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 Question 1303

 What is the force produced when two cars crash? — DT, Nicosia, Cyprus
There are two forces present when the cars collide: each car pushes on the other car so each car experiences a separate force. As for the strength of these two forces, all I can say is that they are exactly equal in amount but opposite in direction. That relationship between the forces is Newton's third law of motion, the law dealing with action and reaction. In accordance with this law of motion, no matter how big or small the cars are, they will always exert equal but oppositely directed forces on one another.

The amount of each force is determined by how fast the cars approach one another before they hit and by how stiff their surfaces and frames are. If the cars are approaching rapidly and are extremely stiff and rigid, they will exert enormous forces on one another when they collide and will do so for a very short period of time. During that time, the cars will accelerate violently and their velocities will change radically. If you happened to be in one of the cars, you would also accelerate violently in response to severe forces and would find the experience highly unpleasant.

If, on the other hand, the cars are soft and squishy, they will exert much weaker forces on another and they will accelerate much more gently for a long period of time. That will be true even if they were approaching one another rapidly before impact. When the collision period is over, the cars will again have changed velocities significantly but the weaker forces will have made those changes much more gradual. If you have to be in a collision, chose the soft squishy cars over the stiff ones—the accelerations and forces are much weaker and less injurious. That's why cars have crumple zones and airbags: they are trying to act squishy so that you don't get hurt as much.