Wearable air bags
July 31, 2012 2:09 AM   Subscribe

Equestrian riders use what are essentially air bag vests, which immediately inflate when they fall from the saddle. They work much like a safety strap on a treadmill. The vest is attached to the saddle by a line, and when that line pulls free, it fires a CO2 cartridge that inflates the vest. Here's a video of one in action on a course, and here's a clearer view of one being inflated.

The Wikipedia article indicates that they're being considered for motorcycle racing. Are they used in any other contexts? I imagine that skateboarders and snowboarders would be way too cool to wear these.
posted by dbarefoot (47 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you allowed to remount once you've fallen with one of these? you certainly used to be able to...
posted by wilful at 2:17 AM on July 31, 2012

Are they used in any other contexts? I imagine that skateboarders and snowboarders would be way too cool to wear these.

You'd need an accelerometer to detect "whoa, he's falling pretty hard. Is that a curb, is he upside down, wait, he is upside down, but I think he's in a half pipe right now. Maybe? I'm just a simple accelerometer, this is all too much for me - If I hadn't cut school so much I could have a swank indoor job right now like my brother the desk calculator?!?"

With a motorcycle, if the cyclist flies more than a few feet from the bike, even the stupidist tether can probably figure out that it should deploy the airbag real soon now.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:38 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

The motorcycle version is out by Dainese: D-Air.
posted by gen at 2:45 AM on July 31, 2012

I am looking forward to reading the libertarian arguments about how increases in horse riding safety will lead to the moral hazard of people riding horses more carelessly now and that we should just let the reckless horse riders die to teach them a lesson.
posted by srboisvert at 2:46 AM on July 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

The Irish rider in that second video came off his horse yesterday and was disqualified. I didn't notice the airbag at the time. Interesting stuff.
posted by panaceanot at 2:50 AM on July 31, 2012

posted by sparklejess at 2:52 AM on July 31, 2012

I want air bags for the horses.
posted by pracowity at 3:03 AM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am looking forward to reading the libertarian arguments about how increases in horse riding safety will lead to the moral hazard of people riding horses more carelessly now

They can only push a horse so hard, and they're probably right at the limits of what equines can do already. Making it safer should just be making it safer.

Moral hazard is where you actively reward people for doing bad things.... like letting bankers keep all their profits in good years, but covering their losses in bad years. This means they load the system full of risk, because they make the most money that way. If they run really catastrophically stupid risk, they get paid huge amounts of money in the 'up' years, because other financial players will pay you lots of money to assume stupid risks. Then, when the risks blow up, the sheer magnitude of the ensuing failure makes bailouts much more likely. The system is rigged to encourage bankers to cause massive failures. The more stupidly they behave, the more money the system gives them. That's moral hazard.

There's no limit to how arrogant, stupid, and outright evil people can be with money, but horses impose their own limitations on their sport, so the concept really doesn't apply there. You're just toughening up the human body to match the creature being ridden.
posted by Malor at 3:04 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Man, this kid could have used that air bag. (no kids are hurt in this link.)
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:06 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would one of these have saved Christopher Reeve?
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:21 AM on July 31, 2012

As someone who was a horse in a previous lifetime, I really must object. Kick me, whip me, make me run faster... you've got a nice air bag to protect you, don't you? It must be so nice for you, to be in charge. But not the least bit of risk to you. Are you going to stumble and break a leg? Not you! You've got a nice air bag.

Does anyone think of the horse? We had a bag in the front for food, and occasionally a bag in the back for poop. But no bags in the middle when those crazy little humans whip and kick us till we stumble.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:26 AM on July 31, 2012

i remember knowing some medical students at UVA in Charlottesville, very horsey area, talking about learning to work in ER, and finding a contrast between car crash victims, often looking a bloody mess and being more or less much better than they looked (sometimes) and the horse riding accidents, who often looked pretty normal from the outside and were shockingly damaged internally.

Didn't help my fear of horses very much.
posted by C.A.S. at 4:21 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

the moral hazard of people riding horses more carelessly now

I think the argument is not a moral hazard that people will be careless but a practical argument that, because they are more careless, there will still be the same number of accidents. My coworker certainly used to argue that about bike helmets. The real story is complicated.
posted by DU at 4:44 AM on July 31, 2012

I am looking forward to reading the libertarian arguments about how increases in horse riding safety will lead to the moral hazard of people riding horses more carelessly now and that we should just let the reckless horse riders die to teach them a lesson.

