A History of Car Safety

Aug 10, 2021 | Lifestyle

By James Humphrey

Car crashes remain a leading cause of premature death, with 37,461 people being killed in crashes in the United States in 2016 – 1.18 per 100 million miles traveled. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), car crashes are the leading cause of death for 16-24-year olds. But things used to be far worse. In 1966, the year the first federal motor vehicle safety standards were issued, the death toll was 50,894 – 5.50 per 100 million traveled. Had that death rate held in 2016, there would have been 174,606 deaths – nearly five times as many!

The Early Years

The interior of this 1956 Volkswagen Beetle, like many pre-1960s cars, is replete with hostile edges. There are no seat belts, either. Photo by James Humphrey.

Perhaps you’re cruising on a country road on a beautiful fall day in 1935. You’re in a relatively new car. You have the driver’s window down, taking in the beautiful fall air. You left in plenty of time, so you’re not in a hurry. You’re going the speed limit and have both eyes fully on the road. Suddenly, someone who’s not paying attention hits you head on. You’re both going about 40 miles per hour, and half of your front ends hit. Anything can happen in that split second of the accident, but most likely, the area where you’re sitting is going to be severely damaged. Your chest and head are going to slam into the intruding steering column with tons of force and you’ll be cut all over by broken glass. You’re probably dead or critically injured – through no fault of your own.

Why 1935? Because that’s the year that car safety was first brought to the public consciousness, with the publication of the Reader’s Digest article “And Sudden Death” in the magazine’s August 1935 issue. Author J.C. Furnas worked in real-life crashes with graphic detail to illustrate the dangers of driving at the time. Despite the response – the magazine ultimately issued 8 million reprints – little was done in the near term to improve the safety of automobiles.

The interiors of cars were so dangerous at the time that the article suggested that the ideal outcome was to be “thrown out as the doors spring open, so you have only the ground to reckon with.”

The only thing that could be considered a safety feature on cars then was safety glass, and according to the article, it was “by no means universal”. The safety glass available on 1935 cars was laminated – tempered glass wouldn’t be introduced for many years – and much weaker than today’s safety glass, often breaking when a head hit it, the “raw, keen edge of the hole decapitates the body as neatly as a guillotine.”

During this era, the popular perception was that to lower death rates, the only thing that could be done was to make drivers safer, often by scaring them. The graphic language in the article was to this effect – for instance, they told of a crash where an infant walked away, but his parents were “still sitting on each side of him, in­stantly killed by shattering their skulls on the dashboard”.

But a few researchers were looking into ways that crashes could be more survivable. One of these researchers was Hugh DeHaven. According to Unsafe at Any Speed, a seminal car safety book by Ralph Nader, during World War I, DeHaven was piloting a plane when he got in a plane crash with another plane. He was the sole survivor, and noted that his cockpit was the only one that had survived largely intact. The idea of “packaging” occupants – ensuring that the occupant compartment remained intact in a crash – originated in part due to De Haven’s research.

Col. John Stapp, an Air Force medical researcher, also did experiments of his own from 1947 to 1954, aimed at improving aviation safety, but the ideas were applicable to cars as well. According to his 1999 obituary in the New York Times, he sat on rocket sleds, securely strapped in, as they were accelerated to very high speeds – up to 632 miles per hour – and stopped very quickly, in 1 ½ seconds. The experiments showed that the human body could withstand much higher deceleration forces than previously thought – in Stapp’s case, up to 46 g – if the body was secured and free from hard contacts.

The first serious effort to market car safety was in the 1956 Ford lineup, under the name “Lifeguard Design”. A “deep-dish” steering wheel designed to make chest impact less injurious and safety door latches were standard; a padded dashboard and lap seat belts were optional. The package sold very well initially; according to Unsafe at Any Speed, between September 1955 and January 1956, many people who wanted seat belts had to take delivery of cars without them due to insufficient supply of belt-equipped cars. However, the success was short lived. According to Autonews.com, Chevrolet outsold Ford that year, giving birth to the industry credo “Safety Doesn’t Sell.”

