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The Checkered History of the Airbag

Since its invention in the 1950s, the airbag has been both hailed as a lifesaver and criticized as an injury-causer. Here are a few facts about the history of the airbag and the lessons that can be drawn from the development of this technology.

A Brief Timeline of the Airbag

  • 1951—German engineer Walter Linderer designs an airbag that would trigger if contact is made with the bumper of a car or if a driver makes contact with the dashboard. Later research shows that Linderer’s patented bag would not fill rapidly enough to prevent injury in a vehicle accident.
  • 1953—American John Hetrick draws on his experience as a member of the U.S. Navy, working with compressed air used to fire torpedoes. He gets a patent for an airbag to be used in vehicles but is not engaged by any of the major automakers, who choose not to invest in the technology.
  • 1963—A Japanese engineer obtains a patent in several countries for an airbag to be used in vehicles. His design will be the foundation for future airbag technology.
  • 1967—New technology is invented to better sense crash impact in a vehicle, which immediately improves airbag technology. Chrysler invests in this project, as does Ford.
  • 1971—Ford builds an experimental fleet of cars with airbags in them. The original idea for airbags was to protect drivers who did not use seatbelts.
  • 1973—GM follows with an experimental fleet of airbag-equipped vehicles. Seven fatalities occur, one of which is attributed to the airbag.
  • 1974—GM makes the airbag a standard option for its full-sized Cadillac.
  • 1981—Mercedes-Benz makes the airbag optional on its most luxurious model.
  • Mid-1980s—legislation is passed that calls for airbags to be utilized in vehicles in both Europe and the U.S.
  • 1987—The Porsche 944 becomes the first car with standard airbags for both driver and passenger. The Honda Legend becomes the first Japanese car to offer an airbag as part of its protection system.
  • Late 1980s—Airbags are introduced in the United Kingdom on the driver’s side.
  • 1992—Ford introduces the airbag on all models of its cars, leading to a strong increase in airbag use in Europe.
  • 1995—More than 70% of new cars in the U.S. have airbags installed.
  • 1998—Airbags are made mandatory for both driver and passenger in American-made vehicles.
  • 2000—First case of a fatality caused by an airbag in the UK.

Lessons to Be Drawn from this History

More than mastering the precise dates for when airbags were introduced or the names of the men who first developed them, several issues need to be raised that have existed from the start with this fairly new technology. All of these topics are still in play today as more and more people engage lawyers to help them win their cases for injuries sustained by the deployment of an airbag.

  • From the very start, the rapidity of the airbag’s inflation was an issue. Early models did not inflate quickly enough. As the technology progressed, various chemicals were introduced to speed this inflation (more discussion on these chemicals below). Now, a common issue with airbag deployment is the lightening-quick inflation of the airbag, which has been blamed for many injuries in airbag lawsuits. It’s as if the technology has almost gotten too good for the device.
  • Related to this issue is the size of the airbag. Airbags in European and Japanese cars are smaller and cause fewer injuries to drivers and passengers. They inflate to about 30 liters in size, as opposed to 70 liters in American cars. American vehicles feature larger bags to both protect larger people who drive their cars and to reduce the chance of injury for those drivers and passengers who do not wear seatbelts. (see point 4)
  • The chemicals used to provide breakthroughs in airbag technology have not always proven kind to human beings and their lungs. The sodium azide introduced in 1967 to assist in inflation (rather than compressed air) has been both a blessing and a curse. Undoubtedly, airbags deploy more regularly and more fully than before, but sodium azide that is breathed in for an extended period of time can cause a variety of injuries, including death. New chemicals have recently been introduced to speed airbag inflation, replacing sodium azide.
  • The relationship between seatbelts and airbags must be considered when thinking about airbag safety. One of the original catalysts in the development of airbag technology was the thought that drivers who did not buckle up (only 14% of U.S. drivers did even as recently as 1983!) would be allowed to continue their carefree ways thanks to an airbag that would bail them out if a crash occurred. However, recent studies have shown that a seatbelt is also crucial for minimizing the impact of an airbag that bursts onto a driver or passenger’s body. In other words, the idea that an airbag replaces a seatbelt is ludicrous. Wearing a seatbelt in a vehicle equipped with an airbag dramatically increases your chance of survival in a crash and helps to greatly diminish the likelihood of an airbag causing injury when deployed. Part of the reason why airbags deploy so violently is because the technology has been designed to protect the beltless driver and/or passenger. To some degree, everyone who suffers from a painful incidence of airbag inflation can thank the drivers and passengers who choose not to wear a seatbelt. Even though about 60% of Americans wear seatbelts now, airbags are still designed to protect the careless 40%, which ironically endangers 100% of drivers and passengers, to some degree. In contrast, about 90% of European drivers and passengers wear seatbelts and thus receive the blow of a much smaller airbag upon impact. The European airbags are designed to protect the belted driver and passenger, not the unbelted vehicle occupants.
  • Accident victims have rights. You may be eligible for compensation for your injuries, wage loss and medical bills. Contact an experienced  car accident lawyer now for a free consultation.



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