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Car Safety Series: History of Car Safety

This year we want to take a deep dive into car safety, explain the importance of various car safety features, and importantly cut through the marketing hype.
We’re going to talk facts, try to simplify some of the industry jargon, and help you identify between standard offerings and the unique safety features that you should get excited about.

Before we begin, there are two terms that you should know – Active and Passive Safety. Active safety features are there to help you avoid an accident, such as better brakes, rear vision mirrors, or electronic stability control. Passive safety measures are there to protect the driver, passengers, and pedestrians during a collision, such as crumple zones, seatbelts, and airbags.

So let’s tackle how car safety began until now. We could start in 1861 with the introduction of the first speed limits in USA, or 1889 with the first electric headlights, but that will be a long article. So we are going to jump into the beginning of regulated car safety in Australia, with the introduction of head rests in 1921.

The first few safety features were passive features. Headrests were introduced in 1921 to reduce whiplash in rear-end collisions. In 1927 Ford pioneered the laminated windscreen in the Model T. The laminated windscreen was made up of two separate sheets of glass held together by a laminate, when damaged the laminated windscreen would stay together in one piece, reducing the danger to occupants in the car. 1948 brought the first padded dashboards, in the Tucker Sedan, to reduce face and chest injuries in front-end collisions.

Early seat belts had been available in some cars since 1885, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s that consumers started to demand for it, but these were simple seat belts unlike that we have come to expect now. It wasn’t until 1959 that we saw the first three point seat belt, one of the biggest leaps in car safety, and made by Volvo. Countless lives have been saved by this invention, and it was so widely adopted because Volvo, seeing how many lives it could save, opened up the patent so all car manufacturers could use it. This allowed manufacturers to quickly build and refine on Volvo’s ground breaking design, and quickly adopt it across the industry.

In 1963 Excelsior Motor company introduced the inertia reel, helping to further reduce injury during rapid breaking by locking the seatbelt into place. Yet, it wasn’t until 1971 that Australia made wearing seat belts compulsory for drivers and front-seat passengers – and we were the first country to even legislate it! In the first year that seat belts were mandatory the death toll on Australian roads dropped by 10%.

1970 was the highest year for road fatalities per 100,000 population. The introduction of the seatbelt began the rapid decline of road fatalities, but additional safety innovations and legislation continued the decline for both pedestrians, drivers, and passengers. A big step in this was the introduction of active safety technology to help drivers avoid accidents in the first place.


Source: Transport for NSW, Centre for Road Safety


Electronic anti-lock breaking systems (ABS) were the big advancement into active safety features. Co-developed by TELDIX and Mercedes-Benz, ABS first arrived in 1978 in the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. Developed to reduce skidding when a driver breaks suddenly, the car is now starting to evolve to have the smarts to aid the driver in avoiding an accident. Mercedes-Benz led again, in the S-Class, with the introduction of the drivers airbag in 1981.

From 1993 onwards, with the introduction of the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) advancements in active features hurtled forwards to bring us what we expect in modern cars today. Electronic Stability Control (1995), Blind Spot Information Systems (2004), Pedestrian Detection (2011) and Adaptive Cruise Control (2011).

That’s not to say passive safety has stalled in it’s development, it’s made similar headway. In particular, one of the most successful passive safety features that we haven’t discussed yet, is the crumple zone. Crumple zones were first invented and patented in 1937 by Béla Barényi, before he came to work for Mercedes-Benz, it wasn’t until the 1953 Ponton, that we started to see cars with crumple zones hit the market. 

What are crumple zones? How do they work? They are parts of the car that are purposefully made weaker than others, to absorb impact energy, so it doesn’t go into the people within the car. Or pedestrians hit by the car.

Imagine throwing a grapefruit at a brick wall, the grapefruit is going to take all of the impact energy and the brunt of the damage. Getting the same grapefruit and throwing it at a wall made of out loose layers of tissue paper, allows the grape fruit to tear through several layers, moving the destructive energy into the tissue paper, and leaving the grapefruit relatively unharmed. That’s what a crumple zone does, there is no way to make a human less fragile, but what we can do is provide armour and soft padding. The armour acts as a brick wall between the occupant and whatever they are colliding with, the padding to absorb the energy and provide a soft layer between the human and the harder exterior.

It’s why we made the PSA involving the Kobe Steel Scandal – these crumple zones require very accurate measurements of the strength of the metals used within the crumple zone, and also around it. The Kobe Steel falsified data can pose a risk to manufacturers as they don’t know the real values of materials that went into creating these zones.

Crumple zones make up part of the complicated helmet that a cars exterior has become. Because unlike a helmet, the car has to have multiple layers of protection for within and without. It needs crumple zones to protect a pedestrian and car collision, crumple zones to protect a car collision with another hard object (wall, car, etc), a strong internal shell to act as the armour of a helmet, protecting the passengers and driver, and additional padding and crumple zones to protect those inside the car from the hard internal armour. That’s also where seatbelts, airbags, dashboard padding, and more come in.

Together all of these advancements have meant our cars can drive faster, accelerate faster, drive on increasingly congested roads with additional collision risks, yet our road toll keeps dropping. There is even more in the pipeline, technological innovation is accelerating, not slowing down – we have previously touched on self-driving cars and the implementation of AI into active safety features. What is important is being able to read through the marketing hype, to identify what is a standard safety feature, and what is ground-breaking and can save additional lives. It’s the equivalent of the realtor saying ‘look it comes with a roof’ or ‘it has a secure swipe access entry and retinal scanners’.

Stay tuned, as we break through the hype.

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