I’ve never thought much airbags, especially how they work. They have always just been there, small and hidden away. I’ve never been in an accident where an airbag deployed.
But, airbags are deceptively simple. Only a couple parts. A sensor in the front bumper area to detect rapid deceleration, and a chemical mixture inside nylon airbags to create an explosion. When the sensor gives the go-ahead, an electric current ignites the chemical mixture and the controlled explosion inflates and deflates the airbag within 40 milliseconds.
You can’t blink your eye in 40 milliseconds — it takes nearly 10 times that long — between 300 and 400 milliseconds. Besides the speed, the explosion is also precisely timed, because hitting a fully-inflated airbag instead of a partially-deflated one can cause serious injury or death.
The airbag is a classic example of good government mixed with American ingenuity. The first U.S. patent for an airbag was filed in the 1950s. It was the era when the economy was booming and 75 percent of Americans believed the government was a good thing (compared to 19 percent today). Retired engineer, John Hetrick, was travelling with his wife and their seven year-old daughter when they had a wreck. Instinctively, John and his wife tried to shield their daughter (no one was hurt), and the crash ‘got him thinking’ about an air cushion system inside a car.
His idea, though, was ahead of its time, and the world would have to wait on technology to catch up with the concept.
But by the late 1960s, several U.S. and German car companies were toying with airbags, and the United States government passed legislation in 1969 stating that all vehicles would have factory-installed “automatic occupant protection systems.” Around this time, another American, a New Jersey mechanical engineer pushed the technology forward when he invented a reliable, five-dollar sensor.
Many consider this the piece that launched the airbag industry.
The engineer, Allen K. Breed, did not stop there, though, he was also instrumental is creating the deflating mechanism — solving the secondary injury issue.
Wear and Tear
Using a chemical formula to inflate an airbag solved another issue — the age of the vehicle. My teenage daughter drives a 2004 Chevy Cavalier — a vehicle equipped with dual airbags — one for the driver and one for the passenger. So for 12 years, the chemical mixture inside those nylon bags has just been ‘sitting there,’ unused, but ready.
But, despite the age of the vehicle, these airbags are designed to deploy quickly and efficiently. Without a properly-deployed airbag a relatively minor accident can be life-altering. I know, I’ve had friends suffer brain damage from a collision — collisions that an airbag would have altered the outcome.
I was in Logan, heading to Hocking Hills for a weekend of hiking, when my daughter called saying she had been in an accident. It’s not the type of call any parent wants to hear. Yet, within 40 milliseconds, her airbags deployed, protecting her from a potential head injury.
After the impact, although the vehicle was totaled, my daughter was able to exit the vehicle on her own, make a phone call, and no one was hurt in the ordeal. My daughter is fine (minus some soreness) because of people like Hetrick, Breed and the unnamed workers who assembled that 2004 Cavalier more than a decade earlier.
She is also fine because a functioning government had the foresight to implement laws designed to reduce death and serious injury by putting technology to work.
It’s how America should work because, even though airbags are a small thing, they made a huge difference in my life.