From Model T to Tesla: The Evolution of Driving Safety

Find out if automotive innovations are really making us safer.

How we drive has changed dramatically since the first gas-powered cars were invented by Karl Benz in 1885. Over the last century, a combination of technological innovation, behavioral adaptation, and government intervention has accounted for increased safety on the road.

Without certain safety innovations, many of us wouldn’t survive our morning commutes. But as our cars become “smarter”—tricked out with rear-facing cameras, WiFi hotspots, and soon enough, the power to drive themselves—are we really getting safer? You’ll have to watch the video to find out, though we’ve got a few additional tidbits below.

Safety Glass

Believe it or not, at the turn of the century, windshields used to be optional. As drivers grew frustrated with airborne hazards like the occasional bug or flying rock, glass protection become more common. Back then, windshields tended to shatter into lethal shards—though car manufacturers went on to experiment with shatter-resistant glass.

Early “safety glass” was so thick and distorted, it led to eye fatigue (and, arguably, more accidents). By the 1930s, though, safety glass was more reliable, cracking into characteristic “spider web” or “pebbled” patterns that helped reduce windshield-related fatalities.

Seat Belts

The first U.S. patent for a seat belt was issued way back in 1885, though it wasn't until 1958 that manufacturers introduced the three-point lap-and-shoulder seat belt we know and love today. Before 1980, only about 11 percent of us had gotten used to buckling up. By 2001, the simple invention had saved nearly 150,000 lives.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

We may have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and its longstanding “Click It or Ticket” campaign to thank for our seat belt habits.

In the 1960s, public pressure was growing to increase car safety—a movement many attribute to the popular book Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader. Thus was born what would become the NHTSA, an agency of the executive branch of the U.S. goverment with a mission to “save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce vehicle-related crashes.” By 1992, regulations from the NHTSA had been refined, and the majority of drivers saw seat belts as a necessity.

Electronic Stability Control

Have you noticed that you’re skidding a lot less than you used to? That’s because a lot of cars these days offer electronic stability control (ESC), a computerized tool that automatically kicks on the brakes, helping you steer your car in your intended direction, despite ice, snow, or other obstacles. Though data from Progressive demonstrates that many lives have been saved by this technology, it may be another 30 years before ESC is standard in all automobiles.

A lot has changed since the 1890s, when automotive pioneer John Lambert took his secret “horseless carriage” out for a nighttime drive—only to crash into a tree stump. Today, we’ve got headlights, airbags, and voice-activated GPS. Who knows how safe and smart our cars will be in the future?

Center for American Progress Action Fund

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