GEM Motoring Assist presents

The History of Automobile Safety

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A History of Automobile Safety

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1861 - Speed Limits

The Locomotives on Highways Act imposed speed curfews on steam powered agricultural vehicles that drove on country lanes and towns. The limits were later cut and reintroduced as the motor car was presented and refined.

1889 — Electric Headlight

Appearing first in North America, headlamp design, including the bulb, reflector and lens, has evolved gradually, culminating in the introduction of the latest HID, LED and laser units.

1895 — Pneumatic tyres

Used on a car first by André Michelin, tyre development has been a significant contributor to road safety ever since.

1896 — Construction guidelines

English 'Emancipation Act' provided some basic guidelines on how a car should be constructed. The modern descendant is Construction and Use Regulations.

1903 — Four wheel brakes/drive

Fitted first to the Dutch Spyker 60/80 racer, which also boasted four-wheel-drive. Disc brakes are far more efficient than drum types, mainly due to their ability to shed their heat faster.

1903 — Windscreen wipers

Early efforts to clear the front windscreen started and later progressions include rubber blades, powered wipers, manual and electric washers, self-parking, intermittent operation and rain-sensing abilities.

1912 — Electric starter

As compression ratios rose, many drivers were breaking their wrists, starting their engines manually. Cadillac is credited with making the first mass-produced electric-start car, although starting handles survived in Europe, into the 1990s.

1921 — Hydraulic operated brakes

The Duesenberg Model A used a system that was based upon the principles, established by Malcolm Lockheed. Split circuits appeared from the 1960s, so that if a leak occurred, some braking was still possible.

1931 — Safety glass

UK legislation dictated that safety windscreens replaced plate glass, for all new cars from 1932, although some models, especially Austins and Chryslers, were thus equipped during much of the 1920s. It took until 1937 for all vehicles to be included within the British statute. Even safer laminated glass, which appeared from the mid-1940s, took until the 1970s, to become widespread in Great Britain.

1934 — Unitary body

Influenced by The Budd Company of North America, Citroën's Traction Avant was the first chassis-less car. Although its one-piece body was immensely strong, it paved the way for other carmakers to incorporate further protective and impact absorbing qualities, such as a safety cages (1940s) and crumple zones (1950s)

1952 — Disc brakes

Early disc brakes acted on the transmission, as per trams, lorries, aircraft and competition cars of the era. Chrysler designed an enclosed disc brake in 1950 but it was not put into production. Although built in tiny numbers, Jaguar’s C-type racer featured front discs from 1952, and the Jensen 541 was bestowed with 4-wheel disc brakes in 1956.

1954 — Self-levelling suspension.

Introduced on the rear end of Citroën's Traction Avant first, self-levelling helps a loaded car maintain its road-holding, as well as preventing its headlights from dazzling fellow road-users.

1956 — Safety steering column.

Volvo's 120 (Amazon) steering column broke away from the steering system in a major impact. Further developments in the motor industry saw collapsible columns and impact absorption qualities being introduced.

1958 — Padded interiors

Carmakers start to change interior design so that protruding parts and bare metal surfaces could no longer cause injury, when struck by an occupant.

1959 — Three point safety belt.

Fitted first to Volvos as standard. Other carmakers recognised the benefits, some of which were prompted by legislation.

1960 — MoT Test

A compulsory annual roadworthiness check was first introduced in the UK. Today, cars over three years-old need to be inspected every twelve months.

1966 — ABS

Dunlop developed the Maxaret anti-lock-brake in the early 1960s, which was used mainly for aircraft. A modified system was fitted later to the Jensen FF of 1966. Bosch Automotive refined and popularised ABS for car use by the late 1970s.

1967 — Seat belt law

UK statute dictated that safety belts must be fitted to new cars, although a number of carmakers had fitted them as standard for almost a decade beforehand. From 1983, all occupants had to use them, where fitted. 3-point replaced 2-point belts gradually and Inertia Reel usurped static types in the early 1970s. Pre-tensioners became commonplace from the mid-1980s.

1968 — Automatic fuel cut off switch

To reduce the chance of a fuel leak and consequent fire, inertia switches cut off power to the fuel pump, in the event of an impact. The Lucas Petrol Injection system of 1968 was the first British system to be fitted with a separate cut-off switch.

1971 — Traction Control

Early electronic efforts at traction control appeared in North America, which went global from the mid-1980s. The system was refined later, often combined with stability control.

1973 — Side impact protection.

Door bars were fitted by Volvo in 1973. In 1991, the Swedes had developed a side impact protection system, which transferred impact forces around the car

1984 — Airbag

Although cars featuring steering wheel airbags had been sold, prior to the mid-1980s, they had not become popular, until Mercedes-Benz started offering a single driver's airbag. Today, a new car can have in excess of eight airbags fitted.

1987 — Rear seat belts

Rear seat belts become a legal requirement, on all new cars sold in the UK. By 1991, all adults were required to belt up in the back, providing belts are provided.

1995 — Stability Control (+Traction Control)

Mercedes' face-lifted S-Class introduced the technology to a mass-produced car. The system operates, when it detects a lack of steering control, by applying the brakes of a skidding wheel (via the ABS) and cutting power, if needed. It has been described as one of the most vital safety aids of modern times.

1996 — Euro NCAP

European crash safety assessment programme introduced, to grade car models on their safety, over-and-above the minimum legal standards.

1998 — Brake Assist

As 90% of drivers do not press the footbrake adequately in emergency situations, Brake Assist reduces the pressure needed at the pedal, depending on the rate at which it is depressed.

2004 — Blind spot warnings

Fitted first to Volvos as optional equipment, the Blind Spot Monitoring System (BLIS) warns the driver, if an oncoming vehicle lingers in the vehicle's side blind spot.

2006 — Child seat legislation

Children below 135cm in height are required by UK law to use a child restraint, after which an adult seat belt can be used.

2010 — Automatic braking

Although systems have been in place that pre-empt an impact, since the early 2000s, auto brake systems work in low-speed conditions, to warn the driver of an impending impact and apply the brakes fully, if there is no manual reaction.

2012 — Pedestrian Airbag

Although methods to protect pedestrians have been in use for many years, including pop-up bonnets from the mid 2000s, a pedestrian airbag appeared first in 2012.

2015 — Driverless cars

The UK government issues measures to permit driverless cars on public roads under strict research conditions.

About GEM Motoring Assist

GEM Motoring Assist is a breakdown cover company and road safety charity that has been serving motorists for over 80 years. The GEM Road Safety Charity provides funding for road safety campaigns and activities in the UK.

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