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How car safety has changed over the years

Drivers, passengers and pedestrians are safer now than ever, but how has this been achieved?


Car safety has improved continuously throughout the history of the motor vehicle, and that pace is only accelerating. No longer is having a ‘big’ car the sole way of adding protection for occupants, while advanced technology has helped to fill in the gaps between driver and machine.

Over the years, there have been numerous key developments among thousands of smaller improvements. All car manufacturers have enormous R&D budgets devoted to improving the safety of their vehicles, although brands like Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have taken that even further over the years, with thousands and thousands of patents for life-saving safety systems – most of which have been freely shared with other car companies to improve safety for all road users.

Let’s take a look at how things have changed and the direction car safety is taking.

The early years of motoring

It will come as no surprise that the early years of motoring weren’t the most safety-conscious. In the rush to make cars go, little thought was given to stopping them again or how they would behave in an accident.

Windscreen wipers were first introduced in 1903, while it wasn’t until 1914 that indicators – or turn signals – were brought in.

When it came to crash testing, it took until 1934 for General Motors to undertake the first test, while the first crash test dummy – called Sierra Sam – was put to work in the early 1950s.

Interestingly, early research on airbags began prior to 1920, although it would take decades before this progressed to the point where it was suitable for use in a car.

Early Chevrolet involved in a car accident | The Car Expert
Early Chevrolet involved in a car accident

In the 1930s, the idea of the crumple zone was developed, with the idea that the front of the car should deform progressively to absorb and deflect energy away from the occupants in a collision. This was followed in the 1940s and 50s by ideas like the deformable steering column, which was designed to be telescope and collapse on impact instead of being a rigid pole pointed directly at the driver’s heart…

1950s – We start buckling up with seatbelts

Seatbelt use has saved more lives than any other safety technology | The Car Expert
The single most important safety technology ever invented – the simple three-point seatbelt

It was after the second world war that car safety development really began to ramp up. GM led the charge in America, while Mercedes-Benz did likewise in Europe.

Béla Barényi was head of the pre-development department for Mercedes-Benz from 1939 to 1972, and it is claimed that he filed more than 2,000 patents for car safety inventions before his retirement.

Undoubtedly, the single greatest car safety development was born in the 1950s, although it didn’t come from Mercedes-Benz. In 1959, Volvo launched the three-point seatbelt, which set the benchmark for safety technology for years to come.

Like many other safety patents, Volvo felt the technology was so important that it gave away the idea for free – a move that has been claimed to have directly saved more than a million lives over the last 60 years.

In 1963, inertia reels were added to the seatbelt system, and the overall design was so effective that it’s remained largely unchanged ever since.

In the UK, it became compulsory for all new cars to be fitted with front seatbelts in 1968. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that it became compulsory to actually wear them. It wasn’t until 1986 that it became compulsory for manufacturers to fit rear seat belts, and it was only in 1991 that it became law that they had to be worn. Many people still don’t bother to wear a seatbelt when riding in a taxi.

Unbelievably, wearing a seatbelt is still not enforced in 2020 in some parts of America. In several states (about 15 out of 50), it is considered a secondary offence, which means that you can’t be pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. However, if you are pulled over for another reason (say, running a red light), you can be fined for not wearing a seatbelt.

1970s – Advanced safety technology

Safety technology took a huge leap forward in the 1970s and 80s. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) were first introduced on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in 1978. They help drivers to maintain control and steer during emergency braking, rather than locking the wheels and sliding straight to the scene of the accident.

Airbags finally started appearing in the 1970s after years of development. There was considerable difference in how airbags were designed between America and Europe – in America, airbags were used as a substitute for seatbelts, whereas in Europe they were designed to work with seatbelts, which was much safer.

It took another couple of decades for America to figure that out.

