How car safety has evolved

Whether you are a newly qualified driver or have been exploring the roads for years on end, you should know that being safe behind the wheel is the most important thing about getting from A to B.

Car safety has come a very long way since the first motor propelled vehicles hit the UK’s roads in the 19th century. The number of fatalities and injuries sustained in cars have been dropping relative to the driving population for many years; and, whilst much of this welcome trend can be put down to improvements in driver education and training, all-important technological advancements have also had a major role to play.

In this article, we will take you through a handful of the most vital safety innovations which have been integrated into our cars over the years (and the legislation that accompanied them), as well as some products to have hit the market most recently and which are already making a big difference to the wellbeing of drivers and passengers alike.

1965: Seatbelts enshrined into law

Seatbelt

Despite all the amazing progress that has been made in the field of car safety in recent years, there is surely little disputing that the introduction of the humble seatbelt remains the world’s most significant car safety development.

Whilst the first three-point seatbelt appeared as long ago as 1959, it was not until more than five years later that the first legislation was written regarding their installation and usage. The new law made it a requirement for all newly sold cars to have anchorage points for seatbelts fitted to the front outer seats. To the young drivers of today, it could seem that this law did not go nearly far enough, but it was at least a good starting point from which car safety – and the use of seatbelts in particular – could be developed from then on.

It took decades for seatbelt law to become as comprehensive as it is today, and many driving safety advocates were frustrated throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by what was sometimes the painfully slow progress of legislation concerning seatbelts. Here are the other key dates relating to seatbelt law and when they came into effect:

  • 1967 – It was established that all cars sold in the UK must have front seatbelts fitted.
  • 1983 – The wearing of front seatbelts was made a legal requirement.
  • 1987 – The fitting of rear seatbelts in all new UK cars was enshrined in law.
  • 1991 – Last but not least, all rear-seat passengers were required to wear seatbelts.

1981: First modern airbags

Airbag

As with seatbelts, the development of airbags did not come all at once, with different innovations being added into the mix over the years. However, the first and most important date in the history of the airbag was 1981, when the first modern Supplemental Restraint System – essentially the airbag we are familiar with today - was brought into use.

Over 10 years later, in 1994, the first side-impact airbags were introduced, followed in 1996 by knee airbags (although this latter product did not appear in the UK until 2003).

As airbags grew in prominence throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, they did occasionally receive some unfairly negative press coverage. This is because, in extremely rare incidences, inflating airbags had harmed the drivers and passengers they were designed to protect.

However, research into the period 1990-2000 by the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that less than 200 fatalities in the country could be attributed to airbags deploying, compared to the roughly 6,500 lives that had been saved by them.

1996: Euro NCAP begin testing

Crash test dummy

Established by the UK’s own Transport Research Laboratory, the European New Car Assessment Programme (widely abbreviated to ‘Euro NCAP’) has been adopted by many governments across the continent as the gold standard for testing the safety of new cars.

The body met for the first time just over 20 years ago and released their first results in 1997, with various changes and additions being made to the tests – which involve the simulation of frontal, side, rear and pedestrian crash impacts – in the years that followed. Here is a quick run-through of the most important updates:

  • 2001 – For the first time, seatbelt reminder assessments are introduced, gauging how effective the prompts to drivers and passengers about unbuckled belts are.
  • 2003 – Perhaps the most important development of the Euro NCAP tests is introduced: a child protection rating.
  • 2008 – The first rear (whiplash) impact tests are carried out.
  • 2009 – The criteria for cars gaining a top rating are made stricter generally; for example, cars which do not feature stability control can no longer be awarded five stars.

Ford vehicles have enjoyed an excellent record in the Euro NCAP tests, particularly in the last few years. In fact, each of the last four new Ford cars tested – the Edge, Galaxy, S-MAX and Mondeo – have received the highest rating of five stars.

21st century: Safety gets smart

Car seat

As with almost everything else in our lives, ‘smart’ technology is now entering the world of automotive safety. A number of impressive high-tech innovations have been introduced of late, including lane departure warnings, blind spot monitoring, autonomous braking, pedestrian detection and the (extremely smart!) Car2Car products, which allows cars to communicate news about breakdowns and slippery roads to each other without any driver input needed.

However, some of the most impressive products to have entered the market in the 21st century have not had IT skills at their core but, instead, good old fashioned engineering based on simple but important ideas.

One of the smartest recent safety developments took place in 2009 with the invention of BubbleBum, the inflatable, portable and packable car booster seat which takes child safety to the next level. We spoke to Grainne Kelly, BubbleBum’s founder, about a product which even impressed the investors on the Irish version of BBC’s Dragons’ Den (although Grainne actually turned down the dragons’ help when they asked for a larger stake in the business than she was willing to part with).

Grainne told us that she created BubbleBum ‘when I was forced repeatedly to travel without a car booster seat for my children as a result of car rental firms failing to provide them, even when pre-booked in advance. I knew that we needed something that was portable and packable so I developed the BubbleBum, which is inflatable and deflatable.’

As we have seen with the evolution of the seatbelt, people can be surprisingly lukewarm about change - even when improved safety can be the result - and Grainne initially also found this to be the case with BubbleBum: ‘In the early days, there was much resistance to the use of inflatable technology as it was new and parents are seldom the early adopters of new ideas when it comes to the safety of their children. However, it was quite easy to convert these parents when they understood that many lifesaving devices are inflatable – take for example airbags, air rafts, life jackets, inflatable seatbelts and indeed even the wheels on your car’.

Using a booster seat when ferrying children around is vital because, as Grainne explains, ‘when used correctly, they eradicate the abdominal injuries that are common in children aged 4-8 in car crashes.’ According to Grainne, this is because ‘the vehicle seatbelt across the lap is what causes the injury. Children are not small adults, their bodies are proportioned differently and the seatbelt in the car is designed to fit the adult. A booster seat moves the vehicle seatbelt to position it over the strongest parts of the child’s body to spread the energy of the crash’.

BubbleBum’s ultimate aim is ambitious but it is one that, if achieved, will have a transformative effect on the safety of children whilst travelling: ‘Our vision is to see every child on a booster seat on every journey. We can achieve this by providing a solution that is portable, fits easily in the ‘3 across the back’ scenario and is cost effective (car rental companies currently charge up to €11 prepay to rent a seat)’.

It is fair to say that BubbleBum have certainly overcome any teething problems they may have had in persuading adults to let their products alleviate their child safety concerns – they now export worldwide and, as Grainne notes, ‘as thought leaders in this field, we have solved these issues for more than half a million parents so far’. 

Image Credits: zeevveez, Alex Kehr, OiMax, danjo paluska, Raelene Gutierrez