Proponents of automotive safety have had to fight an uphill battle over much of the past century. But now the auto industry has responded to regulatory pressure and growing consumer demand with a range of safety innovations.
The United States has taken a long, winding road to greater vehicle safety, and there were more than a few accidents and detours along the way.
The first milestone came on Sept. 14, 1899. On that day, Henry Bliss, a 68-year-old real estate agent, died from his injuries after an electrically powered taxi ran into him in New York's Central Park. He became the nation's first car accident fatality.
Within a decade, traffic deaths were occurring 25 times more frequently than today, based on fatalities per mile traveled. It wasn't long before inventor John O'Leary developed a solution typical of that ingenious era: the O'Leary Fender.
|Models Offering Crash Avoidance Systems|
|2008 Audi A8||Lane Assist: With this option, the steering wheel vibrates if the cars veers from the lane in which it is traveling, unless the driver signals in advance.|
|2008 Audi Q7||Side Assist: Available for the first time on the Audi Q7. It is radar-based system that watches blind spots and alerts the driver to any vehicle there. The Audi A8 also has side assist as an option.|
|2008 BMW 5 & 6 Series||Stop and Go: Part of its active cruise control option, BMW offers a Stop and Go function that reduces the risk of rear-end collisions in slow-going, heavy traffic. It uses radar sensors to monitor vehicles ahead, braking the vehicle while slowing or even stopping the engine.|
|2008 Mercedes-Benz CL-Class and S-Class||Brake Assist Plus: This system, standard on the CL-Class and S-Class, provides automatic braking before an impending crash. These models also have Distronic Plus (a form of adaptive cruise control) that uses radar to help the driver maintain a safe following distance.|
|Pre-Collision System: An option on the LS and other models, this system prepares the brake assist function and tightens the front|
seatbelts to reduce injury to the driver and front passenger if a crash seems unavoidable.
According to his ad in an upstate New York newspaper, the fender made "serious injury by being hit with an automobile practically impossible." It resembled a wire-mesh cowcatcher that "scooped the person up out of harm's way."
History doesn't record how many devices O'Leary sold. But judging from how safety features fared during the industry's early years, it probably wasn't many. And that may have been a good thing, considering the surviving descriptions of his invention.
Over the years, even sound approaches to safety have had to battle consumer apathy and hard-nosed, bottom-line attitudes in the auto industry.
As pressure for greater safety began to build after World War II, some industry figures denied that they needed to make vehicles safer. Instead, it was drivers who had to improve. The innovations that actually improved safety were mostly touted as advances in handling, comfort, styling or performance.
In 1946, one "expert" wrote that the latest models "are as safe as science can make them." Not surprisingly, physicians became advocates for safety improvements, evidently tiring of the carnage they were seeing in their hospitals.
The Journal of the American Medical Association charged in 1955 that vehicle interiors "are so poorly constructed from a safety standpoint that that it is surprising that anyone escapes from an automobile accident without serious injury."
At least some in the industry were listening. In early 1950s, the auto companies, after an inexplicable half-century delay, finally put padding wherever the driver's head might hit a hard surface. By mid-decade, seat belts started becoming popular as options, although their advocates had to put up with withering criticism about their effectiveness from inside and outside the industry.
A publication from Lee, N.H.-based Motor Vehicle Research announced in 1958 that the "seat belt can be dangerous to the average user under most crash conditions" and that the safety issue "was a tool of commercialism used at the expense of human life and injuries."
Undeterred, researchers investigated ways to reduce the danger to vehicle occupants, although many were never realized. The ideas included an elastic windshield, two levers as a replacement for the steering wheel (reducing the risk of head injuries) and rear-facing seats for passengers (to help them better withstand the force of a crash.)
Automakers were also working on a "pop-out windshield" that came out when the driver banged into it. They inexplicably thought it was a good idea to give the driver an unobstructed path onto the hood, said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford, a museum in Dearborn, Mich.
At about this time, Cornell Aeronautical Research Labs made major contributions to automobile safety by applying aircraft design and safety standards to automobiles. The embodiment of this philosophy was a "safety car" that Cornell and an insurance company, Liberty Mutual, jointly sponsored. It's on display at the Henry Ford today.
"It's a '56 Ford that they modified," Casey said. "It has doors that were very much like a bifold closet door, so you had this huge opening to go through to get inside It actually put the driver in the middle of the car, with a pair of handlebars, not a steering wheel, to steer it."
Before the car started off, the dashboard swung around and locked the driver in place behind the handlebars.
Despite that the industry only went about as far as robust door locks, force-absorbing steering wheels, and padded dashboards by the mid-1960s. That was when the equivalent of a nuclear bomb hit.
In 1965, consumer activist Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at any Speed," a blistering attack on the GM's Corvair compact car.
That prompted Congressional investigations into the industry as a whole, culminating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Act in 1966. The stage was set for a regime of safety regulation that continues to this day.
Within two years of the act's passage, cars were required to have safety belts with shoulder harnesses. That paid off in the coming years: As U.S. states gradually began making belt-use mandatory in 1984, accident injuries and fatalities declined.
As safety innovations matured, more were destined to be mandated as standard features. The airbag, which dates back to the 1950s, is one example. John Hetrick of Newport, Pa., patented an automotive version in 1952, drawing on his naval engineering background and hoping to offer his own family extra protection in a crash.
Ford and GM began offering the bags in the early 1970s, but soon dropped them due to lack of consumer demand. A decade later, Mercedes-Benz embraced the devices, making them standard on its some of its 1985 models. Driver airbags became mandatory in the U.S. for the 1989 model year, and passenger airbags for the 1998 model year.
With the increase in crash testing in the 1960s, the concept of a crush or crumple zone gained currency as a way to allow vehicles to absorb the force of a collision. This "crush space" was clearly visible in a success story of the 1980s: the minivan. It lacked the flat vertical face of earlier vans.
Not every safety feature needed a push from the feds. Public fears about roll over accidents, especially in SUVS, have led manufacturers to start installing electronic stability control. Mercedes developed the first version in 1995 and licensed it to other manufacturers at no charge.
Antilock brakes had been around in the European aviation and automotive industryies since the 1930s. The Mercedes-Benz gave its S-Class ABS in 1978, and Lincoln became the first U.S brand to offer them in 1985.
The next frontier is crash avoidance, said Russ Rader, director of media relations at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. New systems signal drivers they have veered out of their lanes, and adaptive headlights turn into curves. There are even systems that signal you when you are following a vehicle too closely.
"We have done a lot to protect people in crashes," he said. "These new systems hold promise to to help keep people out of crashes."
"The caution is that we don't know how effective they will be be. In the past, we have had systems touted as the next great thing, but they have fallen flat. And the poster child for that is ABS."
Hyundai has a new concept called QarmarQ HED 4 featuring a soft plastic windshield and super-absorbent bumpers and fenders to soften the blow to pedestrians in its path. It reportedly tested well in computer animated trials.
Henry Bliss, the nation's first-ever accident fatality, might have fared better if one of the industry's new pedestrian friendly concept cars had been on the streets of New York back in 1899.