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Two cars are traveling down a highway at 100 km/h in opposite directions. Both drivers are tired from driving all day and cross over the yellow line and hit head on. Crash! The driver of car A has remained inside the car and has broken ribs due to hitting the steering wheel. The driver of car B however is on the hood of car A and is pronounced dead at the scene, cause of death, a severe case of disobeying the laws of physics. Although both cars were heading at the same velocity one driver ended up dead while another survived. This seems like a complicated and hard thing to explain and to the untrained person it may seem that driver A just had plain luck on his side however this is untrue. Using the knowledge of basic physics I hope to explain why the outcome for each driver was different and could have been avoided. Sir Isaac Newton was the first man to explain what happens in a collision even before automobiles were invented. He proposed the idea that an object in motion will continue in motion with the same speed and direction unless acted upon by an outside, unbalanced force.


His theory is better known as the Law of Inertia. The driver of car B was not wearing a seatbelt and as a result was not connected to the body of the car. Seatbelts reduce a lot of the impact a crash may have on a human being. There are two types of seatbelts; the non-stretching seatbelt and the stretching seatbelt. The non-stretching seatbelt may cause more injury even though it may save your life in more instances. The stretching seatbelt takes away from some of the injury to the chest and other areas but if the crumple zone didn’t help the front end may get crushed in too far and could not help you at all. The force that the accident causes may snap the non-stretching seatbelt because the deceleration of the person may be too fast for the belt to handle and the amount of force the human puts on the seatbelt. So the stretching seatbelt would be the way to go to protect you in most occurrences. According to Newton’s first law and object, the car, and its occupants, was moving until it hit and external force, car A. When the collision occurred the car and its cargo changed its motion and direction. However because driver B wasn’t attached to his car by his seatbelt he continued with the same speed and in the same direction as the car before the collision. Driver B flew through the windshield and onto the hood of car A. The windshield and car an acted as the necessary external force needed to bring driver B to rest. Since the driver of car A was wearing his seatbelt he experienced the same state of motion and deceleration as the car and avoided major injury. By increasing the mass of an object you increase the inertia that the object has therefore increasing the amount of force due to an increase in acceleration.


Many parents often allow their children to ride in the front seat of the car unbuckled. They say that if a collision occurs that they’ll just reach over and hold the child back. If you really look at the physics behind their theory you will see that these parents are dead wrong. What is the force required to stop a 7 kg child traveling at 5 m/s? Momentum is equal to mass times velocity and impulse is equal to the change of momentum. Using the derived formula from the previous statement F t = m Vf - Vi we see that the force exerted on the child by the seatbelt is 1687.5 Newtons which is the equivalent of 17.4 kg. This force is only exerted on the body for the time it takes to bring the car to rest which is approximately 0.4 seconds. Using Newton’s second law that states that acceleration is directly proportional to the force and indirectly proportional to the mass we can see how the force on an adult traveling at the same speed will experience a different force than that of the child. From the formula derived from Newton’s second law, F=ma we see that a 67.5 kg person in the same accident will experience a force of 4.5 kg for 0.4 seconds by their seatbelt. This is a lot of force for one person. So I wonder how those parents with the unbuckled children in the front seat expect to hold back a child exerting 17.4 kg of force while they are trying to hold themselves from crashing into the windshield with 4.5 kg of force. Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction force. This law help explain why a collision at low speeds is less serious than one at high speeds. If a car exerts a small force on a brick wall because its speed was low then the car and its passengers will experience a force of equal magnitude but it will be in the opposite direction. If cars of unequal mass collide the more massive car will force the smaller vehicle backwards and the smaller car will experience more force. This is due to the conservation of momentum.


The Law of Conservation of Momentum states that in an isolated system the momentum before a collision is equal to the momentum after the collision, if we disregard friction. So in the example above we can see that the momentum lost by the larger car was gained by the smaller car. If two cars of equal mass collide and all the potential energy is converted back into kinetic energy after the collision then the collision is said to be elastic. However if the two bodies collide and stick together and continue with the same final speed then we call it an inelastic collision. Most collisions are neither completely elastic nor inelastic. The conservation of momentum is often very obvious in a collision on a slippery road where friction is very small. The Law of Conservation of Momentum holds true for collisions in two dimensions also. The total momentum of a system is equal to the vector sum of the momentum of all parts of the system. For many decades people have used the laws of physic to explain the event of car crashes. When the automobile was first made it wasn’t very safe only because it didn’t have to be. The vehicles back then did not go very fast and their top speed wasn’t even forty miles per hour. None of the cars had seat belts until the 110’s and the 10’s when safety was to be brought to people’s attention.


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Accident Reconstructionists are people who devoted their careers to using their knowledge of physics and motion along with remains from accident scenes to determine the cause of the accident and how it could have been avoided. They also work with manufacturers to come up with ways to reduce injuries that occur from car accidents. Reconsturctionists use formulas and what they know to determine masses of the vehicle, impact location, rest position, post impact direction which can be found by studying tire marks and gouges in the road. The deceleration from impact to rest is found by looking at post impact braking, rotation, terrain, and contact with roadside brush. A Reconstructionist’s conclusions are very useful for car engineers, manufacturers and consumers. By studying accidents they have been able to come up with new safety features to help keep a person safe in the event of a collision. As we have already seen the seatbelt allows a person to be connected to the vehicle so they can decelerate at the same speed as the car and are the single most effective safety feature in reducing fatalities. Seatbelts allow the passenger to take advantage of the cars energy absorbing design. The shoulder strap of a seatbelt stretches to allow more time for a person to slow down but they also place a tremendous force on the chest. While the seatbelt helps in most cases sometimes it isn’t good enough and the driver is injured by the steering wheel.


After careful research engineers came up with airbags that in combination with a seatbelt can increase a passenger’s safety in a frontal collision. However airbags do not deploy in low impact collisions and roll rollovers because they would be of no help and may make matters worse. Sensors on the car detect a high rate of deceleration inside the passenger compartment and cause the airbag to deploy and within fractions of a second of being inflated it deflates. While inflated it prevents the head and chest of front seat occupants from striking the steering column, dashboard, and windshield. So airbags greatly reduce a person who is wearing a seatbelt and is involved in a head on collision from fatal injury.


Another safety feature that is less obvious to many car buyers is crumple zones. In specific areas of an automobile engineers integrate variable grades of steel and fiberglass in the front and rear end of the car that allow the frame to buckle under stress and keep the passenger compartment intact. This redirects the energy in the collision and reduces injury. Without a crumple zone the vehicle rebounds in an elastic manner regaining nearly all it kinetic energy. The occupants of the vehicle in turn experience a force of equal and opposite direction which is very large. With a crumple zone much of the kinetic energy is transferred into heat and sound energy resulting in a much smaller force being applied to the car and its passengers. With a better crumple zone comes an increase in the time of collision which results in a large decrease in force. Other safety devices being devised are break away poles, collapsing steering wheel columns, and side airbags.


Each of theses new items is being created to improve the safety of passengers by looking carefully at the physics of collisions and using Newton’s three laws of motion. Many safety features are present in cars today. They may or may not save your life according to the type of accident that you or someone else might get into. Vehicles have become more advanced with safety as they continue to be worked on more and more. Physics is what helps the people who make cars design them so that the drivers may have comfort and safety all at the same time.





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