A Brief History of Automobile Safety

In the early days of the automobile, there was little thought given to how safe they were. After all, these were machines designed really for one purpose: to get from point A to point B. Plus, it wasn’t until vehicle speeds increased that the general public and the car manufacturers, realized how dangerous cars could actually be.

Ford Focus ST by Ford Performance
Ford Focus ST by Ford Performance

One of the first safety features

Besides the headlight and brakes, the first real safety feature was the electric starter.  In order to see why, you need to know how cars were started back in the early days; they were hand cranked. Not only did this require a great deal of strength, if the engine backfired (which was very common)the crank could break your arm. In 1914, an automotive engineer by the name Charles “Boss” Kettering developed the first automatic starter. It allowed anyone to start a car while seated safely behind the dash. It sounds simple today, but the electric starter remains one of the most important innovations in automotive safety.

The next few decades

From 1915 until 1940, automobiles evolved pretty much continuously. Each model year, the technology would advance with more power, style and utility. And as for the safety of the automobiles, well, not much was developed during this time.  The problem was that “safety” was driven by marketing departments. If a safety feature was developed and it sold more cars, then it was adopted.

Then there was Tucker

In the early 1940s, the war effort saw a halt in the production of automobiles. When the war was over, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity opened up for automotive entrepreneurs. This is because GI’s brought home with them pent up demand for new cars and they wanted them right away. Preston Tucker, who had worked for several other automotive manufacturers, decided this was the time to make his own and he wanted it to be a safe car.

Tucker designed his cars with advancements that had never been seen before. The Tucker Model 48 featured a cabin with a padded dash and was free of any spear-like protrusions. It had a center headlight that turned with the wheels and many other innovative ideas. It was a great start but he overextended himself financially and his company went out of business before many Tucker cars could be built.

The Baby Boom

As the baby boom came along, parents became more concerned with safety, as well did the Federal Government. The result was that automotive safety was becoming a more serious pursuit. Safety glass started to be used in the 1940s and by the 1950’s, rudimentary seat belts appeared. The automobile manufacturers were slowly adopting features that were designed with safety in mind.

Ralph Nader

Then, as the folks at Ft. Dodge Ford, a Ford, Lincoln, Toyota dealer, explained Ralph Nadar came along. Nader published a vicious denunciation of the automotive industry in his book Unsafe At Any Speed. While the book made an example of the Chevrolet Corvair, it was an indictment of the industry as a whole and the book ignited Washington, where legislation was passed that would become the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Crash Test Dummies

Another important advancement came not from the vehicles themselves, but from the method of testing. Rather than basing crash performance on the damage to cars, the advent of data collecting crash test dummies put the focus on the passenger. It was no longer good enough to restrain the passengers, the seat belts and automotive structure needed to be designed in a way to minimize injuries during collisions.

Today

Driven by the federal government and a general awareness of automotive safety, safety engineering is a now a major issue for all manufacturers. While some will fuss about all the cumbersome regulations involved, it’s important to keep in mind the survivability of accidents has increased many times over since the 1960’s.  In the future, we will undoubtedly see further innovation, and improved crash performance.

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