In 1965, safety would be brought to the forefront again with the publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader. This book pointed out the dangers in every vehicle of the time and ways that the problems could be rectified. It sold very well, and the federal government took notice.

The Federal Government Gets Involved

Peugeot 504 full-frontal, 35 mph crash test, 1980. This vehicle was designed in 1968; at that time, car safety was in a much more rudimentary state than it was even ten years later. From NHTSA, a US government agency, and thus public domain.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which created the National Highway Safety Bureau (soon renamed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA), and empowered the federal government to set standards for vehicle safety.

A raft of vital car safety standards was introduced from 1966 to the early 1970s. Three-point seat belts were made mandatory in the front seats of all cars. Invented by Volvo in 1959, these belts did not see widespread installation in cars until the January 1, 1968 effective date of the standard approached. According to NHTSA, seat belts have saved about 360,000 lives from 1975 to 2016 and continue to save about 15,000 lives per year.

In the early days, few people used seat belts. In 1975, just 978 lives were saved by seat belts; according to NHTSA, it is estimated that 13,301 additional lives could have been saved that year had belt use been at 100 percent.

Despite massive efforts, seat belt use remained low in this era, an estimated 7 percent in 1975. Public service announcements, such as this one were produced. NHTSA issued a federal standard requiring all 1974 model cars to have an “ignition interlock” system that would prevent the car from starting unless the seat belt was buckled, unless the car was equipped with a “passive restraint” – one that doesn’t require action from the occupants.

General Motors offered a passive restraint option in some of their 1974-1976 full size models. The system, called ACRS, was the first use of air bags in production automobiles for sale to the public. The $225 option included a dual air bag system and could only have lap belts, as it was believed that the air bags would replace seat belts, not supplement them. By today’s standards, the bags were massive; the passenger air bag extended all the way from the steering wheel to the right door, and was deep enough to hit the unoccupied seat! Only 10,000 ACRS-equipped vehicles were sold, and the option was quietly discontinued after three years.

According to Russ Rader, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the most important safety feature in cars is seat belts, with air bags coming in a close second.

Head restraints, side impact beams, collapsible steering columns, windshields that would not fly out in a crash, roof strength requirements, and myriad other safety features were required in federal safety standards within a decade of the NHTSA’s founding.

By 1978, death rates had dropped to 3.26 per 100 million miles according to NHTSA, a 41 percent reduction from the level they were at when the first federal standards were issued.

Crash Testing Arrives

This 1990 Lincoln Town Car, like many 1990s vehicles, was equipped with frontal air bags and could pass a 35-mph full-frontal crash test. Photo from NHTSA.

Though few realized it at the time, May 21, 1979 was a watershed day in car safety. At the Dynamic Science facility near Phoenix, a 1979 Plymouth Champ was crashed into a wall at 35 mph. This was the first test conducted in NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), and the first ever comparative crash test program in the world, where vehicles were tested under the same conditions to give an idea as to how well they performed. NCAP crashed cars into a rigid barrier at 35 mph, with the seat belts fastened on a driver dummy and passenger dummy.

In the early years, there was a wide range of vehicle performance. “Passing”, meaning that serious injury was unlikely, meant a Head Injury Criterion (HIC) of under 1,000 and less than 60 Chest G’s. According to an analysis I conducted using NHTSA’s database of past tests, only 27 percent of 1979-1980 cars passed for both occupants, with the HIC being the biggest hurdle; average HIC for all vehicles was around 1,300 on each side, according to an analysis of NCAP tests in the NHTSA database done during that period.

The 1980 Cadillac Seville was among the best performers in the first two years of testing. The HICs were 622 for driver, 523 for passenger; chest G’s were 43 for driver, 34 for passenger. This indicated a likelihood of only minor injury to the driver and passenger. By contrast, the 1979 Peugeot 504’s head injury performance was so bad – HIC was 4,611 for the driver, 2,535 for the passenger – that death would be nearly certain for each occupant.

