Automotive safety has come a long way in the past 50 years.Initially safety improvements were slow to be implemented as the auto companies did not feel safety was a selling feature.The first safety improvements were padded dash boards, steering wheels that absorbed energy and lap seat belts in the late 1960’s.With the seat belt usage at around 10% and the death rate on US roadways increasing, NHTSA passed the interlock seat belt regulation that would not let the vehicle start unless the seat belt was buckled.People reacted very negatively to this regulation by buckling the seat belt behind them, cutting the wires on the interlock switch and by complaining to their Congressman about the regulation.After just two years in 1974, Congress outlawed the use of interlocks on seat belts.
At this same time, NHTSA was looking at mandating air bags as a new safety technology.General Motors and Ford had been actively developing this new technology since 1968, but did not want to install it on vehicles as it was very costly and unproven.In 1973, GM offered both driver and passenger airbags as an option on their 1974-76 large luxury cars.In the 3 years, only 10,000 were sold which led GM to petition NHTSA to drop its plans as the public did not seem interested in the technology.Airbags were dropped from consideration until the early 1980’s when they were reconsidered, but dropped again.
In the meantime, shoulder belts had been added as standard equipment first as a separate belt and then combined into one piece called the 3 point belt which still exists today. In the late 1980’s, motorized automatic seat belts were introduced to meet the new FMVSS 208 regulation, which called on a driver and passenger in the front seat to be protected from serious injury when their vehicle crashed into a solid wall at 35 MPH.This regulation spawned the word “Passive Restraint” because the occupants were not required to actively do anything to protect themselves, such as wearing a seat belt.This regulation was passed because the roadway death rate continued to rise and the seat belt usage rate was below 15%.The motorized automatic seat belts were cumbersome and people again did not like them.Auto companies then saw airbags as an alternative that could be less expensive, less intrusive to the occupant and could sell vehicles.
In 1988, driver side airbag equipped cars began to appear in quantity.Airbags began becoming the choice of the public so they didn’t have to put up with the motorized seat belts.Congress again intervened and mandated that airbags had to be on all vehicles and on both driver and passenger side of the front seat. By the mid 1990’s all vehicles had to have both airbags.At this time an unexpected consequence appeared when reports of small children in the front seat were dying from being hit by the airbag deployment in low speed crashes.Up to 100 children were dying in a year and Congress demanded a solution be found.ASC presented a technical fair in Washington DC sponsored by Senator John McCain of Arizona to display solutions and recommendations to solve this serious issue.NHTSA acted upon those and other recommendations and with public education about the need for children to ride in the back seat, wear your seat belt campaign, the inclusion of other test dummies to represent children and small adults, addition of weight sensors in the front seat and the redesign of the airbags to make them less aggressive and deploy differently depending on the occupant classification, the problem was solved and protection for everyone improved.
In the late 1990’s side impact airbags began to be added to vehicles and eventually became standard equipment along with a new regulation, FMVSS 214 requiring them.Next in the early 2000’s, rollover airbags were added along with a new Regulation in 2010 called FMVSS 226.
Throughout this time seat belt usage began to rise as well as improvements to seat belts. Seat belt pretentioners which take out the slack just before the crash, load limiters which even out and limit how much load the seat belt imparts to the occupant, active reversible seat belts that take out slack and then relax back to normal if no crash occurs and other improvements that most people do not even know exist.
Auto safety then turned to preventing accidents.The first example of this was ABS Brakes, which did not end up working as well as predicted and people did not know how to use the brake as it was exactly opposite the way everyone had been taught.ABS, however, was the technology basis for one of the best accident prevention technologies to date, Electronic Stability Control (ESC).Starting in 2012, all light trucks and cars must have ESC installed.The initial prediction of up to 10,000 lives saved a year when fully implemented in the entire population is on track with the early results from Europe and the US.Accident prevention is known as “Active Safety” and has a number of exciting technologies developed, which are in field testing. One of these technologies is Lane Departure Warning/ Lane Keeping which uses a camera to see the lane the vehicle is using and will keep the vehicle in the lane until the driver makes a deliberate change or uses the turn signal. This technology has great potential to save lives and injuries. Another Active Safety technology that is showing great results in recent applications in Europe and NA is Forward Collision Warning (FCW) with Autonomous Emergency Breaking (AEB) or Crash Immenent Braking (CIB). This technology using radar and or cameras warns the driver about a potential collision and then if no action is taken by the driver, it engages the brakes to either reduce the severity of the accident or prevents the collision depending oin the speed driven. So far, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is seeing a 16% reduction in claims with vehicles having this technology and suspects for frontal collisions it may be much higher.