Air Vests: Uncertainty Remains About Their Effectiveness

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While air bags have been installed in cars for about three decades, and motorcycle riders have worn air vests for nearly two decades, less than five years have passed since riders started to widely use them.

Since then, some riders have embraced them, while others, especially those in the research and medical worlds, have expressed doubts about their efficacy and their reliability.? Two companies manufacture equestrian air vests: SafeRider and Point Two.

SafeRider, as SaferMoto, has been producing air vests for motorcycle riders for more than 16 years and entered the equestrian market about a decade ago, but with barely a splash initially. Point Two began in 2008.

A MAJOR INVESTMENT.? The people from Point Two and SafeRider believe, naturally, that an air vest is an investment every rider should make. While both models were created primarily for event riders to wear on the cross-country course, an increasing number of trail riders, pleasure riders and foxhunters have invested in the Point Two ProAir ($675 to $715) or in the SafeRider Hit-Air SV2 ($389 to $415). Point Two also makes the P2-RS Hybrid, which costs $870.

In addition, at Dover Saddlery three Hit-Air CO2 canisters will cost you $70, while three Point Two canisters will cost you $72. (They?re not the same size.) At SmartPak, you can buy one Point Two canister for $49.95, but five for $99.95. The Hit-Air canisters are $49.95 apiece.

The difference in the vest prices relate largely to where they?re made. The Point Two vests are manufactured in England, where the company was founded and is based.? Hit-Air is manufactured in Japan, where the company was founded and is based.

Another cost to consider is that both manufacturers recommend that their air vests be worn with a conventional body protector, preferably a BETA level 3 body protector. (The Point Two Hybrid is made with a RaceSafe level 3 body protector.) Body protectors cost $200 to $400 (see September 2009 article, which is available free to subscribers at www.horse-journal.com).

The U.S. Equestrian Federation rules for eventing require that a body protector be worn underneath an air vest. But those rules do not specify that the body protectors must be ASTM/SEI-certified or BETA-certified, and roughly half of the USEA?s 11,000 members wear uncertified vests, saying they?re thinner and more comfortable.

?there's no such thing as too much protection, and I think the sanctioning bodies are taking the very safe route [by requiring a body protector],? said Alan Cunningham, owner of SafeRider.

Still, most trail riders, pleasure riders and foxhunters wear their air vests without a body protector, and these riders are the bulk of the 25,000 U.S. sales Point Two claims and the approximately 1,000 U.S. sales that SafeRider claims.

USEA leaders are considering revising the one-fall-and-you're-out rule that's been in effect since mid-2008, but air vests present a logistical issue: If a rider falls and the vest deploys, the rider is faced with a dilemma. It would be difficult to continue with the vest inflated (we found it cumbersome and tight) and, by the time you got another CO2 canister installed, you?d likely be eliminated for exceeding the time limit. So the rider would likely choose to remove the air vest and continue, still wearing the required body protector.

The dilemma is less time-sensitive for foxhunters or trail riders, obviously. But, still, replacing the gas canister isn?t an instant snap-out, snap-in process.

FROM MOTORCYCLES AND LIFE VESTS.? The Hit-Air design was adapted from vests motorcycle riders have long worn.

Megan Gardiner said that Point Two founder Lee Middleton was also inspired by motorcycle racing, but that their vest descends more from marine CO2-inflated life vests.

Consequently, the Point Two ProAir and the Hit-Air SV2 are similar but not identical. Point Two inflates with more inward pressure, to stabilize the rider?s body. Hit-Air inflates outward, to put more protection between the rider?s body and the point of impact. The trigger mechanisms do not operate in the same way, and Hit-Air does not offer a hybrid model. The grab strap-lanyard attachments are also different.

Hit-Air claims a deployment speed of .25 seconds, while Point Two claims a deployment speed of .1 seconds. ?The speed [of deployment] is something we?ve really focused on,? said Gardiner.

Cunningham discounts the difference. ?From a safety point of view, does that really matter' Even in high-speed motorcycle crashes, you don't hit the ground that fast,? he said.

