Ever since the 1869 death of Irish scientist Mary Ward, the first motor vehicle fatality in history, motor vehicle accidents have been with us as a sad fact of life.
Motoring’s early days were fraught with danger. The first vehicles may have been slow but they also handled badly, had lousy brakes and virtually no safety features. As sales of motor vehicles climbed year-by-year so did the road toll. In absolute terms the Australian road toll peaked in 1978 at 3,705 deaths, but when adjusted for fatalities per 100,000 vehicles it’s a rather different story. That figure peaked way back in 1926 at 231 and has been trending down ever since.
Vehicle fatalities are always tragic, of course, but the good news is the dramatic reduction in fatalities over those years, both in absolute terms and when adjusted for the number of vehicles on the roads. That 231 deaths per 100,000 vehicles was down to just 4 by 2018 and continues to fall.
That’s a dramatic reduction in anyone’s terms and for that we can thank an improvement in vehicle safety that’s really taken off in recent years.
Here are five of the most important life-saving innovations in motoring history:
1. Crumple zones
We have Mercedes and its brilliant engineer Béla Barényi to thank for the invention of crumple zones in vehicles. Barényi recognised that the way to keep the occupants safe in a crash was to protect them in a toughened cabin while dissipating the kinetic energy in a crash through crumple zones at the front and rear of the car. Mercedes incorporated the technology into its models from 1959.
To its great credit Mercedes chose not to enforce the patent on its invention, making it available to all vehicle makers. These days crumple zones are considered the bedrock of vehicle safety.
2. Seat belts
It’s hard to believe now, but the prevailing orthodoxy before the introduction of seatbelts was that you were safest if you were thrown out of the vehicle in a crash. It was nonsense, of course, and Volvo and Saab knew that when they first became standard equipment in their cars in the late 1950s. Some American manufacturers, however, had been offering them as an option earlier than that.
The modern three-point seatbelt was patented in 1955. Today those first simple belts have evolved into sophisticated technology with locking retractors and pretensioners that prevent the occupant from jerking forward in a collision.
Compulsory seat belts have saved countless thousands of lives in Australia since the 1970s.
First patented in 1952, airbags didn’t find their way into cars until the 1970s, when General Motors in the US first started putting them into the steering wheels of government fleet vehicles. They were initially regarded as an alternative to seat belts, but today they’re seen as a vital complement to them.
Those early steering wheel bags have been well and truly superseded by multiple air bags throughout vehicle interiors that protect the occupants in all manner of crashes. Today even some motorbikes come equipped with airbags.
4. Crash tests
Mercedes first started slamming its cars into big solid objects in 1959, researching the effectiveness of its pioneering crumple zones and other safety systems. Since then crash tests and crash test dummies have become a staple of vehicle crash research and safety ratings for vehicle makers and safety authorities the world over, including Australia’s own ANCAP.
Crash tests are vital for assessing the performance of cars in real world crashes and collecting data on how they protect their occupants when the worst occurs.
5. Electronic safety systems
Crumple zones, seat belts and airbags are all vital for keeping you alive in the event of a crash, but today’s vehicles have an array of sophisticated electronic safety systems to prevent it happening in the first place.
Technology such as Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD), Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) and Electronic Stability Control (ESC) all work together to keep cars stable, predictable and under control. Increasingly these days that technology is being combined with Collision Avoidance Systems, Cross Traffic Alert, and Lane Departure Alert that actively prevent accidents from happening in so many ways.
All this technology makes modern cars extraordinarily safe, preventing crashes in the first place and protecting the occupants should everything fail despite that. Little wonder then that the road toll keeps heading south.
These days there’s really no excuse for not driving a modern vehicle with all the latest safety technology. You owe it to yourself, your family, your friends, your colleagues, and other drivers to keep them safe on the roads. So, if it’s time you upgraded that old car to something much safer, contact us today on 134 333.