Car Safety: Comparing the Old With the New


It has been an epic battle for advocates of car safety features over a greater part of the past one hundred years. But the car industry has finally reacted to the growing consumer demand and regulatory pressure with various safety inventions and innovations.

In an attempt to produce cars with better safety features, America has begun a long, complex journey that has recorded quite a number of detours and accidents along the way.

As a result of the inferior safety features of early cars, the first auto casualty of the United States occurred on September 14, 1899. On that day, 68-year-old real estate agent Henry Bliss lost his life due to injuries he suffered after being hit by an electrically-powered taxi in Central Park in New York City.

Automobile deaths became a frequent occurrence at a rate 25 times faster than today within a decade of the first occurrence. This led to the invention by John O’Leary, who developed the O’Leary Fender, a classic solution of that inventive era.

The fender, according to a New York newspaper, “made it practically impossible to suffer serious injury when hit by a car.”

Going by the fact that O’Leary was the major inventor of safety devices in the early years of the automobile industry, it wouldn’t be wrong to say safety features were very few. Consumer’s indifference and tough-minded attitudes have made it difficult even for very sound safety approaches in the automobile industry over the years.

Some figures of the auto industry in spite of the increased pressure for better safety after World War II still objected to the need of making automobiles safer. To them, it was drivers who needed to improve. Progress made in comfort, handling, performance, or styling were seen as innovations which improved safety.

Not surprisingly, in 1946, physicians became proponents for safety improvements, obviously growing tired of the damage they were seeing more frequently in their hospitals as a result of automobile accidents.

Safety features were so lacking in those early days that, according to the Journal of American Medical Association in 1955, they determined that early cars were built so poorly, they offered zero forms of protection from a safety point of view.

Padding is another safety feature introduced by the early auto industries to protect the head of a driver from hard surfaces; this invention was made in the early 1950s. Shortly after, by mid-decade, the use of other inventions like seat belts started gaining popularity (as an option rather than a necessity) since their proponents had a difficult time overcoming critics’ questions about their effectiveness.

Despite the criticisms, researchers continued to look for ways to improve the safety features of early vehicles. They came up with some ideas that enabled them to invent new safety features for those early vehicles; the features included an elastic windshield, rear-facing seats for passengers (to enable them to cope better with the force of a crash) and two levers in place of the steering wheel (minimizing head injury risk).

Although there were consistent improvements in the safety features of early cars, most of those innovations are inferior when compared with current innovations—which makes sense. As the years tick by, and more information is learned about the dangers of cars and how technology can help eliminate those risks, we look back on the early inventions as stepping stones that got us to where we are today.

Presently, automobile safety features are aided by highly sophisticated computers, which prevent us from swerving out of our lane, hitting the car in front of us, reversing into another vehicle, spinning out, flipping over, and so on. In other words, rather than simply minimizing injury risk when accidents occur, which is what early safety features did, modern features aid in preventing the accident from happening or occurring at all. And if the race to put driverless cars on the road continues, we may one day see a complete elimination of auto accidents altogether.

As auto manufacturers work toward making our future safer on the road, it is the consumer’s job to demand safer vehicles, and help pass legislation in each of our states to help do our part as drivers.