Inflatable Jackets to Save Lives in Motorbike Accidents

A relatively recent phenomenon of an inflatable biker jacket could save dozens of lives if it was made compulsory. The jackets are the equivalent of a car’s airbag and inflate if the rider is thrown off the bike suddenly. At the moment most of the inflatable jackets work by being tethered to the bike. If there is an ejection a small CO2 cartridge is triggered and inflates the jacket with air which provides a firm, strong cushion before impact. The CO2 cartridges can easily be replaced so the jackets become fully functional quickly. The best jackets inflate as quickly as 0.2seconds after ejection. The jackets provide protection to vital organs, the neck, spine, hips and torso helping to prevent major injuries. Currently the inflatable jackets that are commercially available are the Impact Jacket, Hit Air, MotoAir and Airetronics.

However, although they provide good protection in collisions involving ejection they have several drawbacks. The main one is that for them to inflate you actually have to be ejected from the bike. In most cases you need to crash and be ejected about 2 feet from the bike before inflation is activated. Yet many falls involve low side falls where you slide out. In these scenarios the jacket wouldn’t begin to inflate until you had already hit the ground and slid away from the bike. Also, although the best jackets inflate as quickly as 0.2seconds after ejection, most take 0.5 seconds to inflate. In comparison car airbags only take 0.17 seconds and begin to inflate as soon as impact is detected.

Currently Dainese D-Air is being developed which uses crash sensors, accelerometers and electronic rate gyros to detect when things have gone wrong. This means that it can inflate before the biker hits the ground if the system detects loss of control or strange angles indicating a low side fall or a crash. The system alone took 3 years to develop while the project has been in development for 10 years. The jacket can inflate in 0.04 seconds providing cushioning to the neck, shoulder and collarbone. However it is currently only being used under trial in racing systems and is not available to the public. If the trials are successful it is likely that in the next few years trials on other bikes and for other uses (such as road users) will be carried out and versions of the jacket will become available for public use.

There are two types of safety to consider with motorbikes: primary and secondary safety. Primary safety means avoiding the accident, while secondary safety tries to minimise the risk of injury when an accident has occurred.

For primary safety driving safely and sensibly is a must as motorcycling requires excellent motor skills, physical coordination and balance. On a motorbike you can’t afford to make mistakes as in an accident (especially with cars or other vehicles) the motorcyclist is likely to come off worse and is more likely to be seriously injured or killed; it is said that motorcyclists can only make one mistake (implying that if they do they will not survive to repeat it or make another one, whereas in cars you are able to make more because you have a greater chance of survival). Also wearing bright, reflective or fluorescent clothing and stickers help motorcyclists to be more easily seen: a major factor in accidents. Reflective black tape is available which can be stuck onto the frame of the bike and becomes invisible, but when a light shines on it glows bright white. In a study of 453 riders who were admitted to hospital after a road traffic accident, reflective or fluorescent clothing reduced the risk of a crash injury by 37% while wearing a white helmet (as opposed to black) reduced it by 24% and headlights reduced the risk by 27%. Day-glo colours are better during the day, especially yellow as this is the most visible to the human eye. At night retro-reflective material which reflects light back at the source is better.

Secondary safety includes mainly protective clothing. Armour or padding is often used as it absorbs the impact and spreads the load. Abrasion resistance is measured by how long something lasts before wearing through or disintegrating: leather is one of the best materials and is widely used by bikers. Biker clothing is often double skinned and armoured in the elbows, seat, thighs and knees as well as double stitching to reduce tearing. Joints in clothing where the stitching is shouldn’t be exposed in abrasion risk areas. Clothing should fit well with zips on the legs and arms so that they don’t roll up and expose your skin.

The most important piece of kit is undoubtedly the helmet and in the UK it is compulsory to wear one when riding a motorcycle. Helmets absorb the impact by crushing or compressing the protective layers inside it, underneath the outer plastic layer. However, this means that helmets only work once and must be inspected or changed after any accidents. It is also important to buy a new helmet and not a second hand one as you can’t always tell just by looking at the outside what condition a helmet is in. When fitting a helmet you shouldn’t be able to pull it off or twist it around when the strap is fastened. In an accident an un-helmeted biker is 29% less likely to survive a crash and 40% more likely to die from a head injury as well as being 3times more likely to suffer brain injuries.

