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Car Safety Timeline

In the early 1950’s, automobile travel had become incredibly popular, but car safety wasn’t always on the top of people’s minds. At this point in time, there were around 40 million cars on the road in the United States. Getting to your destination in this manner was considered a great convenience and sometimes it was also quite fashionable. The popularity of this not-quite-new but budding phenomenon in the country led to many things. One of those bad things happened to be 40,000 automobile fatalities in 1950. Roughly, the same number of automobile fatalities are sustained currently in America. But a comparison of these numbers is quite misleading in comparing car safety tactics today versus yesterday.

As expected, traffic fatalities cause us to question car safety. In particular, many wonder if cars were safer decades ago. It is commonly thought that back then cars were made of more solid materials, including steel. Their frames were bulkier and they were heavier. This school of thought leads many to believe that these American-made classics were much safer to drive than the lighter more compact vehicles of today. While this may sound logical, the car safety numbers show us that this isn’t the case.

In the year 1950, there were roughly 40,000 automobile fatalities in the United States. This number is fairly consistent with current statistics. However, the rate of motor vehicle related deaths per 100 million miles traveled in 1950 in the U.S. was 6.2 times higher than it is now due to the fact that the number of cars on the road and number of miles driven currently dwarves the numbers from the 1950. So we drive a lot more now, but you may still be wondering why this discrepancy is so pronounced. Were the roads back then faulty? Were the drivers more careless? Was car safety a given?

The Introduction of Car Safety Measures

The fact is, that back then, not much was known about the mechanics of car crashes or car safety. This was the main contributor to the much higher death rate in the 1950s. First, researchers began to understand that the driver and the passenger were often seriously injured because they struck the rock-solid steering wheel or the instrument panel. So, new Ford models with padded steering wheels and instrument panels began to be produced. Then researchers thought, why not keep the passenger’s heads from hitting things in the first place? The looked at the airline industry to introduce seat belts into the dialogue on car safety. Seat belts began to also be implemented in Ford vehicles. Seat belts have been shown to reduce the risk of death by as much as 70 percent in some cases, and have saved roughly 250,000 lives since 1970. But, seatbelts aren’t the only reasons the cars of today are safer. Car safety features such as: antilock brakes, adaptive headlights, pre-crash warning systems, blind-spot detection, electronic stability control, airbags, and adaptive headrests. Non vehicle related factors such as: stricter car safety
regulations, improved roadways, higher levels of congestion and better driver training have also contributed in this significant fall of automobile fatalities.

While traffic fatalities have remained fairly constant over the last half of the century, the numbers are misleading. New progressions in research, awareness and technology have made driving astronomically safer than it used to be. We must hope that as the years pass the car safety trend will continue.

R.F. Wittmeyer

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