Crumple zones. The name itself sounds like something you would never want to be associated with your car, especially when your car is in danger of colliding with something at some point during its life cycle. Yet the name “crumple zone” is not a misnomer (it does crumple when it hits something harder than it is) and it is indeed a part of your car (a very important one, as you will later learn); the name, which is simply descriptive of what the zone does in a collision, helps little in setting straight the old misconception that crumple zones allow the vehicle’s body to collapse in a collision, resulting in the crushing of the vehicle’s occupants.
Crumple zones are designed for your safety, buffering you from the impact of a collision. Engineers use the word “absorb” to describe how the crumple zone receives energy from a collision and minimizes its effect on the rest of the car where the passengers are located. First developed by Mercedes-Benz engineer Béla Barényi, the concept surrounding crumple zones is that a vehicle has three parts that ensure the safety of its passengers: a rigid, non-deforming passenger compartment, and a front and rear crumple zone that absorb an impact by deformation during collision. Since one of the major types of car accidents are head-on collisions, the crumple zone is a safety essential for all types of vehicles.
Deformation – in this case, crumpling – doesn’t sound too good, but it actually is much more preferable than a rigid, non-deforming front and rear that’s similar in composition to the passenger compartment. This is because the crumple zone prevents the impact from being directly transmitted to the vehicle’s occupants. It sacrifices the outer parts of the car to protect the passenger cabin. Otherwise, you receive the same degree of damage as the rest of the car does, which is not really an option you would want at all.
Aside from absorbing shock from collisions, crumple zones also slow down inertia (that physics concept that states that all objects moving at high speed will continue to move forward). This is where seat belts and air bags come in too: while the front crumple zone slows down your body’s natural compulsion to continue moving forward, the seat belt and the air bag restrain you to your seat and keep you from flying out through the windshield. The process is likened to that of hitting a wall with your head first or with your shoulders first. With your shoulder and arm, your flesh is left bruised upon contact in much the same way that a crumple zone makes contact; your shoulder will surely hurt, but it’s better than connecting with the wall with a loud crack of your skull. Overall, this translates to a higher survival rate in the event of a head-on or rear collision.
Modern advances in vehicle design and engineering made crumple zones a life saver as evidenced by high speed crash test results and real life accidents. While crumple zones still have areas for improvement, engineers are looking into better technologies that would allow crumple zones to work around impact incompatibility for safer driving and higher chances of survival in a car crash.
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