We’ve come a long way: the evolution of road safety standards

GREENVILLE, NC (Stacker.com) — As more and more automobiles first appeared on American roads in the early 1900s, the number of deaths and injuries from traffic accidents skyrocketed, especially when compared to those caused by railroad accidents .

In 1915, for example, there were only 199 deaths among railroad passengers versus 6,600 among motorists and pedestrians. Ten years later, by 1925, there were 171 rail deaths, but 21,900 for motorists and pedestrians.

As early as the 1920s, the National Safety Council tried to draw attention to the dangers with accident statistics.

Keeping Americans safe on the streets was quickly becoming an issue that required solutions.

Some came in the form of car or road designs, shatterproof windshields for example. Others looked at driver behavior, whether it was speeding or drinking while driving.

However, there was an inconsistency in the implementation of improvements. The first patent for seat belts was granted in 1885, but it would be many years before they were used regularly by drivers and passengers.

The Patel Company has compiled a list of safety milestones, which it compiled from historical records, documents from government agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Smithsonian Institute, and nonprofit organizations such as the American Automobile Association.

Here’s a look at key innovations that have been introduced over the years, from traffic signals to seat belts.

1/10 Daily Herald Archive/SSPL // Getty Images

Traffic light debut in London

Britain may lay claim to the first set of traffic lights placed outside the Houses of Parliament in London. They were lit with gas and controlled manually by police officers. But they could pose a hazard themselves, exploding and causing injury. The first electric traffic light debuted in Cleveland in 1914, the brainchild of an American police officer. Three-way lights were introduced in 1930, with yellow warnings of an imminent change.

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introduced speed limits

Connecticut was the first state to introduce a speed limit for automobiles in 1901. Motor vehicles could not be driven faster than 12 miles per hour in cities and 15 miles per hour in the country. In 1974, under President Richard Nixon, a speed limit on National Highways was set at 55 mph. The impetus was not safety, but fuel economy. The trigger was the oil embargo imposed by OPEC on the United States because of its support for Israel. But the number of deaths fell 16.4% in a year, from 54,052 in 1973 to 45,196 in 1974. Then, in 1987, Congress authorized states to increase the speed limit to 65 mph.

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Buckle up for safety

The first vehicular seat belt was developed for taxi cabs to protect New York City tourists while seeing the sights. It looked like a climbing harness, reports the American Automobile Association. A life-changing innovation came in 1959 when Nils Bohlin, a former aerospace engineer working for Volvo, invented the three-point seat belt. In a dramatic gesture, Volvo made the design public for other manufacturers to replicate for free. When Bohlin died in 2002, Volvo estimated that its innovation had saved more than 1 million lives over more than 40 years. The federal government made seat belts mandatory in all new cars in 1968 — one of several safety standards, and in 1974 New York passed the first law requiring them to be used by people riding in the front seat.

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Helmets are compulsory for motorcyclists

In 1967, the federal government began giving money for highway safety to states that made helmets compulsory for motorcyclists. Less than 10 years later, in 1976, Congress removed the ability to impose fines for non-compliance, and as a result some states began imposing the laws only on young or new drivers. Today, about half of the states require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, while the other half regulate only some riders or have no law at all. New Hampshire, Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire have no requirements.

5/10Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star // Getty Images

New York passes drunk driving law

The first drunk driving law was passed in New York in 1910. But as late as 1985, it was legal in 26 states to drink and drive provided the driver was not legally intoxicated. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980 by a woman whose 13-year-old was killed by a drunk driver and went on to advocate for a blood alcohol limit of 0.8% for drivers. Those convicted of drunk driving are sometimes ordered to install ignition interlock breath analyzers in their cars. The lockout prevents a vehicle from starting unless the driver passes a test after breathing in.

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Airbags created to save lives

Airbags were first developed in 1951. Front airbags were not standard equipment for all new cars until 1998; and in SUVs, pickups, and vans in 1999. Side airbags are not required, but are typically included. Studies have shown that front airbags reduce the number of drivers killed in frontal crashes by 29%. Side airbags reduce fatalities in driver-side crashes by 37%. According to data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, front airbags saved more than 50,000 lives from 1987 to 2017.

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Sharing the road with cyclists, pedestrians

The first automobile accident, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, happened in 1896 when a car and a bicycle collided in New York City. Since then, between 1932, when fatality estimates were first recorded, and 2008, around 53,000 cyclists have died in accidents. More recently, in 2019, 846 cyclists, 6,205 pedestrians and 5,014 motorcyclists died in accidents. The Share the Road campaign aims to reduce road deaths by reminding motorists that cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists have a right to use the road too. But the fighting continues. A new bike lane on New York City’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge has been hailed by many cyclists but lamented by drivers.

8/10 Damian Strohmeyer/The Denver Post // Getty Images

Child seats protect children in moving cars

The first child car seats were rudimentary to keep children quiet but lacked any real safety features. Seats had a metal frame in the early 1960s, followed by those that were padded to protect children in collisions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1971 mandated that seats be equipped with seat belts and harnesses. Today, all 50 states require infant and booster seats, although the laws vary. About half require children under the age of 2 to ride in rear-facing child seats.

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Shatterproof windshields protect against glass splinters

The first windshields and windows were prone to shattering in collisions, shattering into jagged pieces that could cause serious injury or even death. By 1926, the Stutz Motor Car Company was introducing wires into their windshields to reduce the likelihood that they would break apart. Later, shatterproof windshields consisted of glass panes separated by a celluloid or plastic film, as fitted to the 1928 Ford Model A and 1930 General Motors Cadillacs. Federal law requires windshields to be made of laminated safety glass.

10/10Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis // Getty Images

Improved brakes keep cars on the road

Anti-lock brakes use sensors on each wheel to keep the wheels from stopping. Traction control limits wheel spin. Then a federal regulation required electronic stability control for all passenger cars and light trucks. Computers control the braking on each wheel individually. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates the technology saved more than 2,000 lives between 2008 and 2010. This story originally appeared on The Patel Firm and was produced and distributed in association with Stacker Studio.

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