Car Safety History: Air Bags To ABS

         Let’s start with a trivia question: Do you know when seat belts were first introduced?

        Though seat belts were initially an optional feature and viewed more as a novelty than critical life-saving devices, the first automobile that offered them was the Rambler. The year was 1950 and the model was the Nash-Kelvinator.

        Skeptics probably laughed and pointed, “Ha, ha, ha. Seat belts in a car! What do think, you’re going to strap yourself in like this Rambler’s a rocket?  Next you’re going to the moon right?”

        Little did we know that decades later seat belts would be universally recognized as one of the auto industry’s most significant automotive safety breakthroughs. Today, not only are seat belts mandatory as standard equipment in new cars, but most state laws also require that we use them.

        Along the way another pioneering idea was air bags. According to a study by State Farm Insurance Company, drivers who are protected by air bags are 35 percent less likely to suffer serious injuries in a crash than those who wear safety belts alone. Yet, along the way many have wrongly assumed that having air bags makes seat belts unnecessary. The fact is that drivers who used seat belts in conjunction with the air bag were 23 percent less likely to experience moderate or severe injuries than those unbelted folks.

        With those figures it makes it almost sound like we’re moving toward a car that’s 100 percent safe. Well, to a certain extent we are. But safety developments have evolved in increments.

The Safety Movement

        The roots of today’s safety trend date back to the 1950s where such new car features as wrap-around windshields (elimination of distracting center dividers), padded dashboards and collapsible steering columns (shafts that collapse like a telescope in a collision).

        By the 1960s, safety gained the attention of the government. And while the political aspect of having government breathe down the necks of car companies has always been contentious, ultimately many legislated safety items have benefited us (e.g., seat belts).

        Along the way, in the 1960s what is now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration arrived under the Department of Transportation. During the 1960s, the passing of the Highway Safety Act also pointed the way to a new safety priority on the national agenda (ever heard of Ralph Nader?).

        There are hundreds of other safety features, designs and devices that are helping preserve lives. Notice the recessed accessory controls on your car’s dashboard, making it unlikely that a passenger will be impaled by a knob during a collision. Another subtle change has been the movement toward eliminating protruding door handles (this might also be contributing to why you might be getting more confused about where the handles are when you’re getting out a friend’s car … “How do you get out of this thing?” “Oh, that’s where the handle is; that’s a handle?”

        Naturally, while the inside of the car has gotten safer, aspects on the outside and underneath have improved, too. Steering systems, suspensions and brake engineering have all improved and contributed to better stability and control. The most recent standout champion on the braking scene has been the addition of anti-lock braking.

        When most people encounter and emergency stopping situation, they tend to mash down on the brakes and just lock up the wheels. All that does is melt the tires — then you’re sliding over liquefied rubber. Ideally, what you should do is depress down on the brake pedal just to the threshold before the wheels begin to skid. The goal is to slow the wheels down, not stop them. But only Mario Andretti-type drivers can think like this during an emergency.

        Enter anti-lock braking (ABS). With ABS, when the car’s wheels begin to lock up, a computer activates a system that pumps the brakes automatically, pulsating many times per second, and helps prevent skidding. The result is better braking and steering control.

Buying Safety

        When you go shopping for a new car, here are some tips to keep in mind to help you make your decisions:

1. AIR BAGS: Look for vehicles that feature air bags. Some models are only offered with driver’s side air bags — it’s best to have dual air bags, so the front passenger is protected, too (by 1998 all cars will be equipped with dual air bags; for light trucks).

2. ABS: Seek out vehicles that either include anti-lock braking standard, or order the feature if it’s optional.

3. TRACTION CONTROL: Many newer models offer some form of traction control system that help’s prevent wheel spin under acceleration. This is a particularly important safety feature for wet or icy roads, and a solid investment on the life-saving list.

4. RESEARCH: Investigate available information on how well a particular new model did in crash tests or in the area of safety recalls. Crash test information is sometimes considered a bit arbitrary because the actual tests are done in laboratory environments — not the “real world.” But you can be sure that the tests give some guidelines. You’ll see a parallel between the car brands that are famous for “safety” and their high scores in laboratory crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers a toll-free phone number for more safety information on new cars, as well as past year’s results: (800) 424-9393.

Another handy piece of information is a free brochure called “Shopping For A Safer Car,” write:

Insurance Institute For Highway Safety
1005 N. Glebe Road
Arlington, VA 22201

There’s no question that new cars are the safest ever, with improved vehicle structures, improved side-impact protection and head restraints — even some with built-in infant and child seats. But there’s no substitute for safer drivers, those critical decisions that are ultimately up to you.

Hoping you’ll never need this safety technology, I wish you smooth travels ahead!

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