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Breakthrough: The airbag

5 months ago

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David Twohig | Engineer


20 February 2024

On 12 March 1990, something extraordinary happened. A 1989 Chrysler LeBaron drifted across the central reservation of a road in the USA and hit another car, head-on. What was extraordinary is that the car it hit was another 1989 Chrysler LeBaron. Some quick back-of-the-envelope statistics suggest that the chances of this happening were a lot lower than one in a million – they were about four in a billion.

The occupants of both cars were more than lucky, though, because this was the world’s first airbag-to-airbag crash: the crumpled and steaming LeBarons were both equipped with driver airbags, and everyone involved walked away with minor injuries and ringing ears.

Looking back on this Breakthrough series, I’m conscious that it’s heavy on safety systems – we’ve covered the three-point seat belt, crumple zones (parts one and two) and ABS (again, parts one and two). It would seem churlish not to complete the story with the last of the holy trinity of passive safety. And as luck would have it, the story of the airbag is not just a boring tale of white-coated engineers – we’ll find some interesting, odd, and even tragic figures along the way…

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