Driver Safety History Throughout The Years

Cars have been around for over 100 years and look very different from the once-typical wooden wheels and glass windows. As time and technology progressed, car manufacturers, customers and governments became more and more concerned (and rightfully so) about the safety of the driver, their family and the community at large.

Modern driver safety technology is the best it’s ever been and it’s never been safer to drive a car. You may be asking yourself then – how did we get here? Let’s go over driver safety history. 

The lawless early years

The first ten through 20 years of the 1900s according to the Detroit Free Press brought cars, which could go up to a roaring (and we mean roaring – the sound scared both residents and animals alike) 20 miles per hour, to the streets of Detroit.

Even more surprising than the lack of horsepower, there were no rules policing driving behavior and those who could get behind the wheel. Imagine a world without the things we have come to rely on, such as:

  • Stop signs
  • Traffic lights
  • Traffic officers
  • Turn signals
  • Street lights
  • Brake lights
  • Speed limits
  • Driver licenses
  • Preliminary or corrective driver education

No one knew the proper rules of the road and what we consider to be anomolies today occurred often – cars would regularly flip over as a result of aggressive cornering. A total of 31 people died in car crashes within a two-month span in the summer of 1908.

Detroit took the needed steps to keep those in front of and behind the wheel safer, creating the first stop signs, traffic control division, lane markings, pedestrian crossing areas, one-way streets and traffic signals.

Stopping power

Over the next few decades, auto manufacturers lead occupant safety features. Cars were becoming ubiquitous and convincing the general public that cars were a safe way to transport loved ones around was good for business and salesmen’s bottom line.

One of the biggest advances in car safety over the decades? Braking – after all, it’s not going fast that causes crashes but instead failing to stop in-time.

In 1921, the first hydraulic brakes were fitted to a car — a Model A Deusenberg. Although the design had a tendency to leak fluid, it was improved and used by Chrysler in roughly the same form until the early 1960s.

Disc brakes didn’t catch on until the 1950s, when vehicles were getting bigger, heavier and more powerful. Compared to old-fashioned drum brakes, discs have better stopping power, can adjust themselves and are far easier to maintain.

The next big evolutionary step was anti-lock brakes, brought forth as a societal norm beginning in the 1970s and continuing today. Anti-lock brakes apply pressure until the wheels lock up and start to skid, releasing until the skid stops and then reapplying pressure, happening several times per second. This helps the driver maintain control during hard braking.

Keeping drivers safe

While advances in braking help drivers avoid crashes, manufacturers have made enormous strides to keep car occupants safe.

Cars that break on purpose

One of the biggest advancements in passenger safety has been crumple zones. Introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1952, a crumple zone is a portion of the car in front and behind the passenger cabin designed to crush and break during a crash. This helps absorb much of the crash and keeps the passenger cabin intact.

We’ve all heard someone use the phrase, “they don’t make them like they used to,” but when it comes to cars, that’s a good thing. To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crashed a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air into its modern equivalent: a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. The results were catastrophic for the dummy in the Bel Air, while the dummy in the Malibu was mostly unharmed.

Moral of the story? Crumple zones work.

Crumple zones were part of the equation in keeping the dummy in the Malibu safe — the other two modern-day improvements the Bel Air was not equipped with were seatbelts and airbags.