September 1, 1997 – The airbag law goes into effect

On this day in 1997 the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 finally goes into effect for cars and light trucks. The law required that all vehicles sold in the United States to have airbags on both the driver’s and passenger’s side of the front seat. Airbags were initially inspired by inflatable protective covers of Navy torpedoes. In 1953 an engineer named John Hetrick patented a design for a “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles.” He sent sketches and specs to the Big Three, GM, Chrysler and Ford, but he never received a response and the idea flatlined until 1965 when Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” was published. The book speculated that airbags and seat belts together could prevent thousands of auto related deaths per year. The following year Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act which required automakers to install seat belts in every personal auto manufactured. However, the law didn’t require people to actually use the device and only about 25 percent of people did. Airbag technology was advancing and it was believed that installing airbags would keep people safe who chose not to buckle up.
The first several cars with airbags were produced by Ford in 1971 and followed by 1,000 production vehicles by Chevrolet in 1973. It became apparent that the force of the airbag could infact injure people of small stature, which gave rise to kids riding in the back seat. However by the time the law passed in 1991, many automakers were installing airbags in their cars already. The law still gave automakers until this day in 1997 to retool their manufacturing process to include airbags. Truck manufacturers had one year longer to meet the requirements.

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