Downhill Ski Racers Get Airbag Protection

A skier dons the white Dainese D-air Ski airbag vest before a test run — and crash.
A skier dons the white Dainese D-air Ski airbag vest before a test run — and crash.Image courtesy Dainese

Downhill ski racers now have an airbag safety system to help prevent season- and career-ending upper body injuries. The FIS, skiing’s international governing body, paired with Dainese, an Italian gear company known for sport safety devices, developed an on-body airbag in an effort to add protection for racers that often exceed 80 MPH with little more than a helmet and spandex. 

The airbag safety system, called D-air Ski, has been in the works since 2011 and is modeled after an earlier version of a Dainese safety system used by motorcycle racers. The downhill version is sleeker than the previous model and made of a thin synthetic material similar to Nike DryFit’s moisture-wicking fabric.

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The vest, which lies on top of the shoulders and across the chest — just like a slim kayak life vest — was developed to protect skiers from their most common injuries. Called “intelligent clothing” by the Dainese developers, a credit-card sized electronic board complete with gyroscopes, accelerometers, and a GPS tracking device monitor the athlete and determines when to inflate for a crash. The airbag is triggered automatically if a skiers body position or speed changes suddenly, even if they’re midair. 

Data gathered by the FIS shows that almost 20 percent of 726 recorded injuries sustained over the past eight seasons involved the head, neck, chest, and shoulders. More than 25 percent of those injuries resulted in athletes missing at least 28 days of training and competition.

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The recent Alpine World Championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado saw several hard crashes and over a dozen skiers not finishing the men’s Super G course — including a hard spill by former World Cup champ and Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller.

Despite the injuries, no pro skiers are racing with the D-air system, which experts say is likely due to fear of hindering performance or even inflating midrun. However, after wind tunnel testing, the FIS and Dainese reported the D-air to be aerodynamically neutral. The one-crash use vests aren’t widely available for amateur racers and a price has yet to be released.

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