My horseshoes are made of Rearden Steel!
posted by Damienmce at 5:16 AM on July 31, 2012

As someone who was a horse in a previous lifetime...
posted by twoleftfeet

Twolefthooves, surely?
posted by Skeptic at 5:28 AM on July 31, 2012

We were watching the cross-country event from a couple nights ago - one rider (Italian, maybe?) took a fall and POOF, airbags. Kind of amazing. I don't know how much they'd help if the horse actually rolled on the rider, though.
posted by rtha at 5:54 AM on July 31, 2012

I'm sure that the horse would much rather roll over a nice soft airbag than a boney equestrian.
posted by Splunge at 6:09 AM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Two other products come to mind- the Avalung, a device for backcountry skiers who find themselves caught in an avalanche (provides air to breathe!) and SOSpenders, inflatable floatation devices that can be deployed if you go down in fast/deep water.
posted by billcicletta at 6:12 AM on July 31, 2012

Twolefthooves, surely?

That was his last username.
posted by eriko at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2012

That was his last username.

Brand New Neigh policy at work.
posted by maudlin at 6:30 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I imagine that skateboarders and snowboarders would be way too cool to wear these."

Surfers pretty rapidly adopted the neoprene vests which don't look cool but which make you more bouyant so you pop out faster after a hold-down.

I'd think that while some participants in any sport would refuse to adopt safety measures, most of the serious competitors would eagerly do so, especially after a couple of nasty falls, or watching a couple friends take nasty falls. Skateboarders already wear pretty dorky-looking pads and helmets, I think they're already pretty committed to safety at the expense of coolness!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:38 AM on July 31, 2012

For a second I thought, "this would be great for a bicycle," until I realized that I would frequently forget to untether when I dismounted and then POOF.
posted by thecaddy at 6:46 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only problem I see with this and motorcycles is the inflation time. Using a CO2 cartridge does make it reusable, and with the fall times in horse riding, the vest is at least inflated enough when the rider hits, and probably vastly more importantly, is fully inflated when the horse hits them.

But on a motorcycle, the speeds are higher and the rider is lower. This is why car airbags use a sodium azide reaction -- basically, a low order explosive -- to inflate the bag in milliseconds. The rule of thumb is you want the airbag fully inflated within 125ms, and the electronics take 20-30ms to decide to deploy them, which means you need to have them fully inflated is less than 100ms, and the usual spec is 70ms.

Here, the inflation time looks more on the order of 500-750ms, which is fine when you fall from a horse. I can see a weakness in the design, though -- if you fall with the horse and never pull the tether, then the bag won't inflate.

In cars, it's fairly easy to determine when to fire the airbags -- reach a certain acceleration for a certain time constant, and *BOOF*. The original standard was the equivalent deceleration of hitting a fixed barrier at 14mph, but modern control units are vastly more clever -- they'll only fire the airbags that will help, and can sequentially fire them in the case of a roll or multiple vector impact.*

I don't know if there's enough of a difference between riding a horse at gallop and falling off a horse to use acceleration. Obviously, at impact it's different, but you need the vest inflated fully *when* you hit, not after.

Still, it's clear that there is a real benefit to horse riders -- and it would be wonderful if motorcycle riders gain the same. It's even possible a variant could be useful for cyclists, but now we have slow speed and low height, making it even harder to determine if they should fire or not.

* One of the fun facts about my car is that despite the premium sound system with subs -- rated as one of the best factory installs, period, my car has more airbags than speakers. Speakers -- 3x in front doors, 1x in rear panel, 1x in center dash, 2x subs -- 9 speakers. Airbags -- Driver, Pax, 2xknee bags, 2x side restraint curtains 2xdoor window curtains per door (one fires up, one on a bias to lock them together=10 airbags. Add in the pyrotechnically fired seat belt retractors (4) and the ROPS hoops that fire if you roll the car (2), I figure there's close to a kilogram of NaN3 in the car.

How does Volvo make a safe car? With a kilo of explosives, of course. :-)

The real clever is the control units that make sure only useful airbags are fired -- ones that aren't useful are expensive to fire and could actually harm if them move you in the wrong direction.
posted by eriko at 6:48 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Would one of these have saved Christopher Reeve?

