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The History of Car Safety

We Look Back At A Century Of Perfecting Vehicular Peace Of Mind

BY Katie KennedyJune 21, 2019

Remember childhood road trips when you and your siblings could spend hours bouncing off the pre-child lock doors in a backseat game of Red Rover, blissfully shielded from supervision by the cloud created by your parents chain-smoking Camels up front?

A little before your time, you say? Hey, your loss. Because that scene was real.

Turns out, it was also really unsafe.

Fortunately, car safety has come a long way since then—from “well duh!” additions like the seatbelt to high-tech options that Star Trek didn’t even see coming.

Join us for a jaunt throughout the intriguing—and sometimes downright weird—history of car safety improvements.

The Early Years: Headlights & Signals

Here’s a bright idea: How about being able to see what’s in front of you as you split the darkness in a wheeled metal beast?

That was the idea behind the first electric headlamps, which hit the scene in 1898 as an “optional” accessory on the Columbia Electric car and replaced the oil and acetylene lamps that lit the horse-drawn carriages of the pre-car era. With drivers no longer forced to mentally conjure possible obstacles in their path while driving at night, sealed beam headlights were soon standard on nearly all vehicle types—and became the law of the land for all U.S. vehicles by the end of the 1930s.

In fact, the whole “seeing the road” movement proved so popular that another key element of the experience was soon added to the mix: the windshield wiper.

The idea originated in 1902 when a woman on a New York streetcar watched the driver repeatedly jump out to clean off the windshield. After getting home, she drew a mock-up of her blade-like design for a wiper, and filed for a patent the next year.

And while the motor industry didn’t initially bite on her new invention, Cadillac waited until her patent expired in 1922 and started installing wipers with a similar design.

Not to be upstaged in the realm of car safety, it was rhyme-named silent film actress Florence Lawrence who actually came up with the “auto signaling arm” back in 1914, which was placed on the back of the fender and either raised or lowered by electrical push buttons.

But the starlet never patented her idea and it wasn’t until almost a quarter-century later that the first blinker found its way into a car as a “Flash-Way Directional Signal” on a 1938 Buick.

Seat Belts & Airbags Cometh

Edward J. Claghorn forever changed the face of vehicle safety when he invented the first patented car seat belt in 1885 to protect passengers from already-bonkers NYC traffic.

But, incredibly, traditional manufacturers didn’t end up buckling up until decades later, when Wisconsin-born car company Nash offered seat belts as options in 1949.

Meanwhile, Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin went all 3-D chess on the safety game with the three-point seat belt in 1959. The creation took off worldwide pretty immediately as the automaker opened up their patent for use by any brand, considering it more important to save lives than to make money.

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act took the feature to the next level in 1966, making life-saving seat belts mandatory in the U.S., along with headrests and shatter-resistant windshields. What they were using before this development, we only shudder to think.

Meanwhile, the most cinematic of vehicle safety measures—the airbag—sprang forth from an actual auto accident.

After an industrial engineering technician named John W. Hetrick found himself careening off a rural Pennsylvania road in 1952, he had a simple thought, “Why couldn't some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?”

Taking inspiration from the compressed air torpedoes he became familiar with as a former Navy sailor, Hetrick patented his early airbag design in 1953. Possibly due to the device’s relative complexity, the airbag didn’t take root for some time.

Ford led the way in larger adoption of the invention, building an experimental fleet with airbags in 1971. Two years later, the Oldsmobile Toronado became the first car available to the public with the feature. Meanwhile, the devices wouldn’t become mandatory on all American passenger cars for another 25 years.

The Dawn of the Digital Age

While impressive, more than a century of car-safety improvements can’t add up to the innovations we’ve seen in the past decade alone, which has ushered in a stunning array of high-tech advancements in road-taming.

Adaptive cruise control took the original “set it and forget it” nature of your dad’s favorite freeway speed management technique and coupled it with technology that locks your car in a safe distance behind the one in front of you. Along with automatic emergency braking, the innovation can also automatically stop your car to avoid a collision without so much as a physical tap of the brakes. Think of these two features as the yin and yang of not plowing into your highway neighbor.

And while you might vividly remember the teenage version of yourself wantonly ignoring your car’s grab bag of voluntary safety features as a way of demonstrating unquestioned badassery to the outside world, Americans these days are pretty keen on the concept.

In fact, a national survey of those planning to buy a vehicle in the near future found that 51 percent of respondents said a rearview camera or backup warning was an important factor in their decision, while 45 percent want a blind-spot warning system.

And if you want to get The Fifth Element crazy with all this car safety tech, you’ll be psyched to know that one of the newest options on the market is facial recognition software, which beeps when it detects the driver getting tired or distracted.

Still to come are external airbags, positioned conveniently on the sides of your car and designed to inflate in anticipation of collisions.

It’s a brave, new world indeed. And on the roads an increasingly safe one.

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