Milestones in car and road safety

Woman driving

Road accidents in the UK claim thousands of lives every year, but as more motor vehicles take to the road for the festive season it’s comforting to remember that road safety technology is at least constantly improving. Let’s take a look at some established safety features that have already saved the lives of millions.


Not strictly designed for cars, the first patent for the 'safety belt' was filed in 1884 by Edward J. Claghorn in New York - 99 years before seatbelts became compulsory for drivers in the UK. "This invention relates to belts designed to be applied to the person, and provided with hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object." – US Patent 312085 A Granted, Claghorn’s patent was far removed from the three-point seat belt system we know today. It wasn’t until 1959 when Nils Bohlin of Volvo refined the safety feature into the common V-shape. Claghorn and Bohlin may have lived in different times, but together their legacy continues to save a vast number of lives every year.


The idea that an automotive airbag could reduce head injuries and save lives has been documented since the Second World War, and a series of related patent applications have been made over the years. One early patent was filed in 1952 by John W Hetrick for his “safety cushion”. “…the valve which acts responsively to a sudden slowing of the forward motion of the vehicle, such as that occurring when the vehicle is involved in a collision or is braked heavily.” – US Patent 2649311 A But his idea wasn’t foolproof, so it wasn’t until the 1960s, when Allen K. Breed developed a reliable trigger mechanism, that the safety feature got a proper footing in the automotive industry. Though still rudimentary, Ford first adopted the idea in the 1970s and car manufacturers continue to make improvements today.

Shatterproof windscreens

This is an example of a mishap that went on to save lives. Édouard Bénédictus was a French artist and chemist who realised the potential of the glass laminate while working in his lab. Bénédictus knocked a beaker containing cellulose nitrate, a liquid plastic, onto the ground and noticed that the beaker had kept its shape despite the broken pieces. He filed a patent for his discovery in 1920, clearly citing the safety benefits. Broken glass gets everywhere, but thanks to serendipity followed by a generation of improvements, we now have much safer windows in our vehicles.

Crumple zones

The laws of physics decree that energy cannot be destroyed but, as Einstein once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Béla Barényi at Mercedez-Benz looked to displace kinetic energy from the impact of collisions with the ingenious development of crumple zones in 1952.

The persistent Barényi had originally applied to work for Porsche, but it was Dr Wilhelm Haspel at Daimler who saw his potential, resulting in a career of over 2500 patents. “Mr Barényi, you are thinking 15 to 20 years ahead. In Sindelfingen, we’ll wrap you in cotton wool. What you invent will go straight to the Patents Department.” – Wilhelm Haspel ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) Like various other automotive mod cons and safety features, the principles of ABS were originally conceived for the world of aviation. ABS improves traction and emergency steering control by restricting lock-up of the wheels. The system monitors speed (or rapid deceleration, to be more accurate) and adjusts the hydraulics accordingly. Many manufacturers claim to have been pioneers of ABS, but the 1966 Jensen FF was the first production vehicle to feature the Maxaret system, a precursor. Bosch and Mercedez-Benz teamed up to rollout the so-called “second-generation” of ABS in the 1978 S-Class. An evolved version of this is now a standard on all Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles.

Self-driving cars - the future?

The root cause of most car accidents? Some form of human error. So if you can eliminate driver error, you slice the number of accidents by a huge proportion. And if you can somehow also reduce the problems caused by other road users, including pedestrians, the total will be even higher. Self-driving cars bristle with technology that senses the presence of others and makes whatever adjustments are required to speed and direction to avoid a collision. Google says its self-driving fleet has already rung up over 300,000 miles worth of accident-free research. Actually, there have been a couple of incidents. But in both cases the human driver was actually to blame.

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