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12 Sep 2018


In 1953 an American engineer (John Hetrick) patented a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles”.

Hetrick remarked that: "In the spring of '52, my wife, my seven-year-old daughter, Joan, and I were out for a Sunday drive in our 1948 Chrysler Windsor. About three miles outside Newport, we were watching for deer bounding across the road. Suddenly, there was a large rock in our path, just past the crest of a hill. I remember hitting the brakes and veering the car to the right. We went into the ditch, but avoided hitting both a tree and a wooden fence.

"As I applied the brakes, both my wife and I threw our hands up to keep our daughter from hitting the dashboard. During the ride home, I couldn't stop thinking about the accident. I asked myself, 'Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?'"

Having been an engineer in the US Navy, he was familiar with compressed air being used to drive torpedoes. And it would be compressed air that he thought would inflate his safety cushion.

About three months later a German engineer (Walter Linderer) also took out a patent on a remarkably similar device.

Seatbelts were being offered as an option in US cars around that time, but their fitment wouldn’t become mandatory until 1968.

America’s obsession with Constitutional rights meant that US States were reluctant to legislate for their citizens to be forced to wear a seat belt.

So it would be the introduction of airbags in the mid-1970s that would be relied upon to protect vehicle occupants in the event of a crash.

Across the Pacific a Japanese seat belt manufacturer (Takata) started making airbags in 1988 and by 2014 it held 20 per cent of the world market.

But in 2013 recalls of Takata airbags began due to injuries and fatalties associated with airbag deployment.

In 2014 there was the case of a pregnant woman who was killed in a collision involving her 2003 Honda Civic which contained a defective airbag.

The 42-year-old woman died when a metal fragment from a ruptured driver’s airbag sliced into her neck in the crash.

The deployment of the airbag occurred when she was travelling at 30 km/h in what should have been a survivable collision.

Her daughter, delivered after the mother's death, died three days later.

It seemed likely that affected airbags had been in cars for more than 10 years.

So the very device designed to protect an occupant in a crash could actually kill you and 53 million vehicles worldwide have been recalled.

In many US States the fine for not wearing a seatbelt can still be as low as $10.

The good folk of New Hampshire are still not required at all to wear a seatbelt (children must be restrained).

With the State’s motto being “Live Free or Die” I can’t see much possibility of legislative change in New Hampshire any time soon.

And for residents hoping that an airbag is all they need in a crash, they may need to be reminded that airbags for safety also rely on properly worn seat belts.

Safe motoring,
Doctor Clive Fraser

Published: 12 Sep 2018