auto safety, vehicle safety, car safety

How Your Car Keeps You Safe

November 09, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
Before you drive off on your next vacation, consider how lucky you are to have a car with features that help prevent death or injury in the event of an accident. FindingDulcinea examines some of the automotive innovations that protect you and your family on the road.

The Seat Belt

The seat belt is perhaps the most prominent vehicle safety feature. Seat belts have been used in automobiles since the early 1900s. Because there were few vehicles on the road, they were used more to help people stay seated on bumpy roads than they were to protect people during crashes.
The first factory-installed seat belts were placed in cars in the 1950s, almost 20 years after physicians had encouraged automakers to do so. As deaths from automobile crashes grew, a small number of legislators and consumer safety advocates began pressing the issue until manufacturers took up the cause.

Volvo became a leader in developing the safety belt, trying several options for keeping passengers safe in case of a collision. The company tried a diagonal, two-point safety belt for a while, but the design was more likely to damage a person’s soft organs due to the position of the buckle. Even Volvo’s president at the time, Gunnar Engellau, lost a relative in an accident, partly because of a two-point belt.

Engellau enlisted a safety engineer named Nils Bohlin to fix the seat belt problem. Bohlin soon realized the trouble with a two-point belt: to truly protect passengers both their upper and lower bodies had to be secured. The three-point, or V-shaped design of the seat belt used today, was born.


Many people have taken great care to minimize the impact of car crashes on vehicle occupants. Allen Breed is one of those individuals, though he had a long fight on his hands before he could exert his influence on vehicle safety.

Breed spent years trying to convince automakers of the benefits of airbags, but they were staunchly opposed to the technology initially, and rejected his idea frequently. “We lost track of how many times we heard ‘No,’” he stated.

Over a 10-year period, “Breed would hear—but somehow never register—every objection imaginable: It won’t work. It costs too much. Babies will die. And who wants a balloon shooting out of the steering wheel, anyway? He would assemble a collector’s set of rejections from automakers around the world.”

He wasn’t deterred, however. He kept pursuing the automakers, and reminding his engineers, “We’re going to swing ‘em, boys.” Ultimately, he was right and saw his airbag sensors installed in millions of vehicles.

On Sept. 1, 1989, the government passed a law mandating that newly-manufactured cars have an airbag on the driver’s side. Although there was concern about the safety of airbags—which come out of the dashboard at up to 200 miles per hour—for small children, they are still included in new vehicles.

Crash Test Dummies

Crash test dummies were first used by the United States Air Force to test ejection seats and seat belts in airplanes. Because technology was becoming so advanced, using human volunteers was too dangerous. Sierra Sam became their first test dummy in 1949.

In 1966, a dummy was produced specifically for crash testing automobiles. This created a tremendous effect on the auto industry, which could now learn how crashes affected the human body. With paint, sensors and even body parts that react like a real person’s might, researchers are able to adjust vehicles accordingly to help minimize the risk of injury to people.

Learn More About Auto Safety

For more information about auto safety today, or for facts about a particular vehicle, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site.

Most Recent Features