Auto safety advances through the decades
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rise in pickup truck sales a good sign for economy
- Auto sales heat up in July on steep discounts
- Fix-a-flat a remedy in a pinch
- Auto review: Grand Cherokee goes the distance
- Towing standard finally set
- Hyundai recalls over 419K vehicles
- Auto review: Maserati Ghibli a sedan that awakens the senses
- HP to pay $32.5M to settle Postal Service dispute
- Unemployment rate ticks up; 209K jobs added but less than expected
- Westinghouse wins deal to build nuclear power plant in Bulgaria
- SEC closes probe of Citi mortgage bonds