As the 1980s progressed, cars gradually became safer. Structural and seat belt designs were changed, and by 1986, according to the aforementioned analysis, the average HIC for all vehicles had dropped to below 1,000 for each side, according to an analysis of tests done that year. 56 percent of vehicles passed for both sides that year.

In the late 1980s, cars replaced their rear-seat lap belts with three-point belts, which were mandated starting Dec. 11, 1989.

The next major advance in car safety was the rise of frontal air bags. Mercedes-Benz pioneered the modern air bag system, designed to work with a three-point seat belt, in 1980; it became available in the USA in 1984. On July 11 of that year, NHTSA issued a law that would require a driver air bag or automatic seat belts on all cars built from September 1989, unless two-thirds of the nation’s population was under mandatory seat belt use laws by then. While 49 states (all but New Hampshire) eventually passed the laws, not enough did by the deadline, and the mandate went into effect.

Automatic seat belts, which are cheaper than air bags, were initially installed on most cars, but were unpopular with consumers and provided less safety benefit than air bags.

Chrysler Corporation took the lead in putting air bags on non-luxury cars; all their 1990 models built by them in the US featured a standard driver air bag, including the $7,358 ($14,690 adjusted for inflation) Dodge Omni. According to IIHS, about half of 1992 model cars featured a driver air bag, and those that didn’t yet have air bags were slated to get them in the next few years.

On Dec. 18, 1991, President George H.W. Bush passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which included a clause that mandated that all vehicles produced after Sept. 1, 1998 (the 1999 model year) were equipped with dual air bags. Aggressive marketing and good press meant that dual air bags were in demand long before that; according to AutoTrader.com, most cars had them by the 1995 model year.

Grant McCullum has been selling new and used automobiles at Gary Force Honda in Bowling Green, Ky. since 1996. He states that safety has always been a high priority among car buyers, and this “has not changed at all” since the mid-1990s. At that time, the safety feature that most people looked for was dual air bags, “and just air bags in general”.

By 1995, the combined efforts of air bags and improved vehicle designs meant that most new vehicles were doing well in the NHTSA full frontal test; a Government Accountability Office report from that year found that the average risk of severe injury in the crash mode had dropped from 50 to 20 percent between 1980 and 1993. That year, the IIHS began doing what’s called an “offset” test, choosing 40 mph as the speed because it was the median speed for fatal front crashes at that time. Just 40 percent of the front end hits a deformable barrier, requiring much more structural integrity to pass than the full-frontal test. In the first two years of testing, nearly 60 percent of tested vehicles scored a poor or marginal rating, with structural instability and leg injuries being the most common problems, according to an analysis I did on vehicles tested by the IIHS in 1995 and 1996.

Also, in the mid-1990s, the problems of early generation air bags became apparent. Overpowered air bags, installed to meet unbelted safety requirements, were seriously injuring and killing children and small adults. According to IIHS, the number of deaths peaked in 1997, when 56 people were killed by air bags, including 27 children and four infants.

A massive education campaign began, emphasizing that children under age 12 should sit in the rear seats, and all adults should sit at least 12 inches from the driver air bag. In addition, “depowered” air bags, which inflate with less force, were mandated beginning in 1998. According to IIHS, only 8 people were killed by air bags in 2001, a drop of 86 percent in just four years.

The Contemporary Era

By the mid-2000s, performance in the IIHS frontal test had nearly reached perfection; by 2006, nearly all vehicles received a Good or Acceptable rating, with three-quarters getting a Good rating, according to a presentation given in November 2015 by IIHS president Adrian Lund. That year, the IIHS began allowing manufacturers to test vehicles in-house and send the results to IIHS, so that they could focus on other crashes, according to a March 2006 news release. At that time, IIHS president Adrian Lund called the program a “huge success”. NHTSA performance had fared even better; according to a National Institutes of Health report, 98 percent of vehicles got either four or five stars out of five by 2007.

Attention began to turn to side collisions. According to IIHS, as late as 2003, just 22 percent of vehicles were equipped with side air bags with head protection as standard equipment. This could involve two separate air bags, a side torso airbag to protect the chest and a side curtain airbag to protect the head, or one “combination” airbag that could protect both.

