Seat belts, airbags and other lifesavers
The 5 most important automotive safety technologies of all time.
The deadliest year in automotive history was 1972. There were 54,589 driving-related fatalities in the United States that year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By that time, safety innovations such as collapsible steering-wheel columns had ensured that motorists were no longer impaled in front-end collisions, and laminated safety glass spared them decapitation, but the most important safety feature of all — the three-point seat belt — would not become federally mandated until 1974.
Since the 1970s, driving fatalities have steadily dropped, falling to 33,808 in 2009. Even more impressive is the decrease in the rate of fatalities relative to the overall population: In 1966, 26 people out of 100,000 died in car crashes, compared with 11 out of 100,000 in 2009. Seat belts aren't the only reason for the encouraging statistics, though. Here we highlight a handful of the most important automotive safety innovations and how they are evolving to protect motorists better.
There's no question that three-point seat belts, the kind that strap over the shoulder and across the lap, save more lives than any other automotive safety device. "They keep occupants in a position where they are safest, and prevent ejection [in a collision]," says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer at Consumer Reports. If all passenger-vehicle occupants 5 and older had worn seat belts in 2009, 16,401 lives could have been saved, according to NHTSA.
Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin is credited with inventing the three-point seat belt as we know it today. The Swedes began outfitting their cars with them in 1959. Various lap and shoulder belts had existed before then, in both cars and airplanes, but it wasn't until 1974 that three-point belts were mandated in the U.S. In 1981, Mercedes-Benz outfitted its S-Class cars with pyrotechnic pretensioners — not to be confused with the ubiquitous mechanical tensioners — that instantly tighten the belt against the body when a crash seems imminent. Ford is the latest innovator: It offers inflatable belts as a rear-seat option on its 2011 Explorer. They minimize injury by distributing crash forces over a greater area of the torso.
Electronic Stability Control
Following safety belts in importance is electronic stability control, Shenhar says. That's because devices such as airbags and safety cells make a difference only once a collision happens, whereas ESC helps to avert a crash altogether. By detecting and minimizing skids, ESC reduces the risk of fatal multiple-vehicle crashes by 32 percent and fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That's huge, says Joe Nolan, head of the IIHS Vehicle Research Center.
German parts supplier Bosch developed electronic stability control in the 1990s. The first production car to use it was the 1995 Mercedes S-Class. Now ESC comes standard on many vehicles, and beginning with the 2012 model year, it will be a federally mandated requirement on all passenger vehicles.
ESC uses sensors to detect the intended path of the vehicle and determine whether it's starting to skid. The system can selectively brake one or multiple wheels to keep the vehicle on course. Some systems also reduce engine torque to help stabilize the vehicle. ESC is particularly helpful for SUVS prone to rollover. It evolved from traction control, which prevents wheel spin, but traction control doesn't help steer a vehicle back on course like ESC does.
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i had a 1974 nova with 3-point belts, which may have been 'finally' mandated by the 1974 model year, but were offered either optionally or as standard for a number of years previously...my first car, a 1969 mercury marquis, had both lap and shoulder belts, but they were not combined into a single unit, and the shoulder belt was tucked up unused above the window...which was the key to the era- all the cars had belts, after the safety kerfuffle from ralph nader, but nobody, virtually nobody, used them, and the carmakers actually designed them for ease of not using them...
but getting back to that 1974 nova, it had another feature in addition to the 3-point belts- a seat-belt 'interlock' system...literally, you couldn't start the car unless you were buckled up.....i got the car used in 1976, and had been aware of the interlock from news reports in 1974...the gov't had gone 'over-the-top', and had decided that all they needed to do was just to prevent cars from starting until the front passengers were belted, rather than just the little 3-second dash light and buzzer...well, if you don't know how that ended, you can imagine- outrage...complaints cited everything from concern for safety in fleeing crime to a need to buckle up packages placed on the front passenger seat...
while installing a stereo, a mandatory '70s requirement, i noticed a disconnected electrical connector, and plugged it back together...subsequently, the car would not start, and i remembered the connector, so i pulled it back apart, and it started.....a little sleuthing showed the harness leading to switches in the belt buckles and seat cushions, and then i remembered the interlock stories...so i plugged it back together, buckled up, and voila, started right up...i didn't mind buckling up, and this seemed a fun feature...i could actually turn the key to 'start', producing nothing, and while holding it in position with the right hand, buckle up with the left to start the car...made my passengers crazy that they had to buckle up, as this was when "nobody" did...
obviously this new feature for 1974 didn't fly well with the public, and presumably virtually all of the interlock systems were summarily disabled by dealerships...the requirement was duly rescinded, and was gone for 1975...what followed was the further pursuit of passive restraints, notably air bags, designed for a public presumed too stubborn and stupid to buckle up...but GM had been up to a little mischief there as well, putting air bags into a relative handful of larger cars on an experimental, optional basis, as far back as 1974...there was a story out of the mid- '80s, when virtually no cars yet had airbags, where these old ladies got into a wreck, and airbags deployed...in a 1974 car, and they had no idea they were there...
the nova? it was t-boned at a fairly high speed into the passenger side, bending the car and opening the door the wrong way, into the passenger...the car was not exactly a '5-star' IIHS pick...he went to the hospital, but was ok, and one of the few to survive a car wreck in the '70s buckled up...along with me, uninjured...all of which makes you wonder- it's now the law, for crying out loud, and we're saddled with all of this technology and device for surviving crashes- but still there is nothing so simple as just not letting the car start until you buckle up....guess that was way too simplistic
A few things that come to mind...
Collapsible steering columns and padded steering wheels. Before they were required in the late 60's even a minor front end collision could impale the driver.
Dual master cylinders and disc brakes, eventually anti lock brakes.
Vast improvements in steering, suspension, and weight distribution.
Evolution from throttle linkage (that could pull the throttle wide open if the left motor mount broke) to throttle cable, to electronic throttle control.
"Lock in park" transmission selector. Requires pressing the brake to shift out of park.
I'm sure there are hundreds more, these are basic mechanical improvements. Think of all the computerized electronic devices now in use and all that are yet to come!
Having driven cars from the 1950s to now I agree they are a whole lot safer but there is one gaping safety area that still needs to be addressed with utmost urgency and that is rapidly rusting and failing metal brake lines. When these lines burst the driver is faced with sudden and unexpected loss of braking ability. It has happened to me, multiple times, and thousands of others and particularly affects GM vehicles, especially light trucks.
Take a look here: https://sites.google.com/site/gmbadbrakes/
There is no reason why the lifelines of your braking system should silently rot and rust out at any age but it is happening often to vehicles less than 5 years old with less than 50K on the clock. While car makers warranty the body against rust for 5 or 6 years or 100K miles, they do not warranty the metal brake lines. Seems stupid.