In the dawn of the automotive age, the safety of vehicles was given little thought. This wasn’t deliberate, it’s just that cars and trucks were so new, and went so slow, that no one realized how dangerous they could be. As time went on, however, they got bigger and faster and safety issues became a thing.
The first safety feature
The first safety technologies were brakes and headlights. The need for those is obvious. Not long afterward, came the electric starter. This may come as a surprise to think of an electric starter as safety technology, but it was. Here’s why: Before electric starters were developed, car engines were started by a hand crank. Not only did this require a great deal of strength, but it could also hurt you. The problem was backfiring. If the engine you were cranking accidentally backfired, which was very common, the crank could kick back and hit the person cranking the engine. Automotive historians have written that in 1914 an automotive engineer by the name Charles Kettering had a friend get killed when a backfiring crank hit him in the face. Kettering vowed to come up with a safer alternative and he did. The alternative was the electric car starter.
The next few decades
From 1915 until 1940, automobiles evolved pretty much continuously in usability. Each year, the technology would advance with more power and style. Yet, as far as the safety features of the automobiles, not so much. Safety was typically an occasional afterthought but if a “safety feature” sold more cars, then it was quickly developed and advertised.
Finally, safety features become an issue
In the late 1940s, safety issues started to gain some momentum. Safety glass was developed then and other products. By the 1950s, rudimentary seat belts became optional on some Ford models and we are told by our friends at Volvo Cars of Miami that ultra-safe three-point safety belts were actually pioneered by Volvo in 1959. The automobile manufacturers were slowly adopting features that were designed with safety in mind.
In 1965, Ralph Nader published a nasty denunciation of the automotive industry in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. While it made an example of the Chevrolet Corvair, it was an indictment of the automotive industry as a whole. The book quickly ignited Washington, where legislation was soon passed that would become the basis for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). It was at this time that automotive safety issues came out front and center.
Driven by the federal government and general awareness of automotive safety, safety engineering is now a major issue for all manufacturers. While some will fuss about all the cumbersome regulations involved, it’s important to keep in mind that the survivability of accidents has increased many times over since the 1960s. In the future, we will undoubtedly see further innovation, improved crash performance and even more human lives saved.