In August of that year, IIHS released a study that showed that side airbags with head protection reduced fatalities in side impacts by 45 percent, while bags with torso only protection only reduced fatalities by 11 percent. IIHS also began side impact testing that year, using an SUV-style barrier that hit higher on the vehicle.

In response to deaths and serious injuries to children and small adults caused by early frontal air bag designs, air bags have gotten smarter. “Advanced” air bags, which take into account variables such as crash severity, seat position, and passenger weight, have been mandatory since the 2007 model year.

New crash tests, such as small overlap frontal and roof strength tests have appeared in the last ten years. Results are improving more rapidly than they did in past years. For instance, the small overlap test was introduced in 2012. According to the Lund presentation, only 30 percent of 2012 vehicles tested earned an Acceptable or Good rating in the driver side small overlap test. By 2015, this was up to 60 percent.

“We look at the ways people are injured in crashes to find ways to update crash tests.” says Rader, adding that side impact protection was a potential point of crash test improvement.

The Future, and What’s Holding Us Back

According to Rader, the biggest improvements of the future will be in “front crash prevention” – features such as automatic emergency braking, which uses sensors mounted on the vehicle that can stop it automatically if an obstacle is detected, lane departure warning, which warns a driver if they are drifting out of their lane, and blind spot warning systems, which alert drivers to vehicles in their blind spots.

He also stressed that some crashworthiness improvements can still be made, saying that crash test speeds would probably have to be raised in the future, as higher speed limits are resulting in crashes at higher speeds. “If states keep raising speed limits, we have to raise crash test speeds.” said Rader.

One glaring safety omission that IIHS is currently investigating is semi-trailer underride. The bottom of a typical semi-trailer is at windshield level on a car, so when a car hits a semi-trailer, it bypasses the protective crumple zone and hits the windshield itself. “Underride guards” mounted on the rear of semis are mandatory but are not mandated on the side. According to IIHS, 295 people were killed in side underride crashes in 2016. A recent IIHS crash test showed that a side underride guard could prevent a fatality or severe injury caused by underride. In December 2017, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (Dem.) and Marco Rubio (Rep.) introduced a bi-partisan bill to make side underride guards mandatory.

Rader’s point of advice for car shoppers is “We recommend that people look for vehicles that are midsize or larger, with good crash test ratings.”

McCullum finds that most consumers agree, saying that about 80 percent of his customers see safety as a high priority. The other 20 percent would usually be buying “sports cars and gas guzzlers” he says.

He thinks that “people have realized that there are strict standards out there, and there’s an inherent belief that most cars are safe.”

Survivor Spotlight: Jake Collins

Jake Collins, 21, is a Western Kentucky University student who was saved by seat belts and air bags. In February 2014, he was traveling at 80 mph on the interstate when he lost control of his 2012 Ford Escape, flipping over. According to Jake, a state trooper who responded to the crash estimated the SUV flipped six times. Despite the violent roll, he described his injuries as “nothing major”. The driver’s window was broken, with major roof crush, and the SUV was a total loss. Jake credits the seat belt and side curtain airbag with saving his life, saying “My seat belt probably helped, but all the airbags deployed except for the one out of the steering wheel.” He said the one “next to his head” helped the most (meaning the side curtain airbag)

Survivor Spotlight: Macy West

Her Honda Civic was destroyed, but Macy West walked out of this crash with minor injury. Photos from Macy West, used with permission.

Macy West, 19, is a Western Kentucky University student who was saved by advanced air bags when she was involved in a crash in her 2013 Honda Civic. She was driving with the seat in the full-forward position. She rear-ended a stopped pickup truck on the interstate at over 70 mph. Despite the close proximity, the only injury she received from the inflating driver air bag was a busted lip. “It did its job.” she says of the air bag.

Despite the severity of the crash, the front doors still opened, and Macy had minor injuries. The crash happened on a Sunday; she was able to attend her classes on Wednesday.

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