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How are the Principles of Inertia Applied to a Car?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The basic supposition regarding inertia is that a body (object) in motion tends to stay in motion at a constant rate. This supposes that no force acts on the object to slow it down or speed it up. When other forces act on the object, motion will not remain constant, and might in fact end. People can understand a lot about inertia by considering it as it works in cars. First, as a person is driving, as long as he is not using cruise control, he has to carefully decide when to use the brakes, when to depress the accelerator, and when to ease off the accelerator to maintain the same speed. The car cannot stay moving at a constant rate, however, because it is acted upon by gravity and friction, among other forces.

The second proviso to the principle of inertia is that no force acts on the moving object, but many forces act on a car when it is driven. Chief among these is friction from the road, which car designers may mitigate slightly by the size of the car, the type of tires, and the shape of the car. Other forces include gravity, if you are climbing or descending a hill, air pressure as speed increases, and even weather. Strong winds may mean having to use more gas in order to try to maintain a constant speed. The more aerodynamic the car, the less wind speed and air pressure act as a force, so shape can be important.

Drivers can notice how friction affects a car’s speed if they drive off a paved road onto an unpaved one. The less smooth surface will slow the car down, and might ultimately bring it to a halt if the driver does not apply his foot to the accelerator. Further, the car itself comes with its own friction devices, chiefly brakes, which slow down the motion of the car when they are applied to tires. Even if the brakes suddenly failed, however, the car would eventually come to a stop because friction from the road would oppose the constant motion forward. If the car ran out of gas, it would continue to run for a some time if the driver doesn't apply the brakes, since it would tend to stay in motion without acceleration.

In terms of constant speed and motion, the car — even without using the gas — will speed up when descending a hill, which may be counteracted by using the brakes or by downshifting. Speed would increase, appearing to violate the rules of inertia, but again, it’s helpful to understand that there is external force acting on the car: gravity. In addition, the very weight of the car will increase its speed when descending a hill.

Understanding these rules is also helpful in designing cars that are safe. If the car comes to an abrupt stop, for instance, the driver and any passengers will keep moving. Head on collisions can result in people flying forward out of front windows if they are not restrained. This is where the seatbelt and airbag help provide opposite friction to stop this movement, and why it is so important to wear a seatbelt. By providing a counterforce, the bodies in the car are restrained from moving, which helps to keep people from getting terribly injured if there is an accident.

Of course, the principles of inertia, even though they’ve been well understood by scientists for hundreds of years, haven’t always led to the best safety inventions in cars. It was not understood until recently that front airbags could actually provide so large a counterforce, given the rate at which a person would be accelerating, that they could cause injury, especially to a child. Unfortunately, fatal accidents have taught that no children under 12 should sit in the front seat. Children should be provided with friction, via car seats and seatbelts, so their bodies stop moving safely, but they should never, especially if they are under 5 feet (152.4 cm) tall, have to meet the impact of an opening airbag when a car stops abruptly.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WikiMotors contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon340281 — On Jul 01, 2013

What is the exponential increase in mass of a 275 pound man at 25 miles per hour. Please tell me just what his weight would be traveling at this rate.

By anon306018 — On Nov 28, 2012

I am wondering if, in an accident, if someone is thrown from the car, would the speed they are ejected at have anything to do with the speed of the car, or merely the force of the collision?

By anon289191 — On Sep 03, 2012

Explain how inertia is applied with these:

1. Why blood rushes to your feet when inside an elevator that is going down then stops suddenly.

2. Why a hammerhead can be tightened by hitting the bottom part of the hammer handle against a hard surface.

3. Why a ketchup bottle is turned upside down then thrust downward and stops suddenly.

4. Why headrests can prevent whiplash injuries during a collision from the back.

5. Why seat belts can keep passengers and drivers inside the vehicle.

By anon273082 — On Jun 05, 2012

How are the laws of motion used to design the safety features in cars? What are the advantages and disadvantages of these?

By anon151554 — On Feb 10, 2011

Regarding the car inertia VS car airbag requiring no one under five foot tall riding in the front seat, my wife is only 4'-11" tall and has been driving for almost forty years now. Does this mean she has to sit in the rear seat while i drive her everywhere? Or is there a way to set up a steering wheel in the back seat so she can continue to drive her car?

By anon44978 — On Sep 12, 2009

i want to ask some question about my study. can you please tell me more and explain what the physics law or forces applied when playing a carom?

By anon10946 — On Apr 06, 2008

What does Inertia have to do with all this?

1)A boy on a bicycle does not stop immediately come to a stop although he stops pedaling.

2)In a game of carrom, the striker can strike a stack of carrom pieces but only dislodge the bottom piece.

3)A lorry's engine is more powerful than a car's, yet it cannot move of as fast as a car.

4)If some ketchup is stuck in a bottle, it can be dislodged by turning the bottle upside down, thrusting it downwards and stopping suddenly.

5)Aeroplanes need a long runway for landing and take-off.

please explain how inertia can help in the situations above

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WikiMotors contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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