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How has automobile safety improved in 60 years?

Did you know that in 2019 there was 6.7 million car accidents in the United States only?

This resulted in 36,096 deaths during the year – a dreadful statistic to say the least – but which would be much worse if it weren’t for seat belts, airbags and other modern safety devices.

In this infographic, we visualized data from the United States Transportation Bureau to show how advancements in auto safety have dramatically reduced the number of motor vehicle fatalities.

Measure security improvements

The data shows the number of fatalities per 100 million kilometers driven. From a top of 5.1 in 1960 (first year data is available), we can see that this metric dropped from 78% to just 1.1.

Year Fatalities per 100 million miles
1960 5.1
1970 4.7
1980 3.4
1990 2.1
2000 1.5
2010 1.1
2019 1.1

What makes this even more impressive is the fact that there is more cars on the road today than in 1960. This can be measured by the total number of kilometers driven each year.

So while the total number of kilometers driven has increased by 371%, the death rate decreased by 78%. Below, we’ll take a closer look at some important innovations in automotive safety.

1. The seat belt

The introduction of seat belts has been a major stepping stone in improving the safety of cars, especially as vehicles have become capable of reaching higher speeds.

The first iteration of seat belts was a 2 point design because they only looped around a person’s waist (and therefore had 2 mounting points). This design is flawed as it does not hold the upper body in place during a crash.

Today’s seat belts use a 3 point design which was developed in 1959 by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin. This design adds a shoulder belt that keeps our torso in place during a crash. It took Volvo many years not only to develop the device, but also to convince the public to use it. The United States, for example, did not impose the 3-point seat belt until 1973.

2. The airbag

The concept of an airbag is relatively simple: rather than banging our face against the steering wheel, we cushion the blow with an inflatable pillow.

In practice, however, airbags have to be very precise because it suffices to 50 milliseconds so that our heads collide with the wheel during a frontal impact. To inflate in such a short time, the airbags rely on a chemical reaction using sodium azide.

The design of the internal mechanism of an airbag can also cause problems, as was discovered during the recall of Takata airbags. As these airbags inflated, they also had the ability to send shards of metal flying through the cabin at high speed.

Dual front airbags (one for each side) were made mandatory by the US government in 1998. Today, many cars offer optional side curtain airbags, but these are not required by law.

3. The reversing camera

Backup cameras became a legal requirement in May 2018, making them one of the newest standard safety equipment in the United States. These cameras are designed to reduce the number of collisions involving objects, pedestrians or other cars.

Measuring the safety benefits of backup cameras can be tricky, but a 2014 study found cameras to be helpful in preventing collisions. A common criticism of rear view cameras is that they limit our field of vision, instead of just turning our head to face the rear.

Taking automotive safety to the next level

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), having both seat belts and airbags can reduce the risk of death from a head-on collision in 61%. It’s a big reduction, but there is still a lot of room on the table for further improvements.

As a result, car manufacturers have equipped their cars with a lot of technological safety measures. This includes pre-collision assistance systems that use sensors and cameras to help prevent an accident. These systems can prevent you from drifting into another lane (by actually adjusting the steering wheel) or applying the brakes to mitigate an impending head-on collision.

Whether these systems have a significant advantage remains to be seen. The table above shows that the number of deaths per 100 million miles has not declined since 2010.


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