The Evolution Of Safety Features In Cars

The Evolution Of Safety Features In Cars

The Evolution Of Safety Features In Cars
Reading Time: 7 minutes

In the US alone, more than 38,000 people die every year from car accidents. While part of this number comes from the fact that the U.S. has roughly 229 million drivers, the fact also remains that cars are dangerous. Their weight is calculated in tons, they’re made of hard metal (or fiberglass), and travel at speeds at which the human body has difficulty tolerating a sudden stop, or being struck.

Still, as it stands, they’re necessary parts of the landscape in North America. And, as sad as it is to see numbers this high… cars are safer than they’ve ever been. From padded dashboards to recessed door handles, airbags, and seatbelts, the safety devices and infrastructure we’ve built around our auto-centric lifestyle keeps numbers low.

Cars weren’t always this safe, though. For a long time, cars were deathtraps. Those safety innovations we mentioned in the preceding paragraph? They’re more recent than you’d think… and likely more recent than you’d be comfortable with. Worse: auto companies spent a lot of time and money fighting safety regulations, more concerned with their bottom line than any lives that might be lost. 

The history of vehicle safety, then, is a winding one. Looking back on it doesn’t just give us a better appreciation for what we have now—it gives us a framework with which to look into the future, at concerns that might arise around current trends like self-driving cars. So, today, we plan to go over the history of vehicle safety.

Cars as Toys: The Early Years

As hard as it is to imagine, cars have been with us for more than a century and a half. But, when they were first coming onto the scene in the late 1800’s, they were little more than big toys, affordable only to wealthy hobbyists. They weren’t common enough to spark widespread concerns about safety. In fact, safety was far from the minds even of car inventors. The first car made in Canada, for instance, was made in 1867 by a watchmaker… who neglected to include brakes and promptly drove his fancy invention into a creek. 

Still, even in those early years, they shed some blood. 

The first recorded auto death was in 1869, in Ireland. A young scientist named Mary Ward went out for a joyride in her car and was crushed to death under its wheels. Her death is often forgotten in favor of the first deaths in the UK and the US: Bridgett Driscoll and Henry H. Bliss in 1896 and 1899, respectively. 

None of these deaths raised an alarm. As was mentioned, cars were still seen as toys, and their dangers rather paled in comparison to some of the other things going on. In an era were factory accidents were killing 35,000 people each year, it was hard for people to care about the potential of this “dangerous toy.” 

But as cars became more widespread, safety issues would take center stage.

Ford and the Wild West: The Early 1900’s. 

Before 1900, a car that topped out at 20 miles per hour was described as “”tearing along the street at a lively rate, dodging people and teams.” At the time, there were only about 8,000 cars in the entire US. But, that was about to change.

In 1908, the Ford Model T was released. Affordable and high-quality, it changed the landscape of the world… North America, especially. Within days of its release, 15,000 orders had been placed, nearly tripling the number of cars on the road. In 1927—less than 20 years later—the 15 millionth Model T would roll off the lot.

It wasn’t just the price of the Model T that was different. The Model T could reach speeds of 42 miles per hour, doubling that “lively” rate mentioned in the end of the 1800’s. Suddenly, there were thousands of these things driving at incomprehensible speeds, down roads that were never built for them… with few laws and little in the way of safety considerations, beyond the “safety glass” of the model T.

Some of the first concerns were for pedestrians, [something we’ve tackled in another article.][Link to my article about anti-car movements.] But, cars weren’t just dangerous for pedestrians. These vehicles lacked even the most basic safety devices. In 1908, the number of road fatalities was 751. In Detroit, alone, injuries were so numerous they stopped being counted. Two years later, deaths would reach 1,599. 

There were no airbags. No seat belts. Very little traffic laws, enforced by police without the numbers to appropriately hold drivers to task. Cars were all metal and hard wood, with doorknobs and protruding steering wheels that may as well have been spears when you got into an accident. All with thousands, and then millions of drivers on the road. In 1917, there were 65,000 of them in Detroit, alone. 

It was the Wild West of the driving years. Eleven-year-olds drove their parents. 14-year-olds used cars for paper routes. Detroit, by 1916, was devoting a quarter of their police force to managing traffic and became the second city in the nation to institute a traffic court… an announcement made on the same day as the eighth child struck and killed in that month.

Unsurprisingly, Detroit also became the first place to institute several road safety measures that seem obvious in retrospect, including the first stop sign (in 1914) and the first tri-color stoplight (in 1918). But safety features on the cars themselves would not come for some time, yet. 

Well, sort of. Some, like the seat belt, were invented in the 1800’s, but didn’t catch on for cars. Part of this might have been reluctance on the part of auto manufacturers: first, to invest the money necessary to include safety features (recall they make their money off selling vehicles, not keeping drivers alive), then to admit that there was a need for safety measures. After all, that would be tantamount to admitting that their product was dangerous, which could hurt sales. 

But, as cars became more widespread, the need for safety measures became apparent. In the mid-1920’s, a uniform approach to street and highway safety was formed, and auto manufacturers began to include devices like turn signals, brake lights, safety glass, and head lamps. In 1930, driver’s education began to become mandatory. 

