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July 5, 2013

News & Features

Safety features that weren't standard — or even available — not so long ago

The Virginian-Pilot

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Left: A model is shown buckling into a 1959 Volvo. The company was the first carmaker to install front seat belts, in 1957. Back seat belts were added a decade later. (Volvo) Top right: Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric self-starter, is shown in a historical photo from General Motors. (General Motors) Bottom right: An Audi is shown in a recent crash test. The company was the first to do rollover tests. (Audi)

It's hard to imagine, but most items on the long list of safety features offered on modern cars were developed only in the past 50 years.

In the early days of the automobile, just getting cars to run reliably was a miracle. Still, there were safety advancements.

Consider the electric self-starter. Prior to the 1912 Cadillac, starting a car required hand-cranking it. This demanded strength as well as caution. If you improperly grabbed the crank and the car backfired, you could break your fingers, hand, wrist or arm.

Another first, laminated safety glass, wasn't used in automobiles until the 1920s, and only since the 1930s has auto glass been tempered.

This coincided with a growing realization that safety should be considered in car design. By 1934, General Motors was crash-testing its cars by slamming them into stationary barriers. Unlike modern crash tests, in which cars are attached to chains and pulled into barriers, drivers back then leapt from the vehicles just before impact. By the end of the decade, manufacturers such as Auto Union, the predecessor of Audi, would be putting their cars through rollover tests.

The first car designed with safety in mind was the 1948 Tucker. It had crumple zones, a common feature on today's cars, which allow portions of the car to absorb the energy of a crash rather than passing that energy along to the vehicle's occupants.

Tuckers also had a padded dashboard to help prevent injuries, and instruments were grouped in front of the driver for ease of use. The placement also prevented occupants from hitting the controls in a crash. Uniquely, the Tuckers had a windshield that didn't shatter in a crash; it popped out of its frame.

A year later, the first Saab automobile, the 92, borrowed an idea from Saab airplanes. The car had a welded safety cell around the passenger compartment to protect those inside.

Another Swedish manufacturer, Volvo, was the first automaker to install front seat belts, in 1957. A decade later, Volvo installed them in the rear seats. By 1972, Volvo's rear seats would even have three-point belts, and its doors would be the first ones fitted with child safety locks.

Other companies were advancing the cause of safety as well.

In 1966, the first anti-lock braking system, built by Dunlop, was offered on the Jensen FF. Five years later, the first traction-control system, dubbed MaxTrac, was offered on Buick's full-size cars. Two years later, GM offered its first air bags as a stand-alone option. Neither option proved popular, mostly due to high prices. They were dropped by mid-decade.

Safety didn't advance much until the late 1990s, when microprocessors invaded the engine compartment in great numbers, allowing for advanced safety systems.

Today, features such as electronic stability control — pioneered by BMW and Mercedes-Benz — and radar-guided cruise control, introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1998, are common options. And Honda's Intelligent Driver Support system, unveiled in 2003 on the Japanese-market Honda Accord, helps the driver keep the car within its lane. The same feature, now called "lane departure warning," is becoming a common option.

It's safe to say that today's cars have never been safer. And neither have we.

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