IIRC, his injury was sustained by him landing on the top of his head and fracturing his spine that way. So if I do recall that correctly, no, this vest wouldn't have helped.
posted by biscotti at 6:55 AM on July 31, 2012

In the old days the lance took care of those pussies.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:26 AM on July 31, 2012

I watched the jumping event this morning and was totally prepared to hate it except for two awesome things: (1) One of the jumps is Stonehenge (although probably higher than 18") and (2) One of the Swedish riders named his horse "Mister Pooh".
posted by Dr. Zira at 7:38 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am glad that, in this time of international crisis, we are concentrating on the most important stuff: saving the _particularly_ wealthy folks who can afford both horses and a device to save their dumb asses from the indignity of injury.

Thank you, horse airbag inventor, for not applying yourself to any other problem facing the world.
posted by jarvitron at 7:50 AM on July 31, 2012

So this stuff definitely exists for motorcycles and I sometimes wonder if the physics of a motorcycle crash and a bicycle crash are similar enough to warrant getting one. Are you as likely to break the tether when bicycles are much lighter than motorcycles and horses? Any opinions out there? (http://www.bikebone.com/page/BBSC/CTGY/AT)

There was a spate of articles about the inflatable bicycle helmet a while back. Presumably it's for people who would rather look cool and depend on fallible technology than depend on a super simple helmet. BUT: the accelerometer technology was tuned to bicycle accidents. (http://grist.org/list/inflatable-bike-helmet-is-like-an-airbag-for-your-head/) It would make so much more sense powering a vest.
posted by Skwirl at 7:53 AM on July 31, 2012

This is appropos almost of nothing, but the video of the bicycle version of this (also linked in sparklejess's previous) makes me laugh more than almost anything I've seen in years, and it gets worse as I play it over and over while I should be working. There's just something about watching a bicycling mannequin's head suddenly turn into popcorn that gets me, though I suspect it's because of a past bicycling trauma that I also experienced as an artistic multiple.

When I graduated from my little wheel Schwinn (no training wheels ever in my family, mind you), my dad took me to a local bike shop where he found me the damnedest little ten-speed you'd ever seen for sale used. It was a Gitane, a word that made me feel downright Continental ever time I slurred it out like a pre-teen Chevalier, and it was the color of the sea around Capri, had curly handlebars with white tape, and wheels as skinny as a pencil, which required imported metric tires and which had little spindly pointy valves that no one in our neighborhood had ever seen. It was light as a feather compared to my old Schwinn, and on it, I was the Jean-Paul Belmondo of Scaggsville, Maryland. Rode the length of the C&O Canal on it with my Scout troop, rode it everywhere, and was as unwilling to give it up as I was with my security blanket, which I'm planning to phase out any day now.

Because of the scourge of puberty, I mutated into this monstrous, gangly hulk on my poor little Mediterranean blue gypsy, and my giant floppy clown feet yellow nylon Jox with purple stripes had an annoying tendency to suddenly end up in the spokes of the front wheel. Whereas all the rest of the kids in my neighborhood had accidents while doing wheelies, rounding the gravelly corner at Susini Drive too fast, or just crashing into objects and each other, I was the master of the one-vehicle accident. I come bumbling along on what had become a circus-sized bike by comparison, my toe would catch a spoke, and I'd come to a sudden stop, pivoting straight over the frozen front wheel and landing directly on my head, usually on the hot asphalt. Everyone seemed to find this hilarious, which I didn't quite understand until watching a mannequin do it repeatedly. An inability to let things go can be a bitch.

I'd have gone broke replacing airbags. After my dad had repaired my head for about the forty-third time, he hauled me down to Schwinn Bicycles of Wheaton and we came home with a brand new red Varsity that was too large for me, because he was convinced I'd grow into it, and is too large for me thirty-some years later, but it's a great bike that's as heavy as a locomotive, and my feet don't end up in the front spokes. I'm retrofitting it with a modern bottom bracket adapter in the hopes that I'll find the time to run the C&O Canal again sometime soon.

I tend to think the solution to the horse safety issue is to just let the horse decide what's a good idea, rather than run them through these ever-so-English ritual torture events, but I'm a bit of a horseophobe, so I'm torn. Hell, I spent my free time at a recent drag queen bingo fundraiser at a gay military sports bar for a horse rescue organization looking up recipes for horse sausage on my phone, so I don't have a horse in this race.
posted by sonascope at 8:03 AM on July 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

The motorcycle version is out by Dainese: D-Air.

I wasn't aware that they had finally succeeded in making one that actually stays inflated long enough to make a difference.

