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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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.
The single most safety important device in any motorized vehicle was the development and implementation of safety glass. The pervasiveness of this critical safety elements makes it such a given that a list of the 5 most important safety features, completely lacks this critical componet, The next is the development of shocks and spinrgs (before shocks and springs peope routinely died from internal bleeding occassioned from internal organs shaking loose in carriage rides).
The concept of anit-lock braking maybe good, but the critical failure of the component (e.g., causing the brakes to fail) is more of a safety issue than the device which negatives the need to develop simple driving skills.