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Motorcyclists, Olympic skiers can wear airbags. Will bike riders follow?

Carlos Juarez, a sales associate at Dainese, participates in a D-air demonstration, a wearable airbag developed to protect motorcyclists that will also be worn by skiers competing in the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, at the Old Town store, on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 7, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Some skiers in this month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea will have high-tech protection: wearable airbags, originally developed for motorcycle riders.

The Italian motorcycle gear company Dainese usually sells its D-air technology to racing and street motorcyclists — and though you can buy it at the firm’s Chicago store, they aren’t gearing the product toward the city’s cyclists.

D-air has been evolving for nearly 18 years, according to the firm’s marketing manager, Peter Bacon, and can be worn in jackets and full leather suits for street riders and racers. The latest version, which premiered a year ago, deploys faster than the blink of an eye — 45 milliseconds, Bacon said.

Peter Bacon, marketing manager for Dainese, demonstrates D-air technology. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Protection comes at a price: Dainese’s products are high-end, with full D-air racing suits starting at $2,500 and costing up to $4,500; jackets cost $1,700 to $2,000. Still, demand for the D-air technology is growing. Bacon said less than 100 D-air jackets were sold in the past year, but the company forecasts selling about 500 in 2018.

Bacon was in town earlier this week to show products at the Progressive International Motorcycle Show, which is in Rosemont this weekend. He also demonstrated the airbags at the Dainese store in Old Town, the Chicago location is one of five in the United States.

Seven sensors work together to detect when to deploy the bag, Bacon said. Though developed with racers in mind, the airbags were then offered to the general public.

“When we developed it, it obviously quickly took off,” Bacon said. “All the racers wanted it.” However, he added: “We quickly understood that … the system really could save lives in the world out in regular riding.”

Illinois saw 147 motorcycle fatalities in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

While the company also has gear for mountain biking and provided airbags to teams at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, it has yet to turn its protective technology to bicycles, a popular mode of transportation in Chicago.

Dainese demonstrates D-air technology, a wearable airbag developed to protect motorcyclists that will also be worn by skiers competing in the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bicycling magazine named Chicago the top city for bikes in 2016 and the city has more than 200 miles of on-street bike lanes, according to the Department of Transportation. But several thousand crashes involving bikes have occurred in Chicago, with nearly 9,000 injury crashes between 2005 and 2010, according to the city’s 2012 bicycle crash report.

Ted Villaire, director of communications for the Active Transportation Alliance, said he’d heard of bicycle helmets with similar airbag features, but that the best method of protection for cyclists is safer roads and driver awareness.

“We’re always supportive of ways to make bicycling safer,” Villaire said, “but the most important strategy that we know of to make bicycling safer is to change the design of roadways.”

The alliance, an advocacy group focused on driving alternatives such as walking, bicycling and public transportation, has campaigned for more facilities for Chicago cyclists, such as protected bike lanes and urban trails.

Injury crash rates involving bikes in Chicago has remained level even though the number of riders has nearly tripled since 2000, said Jim Merrell, advocacy director for the alliance. He attributes this to advances in bike infrastructure and the increased accessibility of bicycles, with bike sharing services such as Divvy. But while Chicago is becoming safer for cyclists, he said, the number of crashes remains “unacceptable.”