I remember seeing a segment on Daily Planet about the development of the jacket. Their first hurdle was finding a way to inflate the thing quickly enough without using explosive charges that would injure the rider (which is essentially how airbags in cars work; or did at one time, at least). They solved that pretty quickly, but then had the challenge of making sure that the jacket stayed inflated for a minimum of, I believe, 6 seconds. Any shorter than that and the effect would be essentially nil. They figured that 6 seconds was the minimum amount of time that was needed for the driver to hit the ground, roll/skid, and come to a stop. As long as the jacket was inflated for that entire time, he'd be OK. If not, he'd be hamburger meat just the same as if he wasn't wearing the jacket.

With equestrians, I imagine that the inflation time doesn't need to be quite as long, since you're likely travelling at slower speeds even if your horse is going full gallop.
posted by asnider at 8:12 AM on July 31, 2012

jarvitron: "I am glad that, in this time of international crisis, we are concentrating on the most important stuff: saving the _particularly_ wealthy folks who can afford both horses and a device to save their dumb asses from the indignity of injury.

Thank you, horse airbag inventor, for not applying yourself to any other problem facing the world.

I feel like you might be missing the idea that this might assist other users: There are tons of people besides the particularly wealthy who have horses -- as an analogy, you might read about airbags in a Bentley and curse the people who make driving a $325,000 car safer, while completely ignoring the fact that you can apply the technology to, say, a $15,000 Kia Rio.

As an example closer to the subject, there are a load of 13 year old girls in my wife's barn who are riding on trade -- mucking stalls & etc. for the opportunity to ride. Are they dumb? Well, hey, they're 13, so probably there's a bit of teenage invincible spazziness going on there, sure. Are they rich? Not even close; not even if you take into account their parent's incomes and property. Is it a good idea to put one of them in an airbag vest? Probably yes. I might talk about this with my own wife, who makes just a tick above US median income and who rides English.
posted by boo_radley at 8:18 AM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Man, this kid could have used that air bag. (no kids are hurt in this link.)

The emu, on the other hand...
posted by KokuRyu at 9:08 AM on July 31, 2012

From the wikipedia article:
In 2010, British rider Oliver Townend ... credited the vest with allowing him to leave the hospital after only one day, saying that without the vest he "would be in a box or in America for a month."

Tough choice. I guess it depends on your particular situation, but I'd suck it up and go with America for a month.
posted by Killick at 9:10 AM on July 31, 2012

I think, if you're going to ride horses, you should wear the vest fully inflated all the time. Don't hide your fear behind some pansy ripcord contraption, go all out FULL DORK.
posted by JHarris at 9:12 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

The manufacturers of these devices have not backed up their safety claims with data, despite repeated promises to riders. Instead, they've put their money into marketing, especially by giving their products to big-name riders for free.

One vendor, PointTwo, has been reprimanded repeatedly for misleading advertising, most recently in April (more discussion here). Last year, PointTwo was cited for making unsupported claims in its ads. Before that, when PointTwo launched its US website, they featured photos of UK rider Faith Cook, claiming she 'walked away uninjured', when in fact she had fractured several vertebrae and was hospitalised (discussion with links here; PointTwo website was subsequently changed).

Riders have suffered serious injuries and even fatal injuries while wearing these devices. In these cases, the riders were crushed by their horses. When a rider is caught under the horse (as in a 'rotational' fall), there is not enough separation for the lanyard to break and cause the vest to inflate. Moreover, an airbag is not going to protect you from the weight of a falling horse. Yet the ads continue to claim that the vest will provide protection in a rotational fall.

At the Badminton Horse Trials in 2010, a horse suffered very serious injuries that may have been caused by the horse spooking when the rider's vest inflated. The sound is quite loud, and horses often spook at sudden, explosive noises.

Riders in the sport of eventing are a very motivated group in terms of wanting to make the sport safer. However, the science is sorely lacking with the air jacket technology and it seems unlikely that the manufacturers are going to put money into backing up their safety claims with data. But you can go to equestrian websites and see their banner ads and see their big full-page ads in equestrian publications that show superstar riders touting their products.

In the Olympics cross-country yesterday, some of the riders who are sponsored by these companies were not wearing air jackets. I found that amusing.
posted by grounded at 9:20 AM on July 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

I imagine that skateboarders and snowboarders would be way too cool to wear these.

Unfortunately, a big part of skateboarding involves having yourself physically removed from the board in the air, and also having the board spinning and flipping around while you are not connected to it (I can't imagine a tether-safety system like this that would work while doing a kickflip, for example, without getting tangled).

