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A Wearable Airbag for Every Occasion

Dainese D-air SKI airbag protection vest

Photograph by Alexander Klein/AFP via Getty Images

Dainese D-air SKI airbag protection vest

The human body is a fragile machine, but that hasn’t stopped many people from undertaking all manner of physical risk. And that predilection for adventure-minded consumers to push the envelope has encouraged businesses to develop gear to cushion all the inevitable bangs and dings, everything from mouth guards to hazmat suits. Outside the U.S., such equipment increasingly includes the ultimate in personal protection: wearable airbags.

Just because a device is designed with safety in mind doesn’t mean it can’t have cool cred, too. Perhaps the most stylish of wearable airbags is the “invisible” bicycle helmet, made by Swedish company Hövding. Worn around the neck like a fashionable collar, the battery-powered device fully inflates around the head in just a tenth of a second as soon as its sensors detect the impact of a crash. Tests performed by Swedish insurer Folksam found that it may be three times as effective as a standard helmet, according to the New York Times.

Italian motorcycle gear maker Dainese is continually improving its airbag-equipped suits, which contain self-inflating compartments in critical areas, such as along the collarbone and over the shoulders. Its D-air suits, some of which retail for more than $1,000, have three accelerometers, three gyroscopes, a GPS, and onboard electronics that collect all the data and deploy the airbags before a racer crashes into the ground, according to a forthcoming article in the spring 2014 issue of Bloomberg Pursuits. “Crashing is part of racing,” one daredevil told the magazine, adding that the wearable airbags allowed him to walk away from four accidents last year. (Watch a sample crash and deployment here.)

Dainese is also collaborating with the International Ski Federation to develop wearable airbags for ski racers. Challenges include coming up with an algorithm that will let the device differentiate between forces normally involved with racing and those created by a serious fall.

Other types of inflatable protective wear include avalanche airbags, designed to shield a person’s head and help propel them to the surface of avalanche debris. Some debate exists as to the effectiveness of avalanche devices. Various airbag systems have also been designed to protect construction workers from the impact of a potentially crippling or deadly fall. (This demo video is pretty impressive.)

Don’t expect personal airbags to become as ubiquitous as, say, similar devices on cars anytime in the near future. So far, Europe has been faster to adopt self-inflating body gear. The Swedish helmet and Italian biker suits are not yet available in the U.S. But given American adventurers’ love affair with high-tech gear, the latest in airbag fashion will likely cross the pond soon.

Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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