Many of us take car safety for granted. Back in the day, automobiles didn’t have seat belts and airbags, nor did they drive according to traffic signs and laws. Today’s cars aren’t just made to get from point A to point B. Inside every single one is a legacy of inventions designed to keep us safe.
The knowledge and infrastructure around cars was limited in the early 20th century.
Safety wasn’t in the picture when automobiles outnumbered streetcars in 1905; instead, the beginning of the 20th century heralded reckless driving as king. There was no such thing as a stop sign, speed limit, or driver’s ed. But with more cars on the road and more pedestrian fatalities, safety advocates finally came onto the scene. The National Safety Council reported on car crashes and led public awareness campaigns across the country for paying attention to the road. And in the 1930s, they published a series of booklets called Sportsmanlike Driving to train young drivers and explain the concepts of velocity and centrifugal force.
Not only could drivers be dangerous, but early roads were too. Drivers parked their cars in risky locations like intersections and in front of fire hydrants. In response, the Detroit police used line-marking equipment from tennis courts to establish safety and crossing zones. This led to the painting of the first centerline on a US highway in 1911. In addition, the prevalence of both automobiles and trains brought about the need for warning signs and flashing lights. The Association of American Railroads developed these crossing signals in 1922, ushering in even more traffic control systems on the road. Automated and interconnected four-way signals paved the way for later road safety.
The safety advocates of the 1920s introduced carmakers to the safety technology of the 1960s.
Automobile manufacturers took the hint from safety campaigns; they began to acknowledge the role of poor car design in crashes and deaths. The simplest stylistic features — dashboard knobs, door handles, and radio grilles — could seriously injure drivers and passengers. One reconstructive plastic surgeon was the first to campaign car manufacturers into developing safety features like lap belts and dashboard crash pads. Crash tests in the 1950s proved the doctor’s point.
Many safety features were developed as optional add-ons for automobile customers, often inspired by earlier inventions: Mary Anderson’s windshield wiper in 1903, manufacturers’ four-wheel brakes in the 1920s, Walter Linderer and John Hetrick’s variations on the airbag in the 1950s, and Nils Bohlin’s modern three-point seat belt in 1959. But features like these weren’t standardized until the 1960s and 70s when government authorities began requiring those features to be put in place.
Today, even more advanced digital innovations have brought us lane departure warnings, blind spot warning systems, and automatic braking. And technology like OnStar’s Automatic Crash Response system connects us to help when we need it. See how it all came about in the video above.