Having vowed to never own a bike all but a few years ago, I found myself (thanks to Honda) holding a CBT licence. I’m free to go out on the open road with every other two tonne piloting incompetent car dweller. Great.
There were 19,297 motorbike casualties in 2016. 319 of those were killed.
Knowing at some point I’d be out on my own, from the start of this motorcycle journey safety was my number one priority. I set about researching to find the safest motorcycle kit I could get my hands on if I was going to be doing this biking thing.
Remembering a BBC article from many years ago about the first ever motorcycle jacket airbag I gave it a Google to see where that tech had ended up.
Within minutes I was on Airvest UK’s website. They’re the distributor for Helite airbag vests and jackets in the UK.
Helite were one of the first to offer motorcycle airbag vests to the mass market. The company was set up in 2002 in France, where the vests & jackets are distributed from to this day. They still have less than 40 employees.
Coming from a pure car background with no motorcycle knowledge I was naively under the impression that the majority of motorbike jackets on sale would come with airbags built in. Not just pliable armour and rigid back protectors.
For some reason that isn’t the case, and even though motorcyclists account for 1% of road users sadly they make up 18% of fatalities. Yet airbag tech isn’t commonplace on the market. Why? Who knows?
Helite are known for their airbag vests first and foremost. These allow you to wear airbag protection over your existing jacket. This makes sense if you have more than one jacket, or don’t want to part with your beloved, bestest jacket.
To an outsider who has no gear at all, that route didn’t bother me. I’m only going to have the one jacket, the one ‘look’ so I went through their range and settled on the Helite leather Roadster in brown.
Helite Leather Roadster Jacket
Looking like an old school motorbike jacket the only tell that this is something a little more special is the additional sewn in pouch on the front of the right-hand side.
This is where your gas canister sits. The tether also pokes out of a small hole just below it.
There’s an upper chest pocket on the left side, two hand pockets either side and ventilation under the arms. You’ll also find a soft neoprene collar so that the leather doesn’t rub against your bare skin.
Unzipping the Helite leather Roadster and there’s a 100% polyester thermal liner. This goes all the way down the sleeves and buttons in place at the top and in both cuffs.
To the inside left there’s a soft pocket to tuck your phone into and you’ll find the same sort of pocket behind the thermal liner, in case you don’t need it on summer rides.
There’s stretch panels on either side to make sure the jacket is as hugging as possible, with or without the liner. The rest of the exterior is in 1.3mm Buffalo leather.
In the shoulders and elbows you’ll find soft CE approved armour while at the back there’s a SAS-TEC Level 2 back protector. The airbags inflate under this to give your whole back cushioned protection against an impact if you fall off.
How the airbag works
Unlike other jacket airbag systems the Helite is a manual operation.
To start you need to fix the tether to your bike. Centrally, under the seat works best. But if you don’t have under seat storage then the bikes external frame will do.
This then clips into your jacket with a buckle clip, like the type you find on backpacks. You want to make sure it’s as tight as can be, with a little give in case you want to stand up on the bike.
There’s some elastic built in to give you some freedom of movement while buckled up.
Attached to the other end of the clip is a thin cord that goes through the hole into the jacket and links to the firing pin for the air canister.
You fall off the bike, the lanyard snags tight, pulls the firing pin which punctures the canister allowing the compressed C02 gas into the airbag.
It inflates in less than 1/10th of a second. After inflation it will keep the optimal pressure inflated for 10 seconds before slowly deflating.
The best bit about it is that you don’t have to send it away to be repacked or refurbished. Simply purchase another cannister, Velcro up the neck protector and you’re good to go.
When inflated the airbag resembles a life vest. Two arks go around each ribcage, up over your shoulders to immobilise your neck and head before inflating between your back and the Turtle back protector, with another small area for your very lower back.
What does it feel like when it inflates?
To demo the system fully Lee from Airvest UK wanted to show me how my jacket would feel if it went off.
Pulling the toggle with great force inflated the jacket in a split second, there’s a slight bang as it goes off but nothing too dramatic.
