robust protection during a crash, several companies have been developing airbag technology for motorcycles, including a pair of inflatable jeans designed to protect a rider’s legs.
Surrounding a driver or passenger in a car in life-saving airbags is relatively easy; they’re surrounded by doors, roofs, and dashboards that provide lots of places to covertly stash airbag devices that can cushion them from several sides during a crash. For motorcycles, the safety devices are a lot harder to implement. Years ago Honda developed a bike with an airbag integrated just above the fuel tank that cushions the rider’s chest in an accident, but it was really only useful for head-on collisions where the rider’s momentum would throw them forward into the handlebars.
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A more reliable airbag alternative for motorcyclists has been jackets that inflate around a rider during an accident, thoroughly protecting their torso no matter what direction an impact occurs from. The earliest designs required a physical tether to the motorcycle so sensors in the bike could tell the jacket when to inflate, but they’ve since been refined to be completely standalone, incorporating their own motion and impact sensors so they know exactly when to inflate, no matter what type of bike is being ridden. The only problem is that an inflatable jacket does nothing to protect a rider’s legs.
Given a rider’s legs are often the first part of their bodies to make impact with the ground during an accident (a problem that’s exacerbated with the added weight of the motorcycle itself on top of them when a bike topples) airbag jeans sound like a product that probably should have been invented days after the first motorcycles actually hit the road. But they’re only now being developed by a company called Airbag Inside Sweden AB who creates reinforced safety clothing for riders under the brand MO’CYCLE.
There’ no timeline on when the airbag jeans will be ready for the public, but the company has developed a functional prototype that uses air bladders hidden beneath a pair of riding pants. When they’re empty, the bladders are barely noticeable and presumably don’t hinder a rider’s movements, but in an accident, they’ll inflate in a fraction of a second while the pants break away to make room for their rapid expansion. The prototype is currently manually triggered using a tether, but Airbag Inside Sweden AB has been consulting with researchers from Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, to eventually incorporate onboard sensors giving the pants their own smarts to know when they need to inflate.
The company eventually plans to introduce its airbag jeans through a crowdfunding campaign, but until then there’s lots of questions about how these are designed to work. Like the airbags used in vehicles, are they a one-time use thing requiring the bladders to be replaced after every inflation, or can users just replace the small pressurised inflation canister assuming the under layer survives? If not, are the pants destroyed in the process too, or do they feature closures that safely break away so at least that portion can be re-used? (Zippers won’t release so easily.) And while they seem like a good idea for motorcyclists, could these be just as useful for the elderly who are at the risk of serious injury for even minor falls. We’ve seen airbag belts before, but inflatable pants seem like an even safer solution.