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) in action | The Car Expert
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) allow a driver to steer a car while braking heavily

In Europe, airbags were always intended to work in conjunction with seatbelts. This meant that airbags could be smaller and could deploy more slowly, as the seatbelt holds the driver or passenger in place during an accident. In America, airbags were designed to be a substitute for seatbelts. That means they had to be much larger and had to deploy much faster, as there was nothing to restrain an occupant in a crash.

The physics required to inflate a large airbag incredibly rapidly meant that airbags actually injured and even killed many Americans over the years. Not really what you want from a device that’s intended to save your life.

1990s – Independent crash tests and safety ratings

Euro NCAP crash testing | The Car Expert
Early Euro NCAP crash testing, late 1990s

The 1990s were dominated by several safety innovations that helped to make cars even safer. Mercedes-Benz introduced its game-changing electronic stability control in 1995, which took anti-lock braking a step further to help prevent a car from sliding during cornering. Within a decade, it would become standard on almost all new cars in the western world.

Volvo developed a side-impact protection system in 1991, which – as the name suggests – aimed to better protect occupants in a side collision by absorbing and distributing energy across the whole length of the car instead of relying on the central B-pillar to absorb the impact.

In 1997, Euro NCAP was established, helping to improve European car safety through independent crash tests and ratings. The Renault Laguna became the first car to achieve a five-star rating in 2001.

Here in the UK, Euro NCAP testing is undertaken by Thatcham Research, an independent research body that conducts crash testing, lab testing and track testing on dozens of new cars each year. Thatcham also sets insurance ratings for new cars, as well as providing anti-theft ratings for new cars and vehicle repair data.

Today, we pretty much take a Euro NCAP five-star rating on a new car for granted, and only really notice when a new car doesn’t score five stars. Euro NCAP has continually beefed up its safety standards over the last 20 years, and recently announced even tougher new requirements for new cars to attain a five-star rating.

Car safety in the 21st century

The 21st century has seen rapid development in the field of autonomous assistance, with modern cars able to brake and steer on their own to help avoid an accident or – if an accident is unavoidable – to reduce its severity.

Once again, Volvo has been a pioneer of new safety technology, and was the first to develop autonomous emergency braking. Like anti-lock brakes and stability control, this technology has quickly filtered through to even the cheapest cars on sale in the UK

AEB automatic braking system
Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) helps avoid or reduce front-to-rear collisions.

Volvo’s most recent safety announcement has been somewhat more controversial than most in its history. It has introduced a 112mph speed limit for all of its new cars, arguing that there is no need for any car to ever go faster than that. This has inevitably provoked much discussion and debate, but as of 2020 all new Volvos are limited to a top speed of 112mph (180km/h in the metric world).

What does the future hold?

Autonomous vehicle of the future | The Car Expert
The future – being able to review profitability charts from the comfort of your car.

The pace of car safety development has not slowed down, and it will continue to advance in coming years.

While we might have to wait a bit longer for our cars to drive themselves everywhere, certain levels of autonomous assistance are now becoming available on many new cars. Systems like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control can accelerate, brake and steer a car within certain limitations and still require a human driver in control of the vehicle.

Driver monitoring technology can also assess a driver to see if they’re concentrating enough, and it’s likely that it won’t be too long before your car will be able to detect whether you’ve had too much to drink (or taken any other mind-altering substances) and prevent you from starting the car.

Autonomous technology may be a hot topic at the moment, and these systems are being intensively tested all around the world. However, we’re still some way from privately-owned driverless cars roaming the streets. Getting the basics of self-driving technology is one thing, but developing a car that can handle the complex requirements for driving on public roads among other cars/pedestrians/cyclists/animals is significantly more difficult.

However, the push towards autonomous vehicles is relentless. Most safety experts agree that about 90% of all car accidents are caused by a driver, so taking the driver out of the equation is ultimately the long-term plan to reduce fatalities and injuries on our roads. That’s the inevitable direction of travel – driving will become a leisure activity or a sport, much like horse riding and horse racing. Driving for commuting or business purposes will eventually become a thing of the past.

Additional reporting by Jack Evans, PA Media.

Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.
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