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Auto safety advances through the decades

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By Larry Printz
Saturday, May 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

It's hard to imagine, but most items on the long list of safety features offered on modern cars were developed only in the past 50 years.

In the early days of the automobile, just getting cars to run reliably was a miracle. Still, there were safety advancements.

Consider the electric self-starter. Prior to the 1912 Cadillac, starting a car required hand-cranking it. This demanded strength as well as caution. If you improperly grabbed the crank and the car backfired, you could break your fingers, hand, wrist or arm.

Another first, laminated safety glass, wasn't used in automobiles until the 1920s, and only in the 1930s was auto glass tempered.

This coincided with a growing realization that safety should be considered in car design. By 1934, General Motors was crash-testing its cars by slamming them into stationary barriers. Unlike modern crash tests, in which cars are attached to chains and pulled into barriers, drivers back then leapt from the vehicles just before impact. By the end of the decade, manufacturers such as Auto Union, the predecessor of Audi, would be putting their cars through rollover tests.

Still, the first car designed with safety in mind was the 1948 Tucker. The car had crumple zones, a common feature on today's cars that allows portions of the car to absorb the energy of a crash rather than passing it along to the occupants.

Tuckers also had a padded dashboard to help prevent injuries, and instruments were grouped in front of the driver for ease of use. It also prevented occupants from hitting the controls in a crash. Uniquely, the Tuckers had a windshield that didn't shatter in a crash; it popped out of its frame.

A year later, the first Saab automobile, the 92, borrowed an idea from Saab airplanes. The car had a welded safety cell around the passenger compartment to protect passengers.

Another Swedish automaker, Volvo, was the first to install front seat belts, in 1957. A decade later, Volvo installed them in the rear seats. By 1972, Volvo's rear seats would even have three-point belts, and its doors would be the first ones fitted with child safety locks.

Other companies were advancing the cause of safety as well.

In 1966, the first anti-lock braking system, built by Dunlop, was offered on the Jensen FF. Five years later, in 1971, the first traction control system, dubbed MaxTrac, was offered on Buick's full-size cars. Two years later, GM offered its first air bags as a standalone option. Neither option proved popular, mostly due to their high price. They were dropped by mid-decade.

Safety didn't advance much until the late 1990s, when microprocessors invaded the engine compartment in great numbers.

Today, features such as electronic stability control, pioneered by BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and radar-guided cruise control, introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1998, are common options. And Honda's Intelligent Driver Support system, introduced in 2003 on the Japanese-market Honda Accord, helped the driver keep the car within its lane. The same feature, now called lane departure warning, is becoming a common option.

It's safe to say that today's cars have never been safer. And neither have we.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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