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One morning in 1994 Kenji Takeuchi, founder and owner of Mugen Denko (a Japanese electrical services firm), was on his way to work when he witnessed a motorcycle accident. The rider, as in most serious motorcycle accidents, went flying off his bike. Mr. Takeuchi found himself consumed with questions about the accident – How badly injured was the cyclist? Did he have family that would be devastated by his accident? And finally, was there a way to protect other cyclists from injury?
Protecting motorcyclists proved to be a trickier concept than protecting car occupants. A rider will almost invariably come off his bike in an accident, leaving him to hit the pavement at high speed. Some 90% of serious injuries and fatalities come from the resultant upper body impact. Because of this, any safety equipment had to be on the cyclist or it would do no good. Takeuchi thought that an airbag would be good protection against such impacts, but how to put an airbag on the cyclist?
Another difficulty was figuring out how to create safety equipment that the average motorcyclist would be willing to wear. How could he create something that would look like normal motorcycle wear yet still protect a rider? The problem had him stumped for a while, but then a friend invited him to go scuba-diving. Part of the diver’s gear was an emergency bag containing a key. When the key was pulled out, the bag automatically inflated, pulling an incapacitated diver to the surface. Takeuchi saw possibilities. If the safety jacket could be attached to the motorcycle, then the separation of rider and cycle during an accident could act as the trigger for airbags attached to the jacket itself.
By 1996, Takeuchi had a prototype ready to go. His new motorcycle jacket had inflatable pockets in strategic areas, a pressurized gas canister, and a key, much like the emergency diver’s buoy. A coiled wire attached the key to the motorcycle. In the event of a crash, the wire would pull out the key if the rider flew off his motorcycle. The jacket would then inflate automatically, protecting him from impact. After about six seconds the jacket would deflate, allowing the rider full motion again. A quick release button allowed the wearer to get off the motorcycle without triggering the jacket. Takeuchi showed his prototype at shows in Osaka and Tokyo, but the motorcycle manufacturers were not interested in a product they felt would remind buyers of the dangers of motorcycles.
Undeterred, Takeuchi perfected his design, and in 1999 began selling his inflatable jacket under the name Eggparka to modest success. In 2001, he relaunched under the name Hit-Air. Despite the motorcycle manufacturers’ doubt, the new airbag jacket began to sell. In 2003, Mugen Denko won a contract to supply Hit-Air jackets to the Ibarangi Prefecture motorcycle force, and by 2005 they were doing 1.5 million annual revenue in Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America. Due to product liability issues, the Hit-Air has not yet been marketed in the US, but if it ever does its sales could rise considerably higher.
While numbers on the safety effects of the Hit-Air jackets in actual accidents are not available, the shock absorption capability of the jacket in product tests is impressive. Certainly the company has no shortage of letters from grateful customers attesting that the Hit-Air products have saved their lives. The total number of Hit-Air users, though, is still only a tiny percentage of those who ride motorcycles. Whether the concept of an airbag jacket for the motorcycle will ever become as accepted is car airbags have been remains to be seen.