Airbag is approved, but ski racers are largely shunning it for now

An undated handout photo shows skier Jan Farrell testing the D-Air Ski airbag. The use of the airbag safety device has not gained acceptance among the sport's professionals, despite the risk of serious injury that competitors face in violent crashes. [New York Times]
An undated handout photo shows skier Jan Farrell testing the D-Air Ski airbag. The use of the airbag safety device has not gained acceptance among the sport's professionals, despite the risk of serious injury that competitors face in violent crashes. [New York Times]
Published Feb. 10, 2015

MOLVENA, Italy — Broken collarbones. Shattered shoulders. Internal bleeding. Punctured lungs. Those injuries, and worse, are possible every time a world-class skier plunges out of a starting gate and slides down a snowy racecourse.

Given that, it is not surprising that skiing's international governing body recently approved for use an airbag safety device that has been in development for nearly four years. But many racers have expressed reluctance toward the new technology.

To outsiders, this reaction might seem incongruous. What skier hurtling downhill at up to 90 mph would not want a bit more protection, especially if his or her neck, shoulders and chest might be shielded in the event of a violent crash? But as often happens in pro sports, money and above all performance are factors that rival, if not surpass, safety concerns.

"As racers, we all want to go as fast as possible, and it does add a little weight, a little more of a hump on your back," U.S. Olympian Marco Sullivan said of the most recent airbag design, which resembles a skintight vest with a small computer sensor and a tiny gas canister tucked in its back. "If you're the only guy wearing it, it's probably a disadvantage as far as speed goes."

Despite the apparent benefits of the airbags, similar to those used in motorcycle racing, the international ski federation has hesitated to make them mandatory. The federation, known by its French acronym, FIS, said last week during the Alpine world championships in Beaver Creek, Colo., that it would wait until skiers had more options, because the airbag is currently manufactured by only one company.

"No one is going to wear it until everyone is wearing it," Sullivan said.

Sullivan's perspective is not unique, in any sport. High-level athletes are, as a rule, persnickety about changes to anything even remotely related to their performance. (Baseball fans might recall how many players rejected early versions of newer, safer batting helmets simply because of their bulbous appearance.) And on the list of what to obsess about, equipment is perhaps the area in which athletes are most particular.

In some ways, the reticence of the skiers is understandable; after all, the difference between first place and 12th place in the men's downhill at the Sochi Olympics last year was less than a second. Anything that might have a minuscule effect on results (or might even be perceived as having one) is to be avoided.

But while catastrophic crashes in top-level skiing are not common, the injuries athletes sustain when they happen can be gruesome. Lower-body injuries, such as torn knee ligaments or broken legs, occur most frequently, yet the damage to the upper body is often the most severe. American Bode Miller, who injured his back in a crash last March, has missed the entire World Cup season after having surgery in November to repair a herniated disk; he returned to competition Thursday in the super-G at the world championships but promptly crashed head over heels again.

According to data compiled by FIS, nearly 20 percent of the 726 recorded injuries over the past eight seasons of Alpine events in the World Cup series involved the head, neck, shoulders or chest. More than a quarter of those injuries made athletes miss 28 or more days of training and competition.

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An effort to reduce those numbers led FIS to partner with Italian company Dainese, perhaps best known for its link to motorcycle racing, for which it has created numerous safety devices, including an airbag system that is used by top-level racers.

In 2011, Dainese, working with FIS, began developing an airbag that could be used in skiing. The challenges were considerable. First, there was the matter of creating a system that could consistently determine when it was needed, effectively distinguishing the difference between skiers who lost their balance but were able to recover and skiers who lost their balance and went into a dangerous tumble.

"That's why we call it intelligent clothing," Vittorio Cafaggi, a manager for strategic development at Dainese, said in an interview at the company's research and development lab in Molvena. "It isn't enough for it to just protect you; it has to know when you need protection, too."

To make that possible, Dainese's technicians use gyroscopes, accelerometers and a GPS tracking device to monitor an athlete's position, angle to the ground and speed. If a skier's angle and speed suddenly change drastically, sending the values outside the algorithm's normal range, the airbag inflates.

One of the biggest challenges was accounting for the various jumps racers might encounter on their way down a course. Initially, skiers risked inflating their airbags whenever they zoomed off an incline, so a flying mode was added.

The other issue for Dainese was the physical design. Skiers wear skintight body suits while racing, with a thin back pad underneath, and the initial airbags resembled bulky flak jackets. The latest version, which Cafaggi said was ready for use, is much sleeker and uses thin synthetic material — think of a moisture-wicking jogging shirt — to hold a credit-card-size electronics board, a gas canister to inflate the airbags, and the bags themselves. The system is run by a small battery.

At present, Cafaggi said, the system is not for use by recreational skiers because they simply fall too often to make a single-use airbag vest practical. Still, Dainese has created a motorcycle airbag for street use, and although tweaking the skiing airbag's algorithm to make it appropriate for recreational use would be a significant undertaking, an amateur version is not impossible, Cafaggi said.

During the development process, Dainese worked with athletes from a number of national federations to solicit feedback, and Cafaggi disputed Sullivan's claim that anyone who wore the airbags would be at a disadvantage in terms of speed. Early versions of the system were actually deemed by FIS to be advantageous to skiers who wore them, Cafaggi said. After frequent wind-tunnel testing, the current models were found to be "aerodynamically neutral."

The system, which Dainese calls the D-air, has been approved for use since Dec. 31, and Cafaggi said Mirena Küng, a Swiss skier, used it in competition during a women's event in St. Moritz, Switzerland, last month.

That instance has been the exception, though. Ted Ligety, an American downhill star, was skeptical about the entire concept of airbags, noting that in motorcycle racing, an airbag could be designed to inflate as soon as the rider comes off the bike.

"In ski racing," he said, "it's not that simple."

Werner Heel, an Italian skier who has a partnership with Dainese, said he was willing to use the airbag only in training because he felt a bit "constricted" in the vest. Steven Nyman, an American who is not affiliated with Dainese, said he was offered one of the vests but turned it down because it was not made by one of his sponsors and because he did not trust it yet.

If the airbag goes off at the wrong time, Nyman said, "it's sketchy."