Motorcycling can also seriously and potentially permanently damage your hearing at just 40mph due to wind noise. If your hearing is muffled or your ears ring once you stop using your bike then this is temporary hearing damage, which if repeated regularly can become permanent. Noise levels on the road can be between 75-90 decibels at 35mph and 110-116dB at 120mph which is above the level permitted by Health and Safety executives for a working environment. Sealing visors and helmet or neck sleeves can help to reduce wind noise but ear plugs offer the best protection.

Accidents: At the moment motor bikers only make up about 1% of road users but they account for 20% of road fatalities and in 2007 there were 561 bikers killed. In the US there is a similar trend: there are 75.19 fatal crashes per 100,000: four times higher than car fatalities. At the moment men are seven times more likely to make a motorcycle trip than women but they are involved in 15 times more accidents than women.

In 2006 there was a 5% increase in motorbike fatalities. In the US this rise has been linked with more powerful super, high-performance machines. 10% of bikes sold off forecourts are super bikes, but these bikes are involved in 25% of fatal accidents. In 2007, the number of motorbike fatalities in Northern Ireland doubled from 13 fatalities in 2006 to 24 bikers and a pillion passenger being killed in 2007. To try and combat this worrying trend from April 2008 a more stringent driving test was introduced which had to include:

* At least 2 manoeuvres at a slow speed including a slalom
* At least 2 manoeuvres at a higher speed of at least 18.6mph with one in 2nd or 3rd gear
* 1 manoeuvre avoiding an obstacle at a minimum of 31.1mph
* 2 exercises in breaking including an emergency break at a minimum of 31.1mph

Motorcycling accidents can be split roughly into three categories:

1. Right of Way Violations.
2. Loss of control on bends, corners or curves.
3. Overtaking and filtering.

Right of way violations occur mainly at peak times and a major contributory factor is other drivers not seeing the motorbike. These accidents have been nicknamed SMIDSY which stands for “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”: the driver’s response to the accident. About 50% of accidents involve another motorist not seeing the motorbike. In these circumstances the bike is often quite close to the junction when the car pulls out and it seems that car drivers “overlook” the foreground and concentrate on a more distant view instead. This is common when the motorbike is within about 20m of the junction. In a study of 1,058 motorbike accidents 37.5% (397) of those involved right of way violations, but of these accidents only 24% of them involved the biker being fully or partly to blame. The main age group to be involved in this type of accident are 16-20 year olds.

Accidents that are caused due to loss of control on a bend don’t seem to have any peak times (such as during rush hour), but are spread throughout the day and the week (including weekends) which suggests that they are associated with recreational driving. These sorts of accidents account for about 11% of accidents. There are two main categories for people involved in these sorts of accidents:

* So called “born again” bikers
* Young or new drivers

“Born again” bikers describe those people who have not had a licence for a while and are returning to biking, these people are roughly 32 years old. The other category includes people who hold provisional licences (or no licences) and are about 24years old and inexperienced at motorcycling. The second group account for twice as many fatalities as the first.

Accidents due to overtaking or filtering between lanes of traffic are largely due to the fact that other motorists forget or are unaware that motorbikes are able to filter between lanes because they are smaller so they either don’t see them, don’t look out for them or aren’t aware that bikers are filtering between the lanes. These accidents also occur around peak times such as rush hour when traffic is heavy and queues are likely.

In the UK it is compulsory to take a one day Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) course as well as a theory and a practical test. CBT involves an introduction, practical on-site training, practical on-site riding, practical on-road training and practical on-road riding. You must receive a minimum of a 2 hour on-road ride to complete the CBT. 16year-olds are allowed to ride mopeds with an engine capacity no greater than 50cc with a maximum speed limit of 31mph. 17year-olds can drive bikes with an engine capacity up to 125cc, while for 21year olds there is a direct access route to gain a licence to ride large motorcycles. Wearing helmets is also compulsory in the UK. Equipment must comply with the European Commission’s Personal Protective Equipment legislation and must conform to ECE 22-05 or the older British Standard 6658.

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