— carwitter (@car_witter) November 17, 2019
When fully inflated it almost feels like you’re in a straight jacket, your head is well cocooned and your body feels compressed against the leather shell. The back protection expands to the rear of your head and just above your bum.
It deflates slowly after the first 20 seconds but can be deflated fully by removing the canister.
So what’s the Helite leather roadster like to wear?
Firstly, let’s just talk about the look. Pictures of it online don’t really do it justice, it looks far glossier and ‘new’. In actual fact it’s a lot more matte, looking like the vintage biker jacket I was after.
Using the size chart I measure in at a medium. They’re a snug fit as they have to be, even without the thermal liner the jacket feels well fitted and tight against me.
You’ll look better without using the thermal liner as it makes you look a bit stockier than you are, in my case that gave me a middle-aged paunch too.
The Helite leather Roadster is fairly heavy to hold and lug around, but once it’s on you don’t notice the heft, and in fact it’s incredibly comfortable both on and off the bike.
Movement isn’t at all restricted due to the air-mesh underarms, the cuffs are nice and long ensuring they don’t ride up. Add some gloves with an extended cuff and you’ll keep draughts out with ease.
Overall, it’s of superbly high quality, with all the zips and stitches feeling incredibly tough, it reeks of leather which gives its own unique premium quality.
What about the tether?
One of the biggest questions buyers have is will the airbag go off if I forget to unclip?
No, it wont. The airbag requires about 4 -6 stone of pressure before it will pull out and inflate. Getting off and walking away won’t do this. You’ll get a hefty tug and remember you haven’t unclipped.
In fact, one of the worst things for me was remembering to clip it on in the first place. On three occasions I’ve forgotten so far, only to remember a few hundred yards down the road.
It’s all about habit, get into the habit of clipping in and unclipping before setting off and you’ll be fine. It’s just like your seatbelt when in a car.
Mechanical vs Digital
Most airbag jackets or vests on the market rely on a digital system to activate the airbag. This means there’s a battery pack and a load of accelerometers built in to the unit.
Most will only activate and inflate from a certain speed, so 15/20 MPH. Just in case you fall off when stationary.
Helite are one of the few to use a mechanical system – the tether. For me this made far more sense. You clip in and it’s active.
There’s no keeping the thing charged, making sure you switch it on, waiting for a blue ‘ready’ light etc. And the Helite system is always ready even if you get hit while being stationary – like being rear ended at traffic lights for example.
You’re also putting your faith in a digital thing you can’t actually see. Will it go off in that split second when you need it? If you have a low side will it even recognise you’ve fallen?
It is also good to know Helite have a 17litre (my size) but 24 litre (bigger sizes) airbag which are considerably larger, and offer superior protection of the neck, spine & thorax in the event of an accident vs its competitors one size fits all approach.
With Helite those doubts aren’t even there.
Helite air vests start at £349 for the older, original ‘Air Nest’ model. The more up to date ‘Turtle 2 Air Vest’ starts at £525..
The jacket I have is rather more pricey at £795. Considering I’m just starting out that’s a hell of a lot of money to invest in gear.
But then you need to stop and think. What’s your life worth? If you deem it’s not worth £800 I’m sorry to say, you’re a moron.
Now there’s no guarantee this jacket will save your life in the event of an accident. But it gives you a hell of a lot more protection than a standard motorcycle jacket will ever provide.
At the very least it should minimise any injuries to your upper body. At the most, save your life.
Both of those things mean far more than £800 to me.
Helite leather roadster conclusion
I said in my original article when gaining my CBT that I felt vulnerable being on a motorbike, and that I hoped making myself as safe as possible with the kit I’d buy would make that feel less so.
It has. Putting on my Helite jacket and pulling on my Resurgence Pekev Voyager jeans feels akin to putting on a suit of armour. It may only be material, but the quality, thickness and safety I know is built into them make me feel far less exposed when out on the road.
No longer do I feel like a fragile fleshy human whizzing past tons of metal just feet away.
For me nothing can put a price on that, I’d rather invest the money into keeping myself safe and giving me confidence in these early days of my motorbike journey.