This wild west era was coming to an end. All these measures helped make cars safer for pedestrians and cities. But the next challenge would be making cars safer for drivers.

Safety Innovations: 1930-1990

Perhaps the first innovation that helped the driver at least as much as the pedestrian was in the early 1920’s, with the hydraulic brake. Before that, brakes required significant force and rarely locked evenly, causing drivers to lose control. Skid out at 42 miles per hour in an old car like that, and you’re dead. Hydraulic brakes were a massive improvement, and the first in what would be a consistent wave of innovations… many of them fought by car companies. 

In 1930, alarms about the safety of vehicles were raised in a big way. Plastic surgeon Claire Straight and physician C.J. Strickland noted the damage done in crashes that they saw on their patients and proposed two improvements: padded dashboards and seat belts. Don’t underestimate that last bit, by the way. Even today, with all the other safety features available, more than half of those killed in car crashes weren’t wearing their seat belt. It may be the single biggest factor in making cars safe for drivers… even if it wouldn’t catch on for another twenty years. Likewise, the sharp edges and protruding control knobs (and the steering wheel shaft) on the dashboard all posed a huge danger.

Strickland wound up forming the Automobile Safety League of America. By 1935, he’d gotten a meeting with the founder of Chrysler, who started implementing some of the recommended changes in 1937… but strangely, he ignored the seat belt recommendation. Instead, he opted for recessed knobs, padded seat tops, and curved door handles. General Motors got on board, too, performing the first crash tests in 1934. 

But, despite all the outcry, and the fact that seat belts had been in existence since the 1800’s, they wouldn’t catch on until nearly 1950. One car company, Nash, offered them as an option in 1949, but they were poorly implemented, and only a few thousand sold. In 1955, Ford tried to do the same, but saw few takers. Worse—these belts were lap belts, which are known to “jack-knife” the user and cause serious injuries. Not as bad as not having one, but still not great.

Luckily, though, Volvo started making three-point seatbelts a standard feature in 1959, and the inventor patented it quickly. Instead of turning that into a cash cow, Volvo made the patent open-source and encouraged competitors to adopt it across the board. 1959 also marked the first year headrests were made optional for front seats, greatly reduce the risk of neck injuries.

The 1950’s marked the first downturn in car vehicle deaths that couldn’t be attributed to lowered driving rates due to wars or the Depression, proof enough that safety belts worked. The 1950’s also saw the first R&D into the use of airbags on vehicles… but it would be fraught with difficulties. It was difficult to find a way to make the airbags safe and get them to deploy fast enough to be useful. In 1967, Allen K. Breed developed a new mechanism for crash detection, which helped solve this problem. And, in the 1970’s, Ford and General Motors both started testing the installation of airbags in specialized vehicles. The first one wouldn’t be sold to the public until 1973, with the Oldsmobile Turbo… but that was only on the passenger side. Driver’s-side airbags wouldn’t come until 1975. 

At this point, it might surprise you to know that these airbags were not standard. In fact, GM discontinued its airbag system in 1977, citing consumer disinterest. It got worse, too. Activists noted the potential of airbags to save lives… and Ford and GM both started lobbying against requirements to install them. They’d spend years doing so.

Still, other manufacturers weren’t quite so reluctant. Porche made them standard with the 944 Turbo in 1987, and Chrysler followed in 1988. Due to Ford and GM’s lobbying, they wouldn’t be made mandatory until 1989… and even then, it was given as an alternative to seat belts. You could have either one, but didn’t need both. It wasn’t until 1998 that this would be amended, on recommendation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While we’re focusing on the innovations here, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the NHTSA. Founded in 1967 (under a different name), it advocated for broader safety for vehicles. And, starting in 1979, it began crash testing cars and making the results public, as well as issuing standards auto manufacturers had to follow. 

The last step in this area was legal. While seatbelts, airbags, anti-brake lock systems, and other safety features were becoming more common, usage of seatbelts, in particular, was low. And, shockingly, it wasn’t until 1984 that the first mandatory seatbelt laws in the US were passed, starting in New York. Even stranger? New Hampshire still doesn’t have them. 

High Tech Safety: 1990-Now

The digital age changed the focus for vehicle safety systems. If the first batch was about saving pedestrians and the second was about saving drivers, this era was about minimizing the possibility of driver error. 

Largely, this was done through automatic systems that detected what was going on around the vehicle and either warned the user, corrected problems, or outright took control. These included automatic braking systems, devices that warned you if you were drifting in your lane, and the sort of blind spot and rear-view cameras found in modern vehicles.

Some of these are less standard, like parking sensors and night vision cameras. Either way, the focus seems, now, to be on reducing the amount of driver era. 

But, this is an ongoing issue. The technology is still developing and especially with self-driving cars now on the playing field, we’re likely to see innovations coming at a rapid pace. It’s hard to give an accurate overview of the technology available now, due to the rapid pace of change. It, perhaps, deserves its own article.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that safety concerns for vehicles have, historically, lagged far behind the reality of the situation. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if those concerns had been front of mind, instead of an afterthought, or a threat to be lobbied against? With that in mind, it’s important to change that trend, and look at current innovation with safety in mind.

Perhaps, by doing so, we can avoid another article like this having to be written in twenty years.

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