23rd Feb, 2017
The crumple zone is an essential safety feature on cars, and is one of the main things that stops you from being seriously injured when you’re involved in an accident that completely scraps your car. So how do crumple zones protect you from an impact that sends bits of metal flying for metres?
In a nutshell, the crumple zone is the area at the front of your car which is designed to crush in on itself when you crash. Meanwhile, you and your passenger are enclosed in a ‘safety cell’, protected from the worst effects of the collision. Here’s how they work: we’ll try not to get too physics-based on you, but when two cars crash, there’s a lot of kinetic energy involved. Newton had a lot of rules for this kind of stuff, but what it comes down to is that if you’re travelling at speed, you’ll stay travelling at speed unless something stops you. Simple, right? The more sudden the impact, the more ‘crash energy’ you’ll suddenly have to deal with. What crumple zones do is absorb some of that energy by delaying the collision, increasing the time it takes for your car to come to a complete halt and thereby softening the blow. OK, it still might not feel that soft, but trust us when we say it could be worse!
Image Credit: ABC News
The idea for crumple zones didn’t exist until the late 1950s, when Hungarian-Austrian engineer named Béla Barényi came up with the idea. Even forty years later, by the 1990s the notion of crumple zones were still being treated somewhat laxly by many motoring manufacturers. Across the pond in America, several drivers died during NASCAR races due to rigid chasses – none of the force was being absorbed by the car, which meant instead drivers were taking the brunt of the potentially deadly impacts. We weren’t much better over here in Europe either. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) was proposed; a body which would go on to provide consumers with information on how their vehicles would stand up to crashes. The results were pretty ugly. The cars were scrapped comprehensively, while their test dummy passengers were launched through of windscreens, crushed under A-frames and pulverised by metal components. Sales of the tested vehicles plummeted, and consumers demanded more stringent standards.
By quite a lot, you’ll be happy to hear! Whereas in the past they were designed to withstand ‘avoidance impacts’ – that is, glancing ones when both drivers are trying to steer away – today all vehicles are submitted to much harsher testing before they’re put on the market, as they’re fired into a crash barrier at speeds of at least 40mph. (Not only does this serve valuable purposes in terms of safety, by the way, but the videos are really something to see.) Meanwhile, in NASCAR, similar measures are taken to increase the safety of their drivers; just one of which is that the frame rails of NASCAR cars are given a notch so that they bend predictably on impact. Having said that, even though crumple zones perform indispensable roles for vehicle safety, they do still have to be working in tandem with other safety features like seatbelts and airbags in order to be wholly effective.
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