The airbag patented by a parent after dangerous near collision


Many inventions are a result of someone needing something to perform a task in a more practical, efficient, or quicker way. But we also have many inventions that were made for our protection, and some of these protective creations are things this current generation takes for granted. As a millennial, I’ll freely admit that I do not remember a time prior to having airbags in the car, although my parents’ generation can recall pretty clearly having an adult’s arm hit them in the chest every time they slammed on the brakes. Airbags are just another example of innovation and play a major role in the evolution of how cars are manufactured, tested and purchased. Who thought of the airbag, though? Was it a concerned parent? Maybe someone that was really concerned with safety? How about both?

The Man Behind The Invention

Like any parent, John W. Hetrick, a now-retired industrial engineering technician, wanted to make sure his daughter was safe while riding in the car. After an accident in 1952 in which Hetrick was forced to drive his car off the road to avoid hitting other obstacles in his way – which could have had serious consequences for his family – he began to wonder if there could be a way to keep people safe while they traveled. Hetrick asked himself, “Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?” This incident with his family hit so close to home that it prompted Hetrick to begin developing what we know now as the air bag. Originally named ‘safety cushion,’ Hetrick had the patent approved in 1953.

How Hetrick’s Invention Changed The Industry

Although at the time, Hetrick’s ‘safety cushion’ didn’t exactly take off, it did cause a stir in the automotive industry. Seen as a revolutionary safety feature, companies like Ford and General Motors began working with these newfound devices in the late 1950s, leading to the mainstream effect of adding them in every car eventually. After initial tests and developments were run, the original designs of the airbags began causing secondary injuries to passengers when they were deployed. Because of this high risk of injury from something that was meant to protect travelers, there was a small setback in getting more companies to introduce airbags into their vehicles.

In 1968, a federal law was put in place that required ‘automatic occupant protection systems’ for every car in the United States manufactured from 1969 and on. The introduction of the airbag brought national attention, even prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to say on one occasion, “We can no longer tolerate unsafe automobiles.” Also in the late 1960s, an engineer named Allen Breed created a small sensor that changed the way airbags deployed.

Airbags Have Saved Countless Lives

Without the desire to keep a families safe while they travel, and one parent’s drive for a solution, the automobile industry may be completely different from what it’s become. The next time you get in your car, or buckle in your kiddo, think of the innovators out there that make it possible for you to have a little less worry when you’re driving around town.