Airbags have been required for all U.S. cars since the late 1990s, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). The history of these now-ubiquitous safety devices, however, dates back to the ’50s.
Early airbag prototypes
Hetrick designed his safety cushion in the wake of a car accident involving himself, his wife, and their 7-year-old daughter. He’d swerved to avoid a rock in the road, and the family’s car rolled into a ditch. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Hetrick couldn’t let the near-miss go.
“During the ride home I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident,” he said in a 2010 interview with Invention and Technology. “I asked myself, ‘Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?'” Hetrick started working on sketches that very night.
Hetrick and Linderer’s airbag designs both lacked a critical component: sensors that could detect crashes and tell the airbags when to deploy. In 1968, Allen Breed developed the first airbag crash sensor, reports the New York Times. He went on to found Breed Technologies, one of the world’s biggest producers of car safety systems.
As Breed worked on his sensor, safety was front and center in the public’s mind. Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed, which criticized the auto industry for not making safer cars, spent the spring of 1966 on the New York Times bestseller list. The same year, then-president Lyndon Johnson announced, “We can no longer tolerate unsafe automobiles.” Car manufacturers began to take notice.
The first airbag-equipped vehicles
Automakers began developing airbags for commercial vehicles in the 1970s. Ford sold the Mercury Monterey with a passenger airbag option in 1972, claiming to be the first company to do so. According to Automotive News, General Motors offered its own optional airbags for select models from 1974 to 1976, beginning with the Oldsmobile Toronado.
Yet by 1977, as the New York Times Magazine reported, GM stopped offering airbags entirely, claiming customers didn’t want to buy them. For years, GM and Ford lobbied against airbag requirements, stating they weren’t practical.
Airbags make a comeback
Consumer concerns about safety didn’t go away, however. By the late ’80s automakers began designing cars with airbags once more. This time, the airbags weren’t optional add-ons. According to Porsche, its 1986 944 Turbo was the first car sold in the U.S. that included standard driver and passenger airbags.
In 1989, the Los Angeles Times reported that, by 1990, 15% of GM vehicles, 50% of Ford vehicles, and all American-made Chryslers would have standard driver-side airbags. In 1998, a congressional law requiring all new cars to have airbags went into effect, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The airbag’s legacy of safety
In the wake of the Takata airbag scandal, airbag fatalities are on many people’s minds. Yet the truth is that airbags prevent far more deaths than they cause. According to the NHTSA, airbags saved more than 50,000 lives from 1987 to 2017.
Today, no one questions whether airbags should be standard equipment. Instead, as we continue to work on ways to make airbags more effective, it’s clear that these inflatable safety devices are here to stay.