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A Crash Course in the History of Airbags

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Hey! They work!

Deployed airbags in a 2014 Chevy Sail

Saying that the road to developing an effective, reliable, and safe airbag was a bumpy one is an understatement. While the idea for airbags was first conceived in the early 1950s, the airbag was not widely used until the 1970s. Continue reading to learn more about the history of airbags and how they have come to save millions of lives every year!

The idea of an airbag was first thought of in 1952, after John W. Hetrick, a retired industrial engineering technician, experienced a car accident with his family. Hetrick used his experience as a member of the United States Navy to create a design based on his experience with compressed air from torpedoes. His airbag was the first to receive a patent on August 18, 1953, a mere three months before Walter Linderer, a German inventor, received his patent for an “inflatable cushion” to protect drivers in accidents.

4.7 Million Cars Affected by Latest Airbag Defect Recall

It was these two early airbag designs that inspired others in the automotive industry to produce this new safety feature. While many carmakers began experimenting their own versions of airbags, none actually included them in their vehicle designs until the early 1970s. There were still some significant problems in the concept—many engineers saw the potential for secondary injury airbags could cause when passengers came in contact with them. To fix this issue, Allen K. Breed, a New Jersey mechanical engineer, came up with a solution—a reliable, five-dollar crash sensor.

This breakthrough technology used a small explosion of sodium azide instead of compressed air, making it slightly safer than past airbags. It was Breed’s sensor that allowed carmakers to begin producing effective airbags, equipping their vehicles with them to help keep passengers safe.

Now, airbags are an expected standard feature. Some carmakers even have inflatable seatbelts that use airbag technology. These powerful bags of air have come a long way since the 1950s—and it looks like they will only keep on evolving!