A Brief History of Automobile Safety

auto_safetyIn the early days of the automobile, there was little thought given to how safe they were. As matter of fact, autos had just two real safety features: brakes and headlights. The problem was that automobiles were so new that the general public and the car manufacturers themselves, didn’t realize how dangerous cars could be.

One of the first safety features

Believe it or not, one of the first real safety features was the electric starter. Before the electric starter, car engines were started by hand crank. Not only did this require a great deal of strength, it could maim you. The problem was backfiring. If the engine you were cranking accidently backfired, which was very common, the crank could break your arm. And this was a very common accident. In 1914, an automotive engineer by the name Charles “Boss” Kettering developed the first automatic starter technically as a safety device. It allowed anyone to start a car while seated safely behind the dash. It sounds simple today, but the electric starter was and remains one of the most important innovations in automotive history.

The next twenty five years

From 1915 until 1940, automobiles evolved pretty much continuously. Each model year, the technology would advance with more power, style and utility. And for the safety of the automobiles, not so much.  Safety was an occasional thought (example: safety glass came into play in 1939) but it was driven by marketing departments. If a safety feature was developed and it sold more cars, then it was adopted.

Then there was Tucker

The war effort (1941) saw a halt in the production of automobiles in favor of war machines. When the war was over, GI’s brought home with them pent up demand for new cars. The problem was that all the advancement in automobile technology essentially stopped in 1941 so the designs of the late 1940s were antiquated. Except for one plucky upstart named Preston Tucker.

Tucker decided that automobiles needed to be dramatically safer and he designed his cars with advancements that had never been seen before. He wanted to build the first safe automobile. The Tucker Model 48 was the result. It featured a cabin with a padded dash and free of any spear-like protrusions. It had a center headlight that turned with the wheels and many other innovative ideas. Alas, Preston Tucker overextended himself and his company went out of business before many cars could be built.

The Baby Boom

As the baby boom came along, parents became more concerned with safety, as did the Federal Government. By the 1950’s, rudimentary seat belts became optional on some Ford models and three point safety belts were pioneered by Volvo in 1959. The automobile manufacturers were slowly adopting features that were designed with safety in mind.

Ralph Nader

Then as the folks at Ken Garff Used of West Valley, UT, explained Ralph Nadar came along. He published a vicious denunciation of the automotive industry in his book Unsafe At Any Speed.  While it made an example of the Chevrolet Corvair, it was an indictment of the industry as a whole and the book ignited Washington, where legislation was passed that would become the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Crash Test Dummies

Another important advancement came not from the vehicles themselves, but from the method of crash testing. Rather than base crash performance on the damage to the car, the advent of data collecting crash test dummies put the focus on the passenger. It was no longer good enough to restrain the passengers, the seat belts and automotive structure needed to be designed in a way to minimize injuries during collisions.


Driven by the federal government and a general awareness of automotive safety, safety engineering is a now a major issue for all manufacturers. While some will fuss about all the cumbersome regulations involved, it’s important to keep in mind the survivability of accidents has increased many times over since the 1960’s.  In the future, we will undoubtedly see further innovation, and improved crash performance.

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