The question of whether or not a tenth of a second is important gets at the heart of the uncertainty. No independent safety certification organization (ASTM in the United States, BETA in Europe) has developed a certification standard for air vests. The primary reason is the relative youth of the product.

Both manufacturers have paid for testing by universities and research centers, and they cite results from those tests that present their products favorably (such as deployment speed). They also cite numerous cases of anecdotal evidence?riders who fell with their vest and were unhurt, or riders who were injured while not wearing a vest and now say the only reason they?re riding again is because of the air vest.

WHAT IF IT MALFUNCTIONS' While the horse world and the Internet are full of verbal and visual evidence of air vests deploying and preventing injuries, you don't have to look hard to find tales of air vests not deploying at all or of vests deploying while riders are still mounted.

In one case in June 2011, an event rider from Boulder, Colo., fell with her horse on a cross-country horse, and her Point Two ProAir vest did not inflate because the lanyard did not separate from the vest. When the horse stood up, the woman?s foot was still stuck in the stirrup, but the horse stood still and event officials were able to remove her foot without deploying the vest, even though the lanyard remained attached to the saddle.

This woman told the story on an Internet forum, stating that SmartPak, the dealer from which she?d bought the vest, immediately replaced the vest.

Gardiner said she was unfamiliar with this malfunction, which happened before she joined the company. But she said they will investigate any performance issues.

Gardiner said they changed the trigger system to ensure that riders had to use an allen wrench key to tighten the end cap rather than making the vest finger tight.

If the cap isn?t 100% tightened, Gardiner explained, the vest will either release more slowly than it's designed to do or not inflate at all. If the cap is too loose, the lanyard will release with less pressure.

INDEPENDENT TESTING. One of the most vocal air-vest critics has been event rider Reed Ayers of Denver, Colo. Ayers has a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering and was an engineer for Martin Marietta, where he worked in workplace safety and launch-vehicle accident investigations. He is on the faculty at the Colorado School of Mines and at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Two of his research areas are in bone reconstruction and repair in spinal and craniofacial applications and medical-device failure in those areas.

Noting that air vests have never been subjected to independent testing that proves they increase riders? safety, Ayers argues that a lack of certification for their design and the performance of that design is a huge issue.

?If the mechanical systems needed to inflate an air-vest fail, the vest does not work at all,? and if it's the only safety vest you're wearing, it's failed to perform its function, said Ayers. That's why USEF rules require, and the manufacturers suggest, that riders wear a body protector underneath the air vest.

Ayers further noted that operator failure is possible with air vests. The Point Two website contains a video segment, lasting more than 2:30, instructing users on how to replace a CO2 canister. The Hit-Air Users? Manual devotes four pages to explain replacing the canister.

?The normal person has an attention span of less than 45 seconds. From an engineering perspective, this shows that there are too many parts and places for failure,? said Ayers. ?The counter-example is a helmet. There is no mechanical system needed for function, and the operation is self-explanatory.?

Gardiner states that Point Two? paid both SATRA (the organization that certifies the British BETA ratings) and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to test their vests.

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BOTTOM LINE.? Although no independent third-party testing has been done to prove that air vests decrease the likelihood of injury in a fall, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the case in the majority of falls. But no independent organization that tests safety devices has certified the design, manufacture and performance of the vests produced by Point Two or SafeRider.

In addition, both manufacturers admit that their current vests will likely not deploy in two types of falls in which riders do not achieve separation before hitting the ground?a horse rearing over backward or a slow-motion rotational fall over a jump?and that they may deploy when the horse rolls away from the rider or stands up, after the rider has possibly been injured. What effect could a vest deploying have on a rider who is already injured' No study has been made to answer this question.

Two things are certain if you wear an air vest: 1) You must always remember to disconnect the lanyard before dismounting, and 2) You should wear a body protector underneath the air vest, as its deployment is not 100-percent certain. (If you?d like to see a video of the Hit-Air vest deploying, it's planned to be included in an upcoming blog on www.horse-journal.com.)

View sidebars to this story on Get The Correct Canister,? My Personal Experience and Fit Is Vital For Correct Function.