1918 to 2018: The Evolution of Vehicle Safety Features

The evolution of vehicle safety features has been in motion since the invention of the car. Since the first motorized vehicle was manufactured and sold, there have been several modifications and adjustments to protect drivers and riders. Much like any new invention, too much of a good thing can quickly turn negative. The transition from the horse age to the motorized age would prove to be extremely dangerous. As early as 1908, auto accidents were already noted in newspapers as public health concerns. Today, the car industry is heavily regulated by governments all around the world. For the most part, government regulations task auto manufacturers with making vehicles that put passenger safety above profits.

Driving or riding in a car is the most dangerous thing you’ll likely do today. But driving today is far less dangerous than in years past. Vehicles now come equipped with technology intended to improve the safety of passengers, pedestrians and other motorists.

What is Vehicle Safety Technology?

Vehicle safety technology is the special technology developed to ensure the safety and security of automobiles, vehicle occupants and others near roadways. While the term seems new, vehicle technology safety has its roots in the 18th century. As the use of vehicles grew, legislators and manufacturers began thinking of ways to reduce the number of road accidents and fatalities.

Modern safety features include:

  • Antilock brakes
  • Traction control
  • Electronic stability control
  • Safety belt features
  • Tire pressure monitors
  • Active head restraints
  • Sensors to detect other vehicles or pedestrians

While this isn’t a complete list, the goal of all modern safety features is to make traveling by car safer. When this equipment fails, they can lead to serious injuries or death. The history of how cars developed to be as safe as they are today is important to understanding why defective auto products are so dangerous. 

Crumple Zones

It’s true that after a crash today’s cars don’t hold up the same way a car from the 1970s did. This is, in part, because of the evolution of vehicle safety features. Modern vehicles are designed with crumple zones. A crumple zone refers to the structural safety feature intended to absorb the energy from the impact of a crash. This is accomplished through controlled deformation.

An Austrian engineer patented the concept of the crumple zone in 1937. However, the concept wasn’t put into use until the 1950s. Prior to the introduction, cars were once designed to inflict as little damage as possible on the car itself. This often left vehicle occupants extremely vulnerable to injuries. However, over time, the idea of passenger safety has become increasingly important. Crumple zones act as a spring while the inner cabin that holds vehicle occupants is reinforced to withstand as much deformation as possible.

When designed carefully, crumple zones decrease the likelihood of car crash injuries. Poorly designed crumple zones that are too stiff or too short can contribute to the collapse of the occupant compartment in crashes and lead to serious injuries.

Modern Tires

Tires affect how a vehicle handles, rides and brakes—all in the name of safety.

For a period of time, tires were composed entirely of a firm rubber, without the need for air. The solid piece of rubber was glued to the rim and was often difficult to remove. This rubber was used mostly for low-speed vehicles because of its poor shock absorption. But after the invention of the gasoline vehicle, manufacturers began looking for ways to make the ride smoother. Thus, the pneumatic tire was born.

The modern tire is an improved, safer version of the pneumatic tire. Simply, a pneumatic tire uses rubber and enclosed air to reduce vibration and improve tire traction.

Through the years, tires have been built to grip more of the road through treads and width. For many of the early years, bias ply tires came standard on vehicles. These tires tended to be less flexible and more sensitive to overheating. Layers, or plies, reinforced the casing to protect the inner tube. However, in 1948, the first steel-belted radial tires appeared. Radial tires are the tires of choice on modern vehicles. While more expensive to make, radial tires lead to safer vehicles because they:

  • Last longer
  • Allow better steering
  • Less rolling resistance
  • Increase gas mileage
  • No transmission of sidewall flex
  • More power is transferred to the ground

Combined, these features make modern tires the safest tire in history. When tires are defective, they can lead to serious car crashes and lifelong or fatal injuries. It may be hard to spot a defective tire because the problem may not become known until after a crash—if at all.

Seatbelts

Arguably the single most important innovation in the evolution of vehicle safety features, wearing your seat belt is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash. Seatbelts are one of the most important safety features on your vehicle. For starters, seatbelts keep occupants from being ejected from the vehicle in the event of a crash. In addition, seatbelts reduce the risk of death by 45 percent and cut the risk of serious injury by 50 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that seatbelts save at least 15,000 lives in the U.S. each year. This is why a properly functioning seatbelt is so important.

The U.S. issued the first U.S. patent for automobile seatbelts in 1885. But the government did not require seatbelts in all vehicles until 1968. Because of their importance in keeping occupants safe, seat belts require auto manufacturers to use the best materials and products when engineering seat restraint systems in vehicles. Still, there have been thousands of seat belt injuries from defective seat belts over the years. These types of defects include:

  • Inertial unlatching: the force of the accident is so strong that the seat belt latches becomes unbuckled.
  • False latching: the buckle is not latched although it may appear that it is.
  • Webbing failure: the fabric of the belt becomes torn or ripped and fails to protect the occupant in a collision.
  • Faulty retractors: the retractor fails to hold the belt snugly against the body, leaving too much slack.

Seatbelt errors can be a design flaw or manufacturing flaw. In some cases, seatbelts may fail because manufacturers used cheap materials. Defective seatbelts can lead to head, brain, chest, abdomen, spine, and other injuries.

Airbags

Compared to the other safety features, airbags are a relatively modern idea. Airbags work with seatbelts to prevent more serious personal injuries. However, they are not designed to replace seat belts.

The earliest use of airbags in vehicles traces its roots to 1951. Early vehicle airbags featured a compressed air system that released by either bumper contact or the driver. However, research in the 1960s showed that compressed air would blow the bags up fast enough. Ford became the first company in the U.S. to begin testing airbags in 1971. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several automakers tested airbags in their vehicles. In 1988, Chrysler became the first company to offer airbag restraint systems as standard vehicle equipment. Because of their ability to save lives and prevent injuries, airbags have been mandatory on all cars since 1998.

Airbags are a crucial component in saving lives. However, auto manufacturers don’t always use the best equipment to keep occupants safe. The ongoing Takata Airbag Recall affected millions of vehicles by 34 different automakers. There have been at least 20 deaths and hundreds of injuries worldwide because of the defective Takata airbags. 

The Carlson Law Firm Can Help

Over the last 100 years, car safety technology has made some extremely important advances in protecting drivers and passengers. All of these advancements have reduced fatalities from 5 fatalities per 100 million miles driven in 1969 to 1 fatality per 100 million miles driven, currently.  As we move deeper into the 20th century, new innovators are thinking of ways to make driving even safer. We are moving toward self-driving cars capable of communicating with other cars on the roads. Experts expect these vehicles to hit the market in the coming decades.

No matter what kind of technology is on board, car crashes can still occur. If you or a loved one suffered serious injuries because of defective vehicle safety equipment that led to a crash, contact The Carlson Law Firm. We have a qualified defective auto products attorney ready to assist you.

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