With snowboarding, your feet are physically strapped to the board. How would the vest detect when to inflate?
posted by antifuse at 9:45 AM on July 31, 2012

Bah. Cyclists wi' 'elmets. Horse riders wi' padded vests. Nobody smokes. Can't beat yer kids. Whole bloody world's gone soft!
posted by Decani at 10:28 AM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ah crap. You wouldn't need this stuff if you'd just make them wear seat belts. And no running.

Riding is not intrinsically unsafe most of the time, depending upon what you think about when you use the word: riding. But horses have brains, and sometimes shit happens. Generally speaking, fallling off a horse is not the worst thing that can happen, and hitting the ground from a running horse is an art that riders will do well to learn. In any case, the shit happens clause goes into affect every single time you approach a horse. I knew an old fart in California who'd raised and trained excellent working horses for over 60 years. One afternoon he was showing a colt to a customer and it jumped sideways, knocking him into the corral, killing him instantly. Go figure.

Horses are wondrous. They don't just give your their heads, they give you their hearts, and they will actually, literally die between your knees trying to do what you ask of them. When you are tuned, your horse becomes invisible and weightless under you. I rather like the idea that a person ought to worry a bit about what he's going to do when his animal misunderstands a cue and dumps him. Not stated above are the times when the best thing you can do for your horse is unass the saddle, maybe avoiding a serious injury to him.

Mules are different. They are not horses with long ears. They will let you be in charge as long as they believe you know what you are doing. After that, you're just another bozo on that bus, and when you fail to perform, they'll show you how the job is supposed to be done--it pays to leave your ego at the corral gate when you handle mules. If you do that, the mule will make you look like a magician in the eyes of your fellows. Okay sorry about the mule derail. Everyone knows that if mules were not sterile horses would be extinct.
posted by mule98J at 11:18 AM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Hit-air is a Japanese company that has been around for a while with the exact same product. So close, in fact, I wonder which company thought of it first.
posted by zardoz at 5:04 PM on July 31, 2012

As a former event rider I wouldn't wear one. I know how to fall off and I'll take my chances on that. I do not want an air bag inflating off a remote tether. I imagine a case where you fall halfway off, thinly you can recover so don't try to fall clear, the thing explodes, horse takes off and you get dragged. Yikes.
posted by fshgrl at 5:23 PM on July 31, 2012

I know how to fall off and I'll take my chances on that.

Give it time. You get this reaction a lot when new safety gear is introduced to anything. Generally in the early days of the New Thing, a case can be made that highly-familiar tradition is on par with greenhorn New Thing, but after a few years of refining and evolving that thing, the advantages become unmatched (or else it largely fades away, for having failed to develop)

In time, I'd expect the state-of-the-art in riding/falling techniques will adapt to take advantage of better safety gear. It's just another part of the march of civilization.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:09 PM on July 31, 2012

Harlequin, do you understand the rules in eventing that would cause a rider to try desperately to pull a save they never would otherwise? Do you understand what I'm saying about being dragged? I'm talking about a specific risk I wouldn't take.

Also it would obviously not help if the horse fell on you so I find that claim baffling
posted by fshgrl at 11:09 AM on August 1, 2012

I've never ridden competitively, but I have had my share of falls from horseback note to self: falling from a horse 17.5 hands high seems to take much, much longer than falling from a horse 15 hands high, and it hurts more, so never do that again, and I agree with fshgrl. State-of-the-art falling (and what would that be, I wonder?) or no, having the the vest go off when you've managed to save yourself from falling would be utter crap, especially with the risk of the horse bolting/rider being dragged. It's the worst feeling, being run away with and losing one stirrup but not being able to lose the other.
posted by rtha at 11:27 AM on August 1, 2012

I know how to fall off and I'll take my chances on that.

I know how to go through a windshield and I'll take my chances on that.
posted by Splunge at 12:01 PM on August 1, 2012

Splurge, you, respectfully, have no idea what you're talking about. A helmet is comparable a seat belt: very little down side, lots of proven benefit. This vest is not. That it helps at all in a minor fall is not proven or even believed by plenty of experienced riders, and physics tells us it ain't gonna do shit if 1200lbs of horse falls on you from a height in a major wreck. Weighed against that is the risk of it going off inadvertently and spooking the horse leading to an injured rider, injured or loose horse or blown competition.

And falling off a horse is in no way comparable to "going through the windshield". That's an absurd comparison.
posted by fshgrl at 3:21 PM on August 2, 2012

I read this story today. Damn, those airbags would have been a good move for her.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:22 PM on August 2, 2012

Saw invisible bike helmet today
posted by Dub at 6:13 AM on August 16, 2012

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