When cars collide

[Another guest column from Dr. Gene Chase.]

Suppose two equally weighted cars collide in a head-on collision, each traveling at 50 miles per hour.  Do you think that the impact for one car will be more severe on the car and driver than the impact of that car’s hitting a brick wall?

To be fair, we have to assume that neither the cars nor the wall compress at all.  If the wall is as soft as a pillow, I’ll take the wall every time.

Marilyn vos Savant’s recent column in Parade Magazine says that hitting an oncoming car in that way is no more severe than hitting a solid wall.   They both stop dead, whether the wall or the other car causes it.

Each experiences a momentum change that is the same as if they hit a wall, not twice as much. That’s clear when I think of it now, using the law that momentum = impulse (that is, mass * velocity = force * time) but I’ve been mistaken when I’ve only thought about it casually, thinking it must be a 100 mph impact..

If a bike hits a car head-on, the situation is different, because the “bike-car” combination will continue to move in the direction of the car, so my intuition is correct in that case:  The bike driver fares worse than the car driver.  Comments at Marilyn vos Savant’s blog say as much.

I used to think that car bumpers that collapse at the slightest impact were poorly made.  In fact, if momentum is constant, extending the time of impact will decrease the force, to keep force * time constant.

Give me “cheap” bumpers and a wall made of pillows every time.

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One thought on “When cars collide

  1. If the wall and car do not compress at all, then the force is infinite and the time is 0. Not realistic. So much for idealized cars and walls.

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