The Airbag: Saving Lives for Over 30 years

The airbag is something we all take for granted when travelling in modern vehicles. But unlike a seatbelt,  which we think nothing of as a driver or passenger, it’s something few of us (if we’re lucky) will ever see.

Just knowing it is there is reassuring enough for most people.

Believe it or not airbags have been standard in some vehicles for over 30 years now, but their journey from being something of a novelty invention to an every-day safety essential has been anything but a smooth ride.

Here are just some of the key dates in the development of the airbag from the brainchild of a retired engineer to the trusty motoring essential we know it as today.

1952 Retired industrial engineer John W. Hetrick is in involved in a near miss while out for a drive with his wife and daughter. He spent the whole of the drive home thinking: “Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?” On August 5, 1952, he files his disclosures and waits more than a year for his patent – a process that cost him about $250.

1953 Hetrick received a patent for what he called a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles.” His U.S. Patent No. 2,649,311 was the first prototype for today’s modern airbags. In the same year German inventor Walter Linderer also received a patent in for an “inflatable cushion” to protect drivers in accidents.

1967 Car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz starts to develop airbags for its vehicles prompted by a rapid increase in accidents during the 1960s

1969 A new federal law that mandated ‘automatic occupant protection systems’ for every car in the USA is passed, paving the way for airbags to be mass produced and used in all vehicles.

1970 New Jersey engineer Allen K. Breed invents a device that many say gave birth to the airbag industry. His crash sensing technology, the only one of its kind, is considered the world’s first electromechanical automotive airbag system.

1973 The Oldsmobile Toronado becomes the first car with a passenger airbag, still a rarity at the time.

1980 The airbag makes its name in Europe when Mercedes-Benz introduces the device in Germany as an option on its high-end model W126.

1985 Ford and Chrysler introduce airbags as an extra in all of their vehicles.

1987 The Porsche 944 turbo became the first car to have driver and passenger airbags as standard equipment. This was also the same year also saw the first airbag in a Japanese car, the Honda Legend.

1990 History is made when the first recorded accident between two vehicles in which an airbag deploys to protect each driver occurs on March 12, 1990.

1992 The Jeep Grand Cherokee becomes the first SUV with airbags on the market.

1995 Due to their success in reducing injuries following a collision, Volvo offers side airbags and torso side protection air bags as an option on its 850 models.

2006 Seeing what a success air bags have become in cars over the years, Honda introduces the first air bag systems for motorcycles.

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