When Did Car Safety Features Become Standard?

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Welcome to Part 1 of a three-part series we’re calling The History of Car Safety. At David Aylor Law Offices, our car accident lawyers want to inform you about important developments that have improved safety in transportation and accident outcomes.

Introduction – The Advent of Safety in Motor Vehicle Production

The Ford Model T was the first mass-market vehicle in production. Ford Motor Company built 15 million Model Ts from 1908-1927.

The automobile would go on to define the 20th century as the symbol of the promise of human ingenuity.

Today’s vehicles have a host of features and technologies that enhance vehicle safety. However, early models did not have the safety features that we take for granted today.

Safety measures have developed through the years. Some safety features were implemented at the initiative of car manufacturers. Others were government mandated. With motor vehicle crashes costing great economic and personal loss, transportation safety continues to be a primary consideration for designers, consumers and regulators alike.

In this piece, we look at the development history of many common safety features in modern automobiles.


According to the CDC, putting on a seatbelt is one of the most effective things a person can do to protect themselves from injury in a crash. Seatbelt use may decrease crash fatalities and major injury by up to 60%. (NHTSA: Car Seat Occupant Protection). However, seatbelts weren’t available in automobiles in the United States until 1949. Nash Motors was the first American manufacturer to offer them, with Ford Motor Company first having them as an option in 1955.

Neurologist C. Hunter Shelden first suggested retractable seatbelts to reduce head injury from automobile accidents. Despite their potential, they were not popular with early consumers. Ford reported that only 2% of consumers paid to have seatbelts installed in early models. (MSN: Americans went to war against seat belts).

Scientific data began to grow about the efficacy of seatbelt use in injury reduction. Then, in 1958, Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin, working on behalf of Volvo, designed the three-point seatbelt. The new design added additional safety function while being easy and fast to use. But it still wasn’t until 1966 that the Highway Safety Act made seatbelts mandatory in new vehicle manufacturing.

Even so, seatbelt use continued to lag in the United States. AAA reports only 10% of travelers regularly used seatbelts in the 1980s. (AAA: A Seatbelt History Timeline). New York became the first state to require front-seat riders to use seatbelts in 1985. Slowly, over time, as laws passed throughout the country, seatbelt use grew. Today, 90% of riders use their seatbelts. New Hampshire is the only state that does not have a seatbelt law. (CDC: Buckle Up).

Turn Signals

By communicating effectively with turn signals, drivers can reduce collisions. British inventor Percy Douglas-Hamilton first patented the turn signal in 1909. His rudimentary device consisted of hand-shaped signals that illuminated. They mimicked the hand signals that drivers used to indicate their movement.

Later designs became more sophisticated. While early models produced a signal in the rear only, signals were later added to the front. Today, some vehicles even indicate a turn with a flashing light on the rearview mirror as a signal for any vehicles that may be on the side.

The familiar clicking sound associated with modern turn signals was the result of mechanical systems used in the devices. Today, the clicking sound is added to help drivers know when their lights are illuminated.

Turn signals became standard in new vehicle sales in the 1950s. Laws at the state level commonly require drivers to signal before executing a turn or a lane change.


An airbag is a sac of air that abruptly inflates when a crash occurs. This safety feature relies on sensors and algorithms to detect a crash and determine when to deploy.

Although first patented in the United States in 1919, there would be decades of developments before airbags were standard equipment in new vehicle sales. Manufacturers began offering driver-side airbags in the 1970s. Passenger airbags soon followed.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards first required driver airbags in new car manufacturing in 1989. They were not required in trucks until 1997. Passenger airbags became standard in 1998 along with updated designs to make the feature itself safer and more effective.

Today, a vehicle may have up to as many as 10 airbags on all sides of the vehicle. It is common for new vehicles to have 6-8 airbags including driver and passenger front airbags.

Airbags are generally seen as an enhancement to seatbelts. NHTSA reports that airbags have saved more than 50,000 lives in a 20-year period. However, drawbacks include a risk of inadvertent deployment that can cause injury. Frontal airbags do not work for side-impact collisions which are some of the most dangerous.

In addition, deployment can be delayed in underride crashes, rendering them ineffective. They should never be used with a rear-facing infant placed in the front seat. Even so, this safety feature is now common in new-vehicle manufacturing in the United States.

Safety Glass

The first motor vehicles were open carriages. They didn’t have windows or a windshield.

As early as the 1910s, small glass planes were introduced in some models of vehicles. Over the years, developments made the glass used in vehicles safer and better suited to its purpose.

In 1927, manufacturers began using a thin layer of polyvinyl butyral (PVB) between two layers of glass to create the windshield. Windshield molding uses heat and pressure. This design creates a windshield that is difficult to penetrate. If it is struck by a small object, only the outer layer cracks. The occupants of the vehicle are not put at risk because of the protective middle layer.

Even side windows feature a tempered safety glass that is heated and quickly cooled when it is created. When the window breaks, it shatters into small pieces rather than large chucks with sharp edges. This safety glass reduces cutting injuries in crashes and other damage situations.


Although primarily seen as a comfort feature, headrests became a standard part of the motor vehicle primarily for safety. The headrest limits backward snapping of the head in a crash. In turn, it can reduce whiplash and prevent injury to the vertebrae.

First patented by Benjamin Katz in 1921, headrests began as optional equipment in U.S. vehicles in the 1960s. They were federally mandated for new vehicle manufacturing starting in 1969. Today’s designs must meet standards.

Windshield Wipers

Shortly after windshields became a part of the modern vehicle, drivers knew that they needed a way to keep precipitation and debris from blocking their view. The windshield wiper is the safety feature that became standard in response to this need.

U.S. inventor George G. Capewell secured an early patent for the windshield wiper in 1896, although others were working on similar designs in other countries. Mary Anderson is credited with the first model that was operational for a vehicle.

At first, drivers manipulated a lever by hand. They had to take their hands and eyes off the wheel to do so. Shortly thereafter, automatic models were introduced. Adjustable speeds for varying weather conditions became common after 1969.

Today’s windshield wipers use a metal arm and rubber blade. The design may be multiple, synchronized arms or a single arm that wipes in a half-circle motion. Accompanying antifreeze washer fluid can further aid in the removal of ice and debris so that the driver has an unobstructed view of their surroundings.

Headlights and Taillights – Automotive Lighting

Critical to safety is the ability to see and be seen on the roads. Automotive lighting in the form of headlights and taillights are the answer to this problem.

Headlights were first used in automobiles in the 1900s. They became common in the 1920s. In early vehicles, electric lights were not available. Acetylene gas lamps and oil lamps were used instead. In the 1940s, lights were worked into the vehicle’s body design.

Over time, lighting systems became more sophisticated. Taillights and brake lights became standard. In the 1990s and early 2000s, manufacturers transitioned to LED lights.

Not only are manufacturers and regulators interested in the placement of lights, but they are also interested in their coloring. The colors emitted by vehicle lighting are regulated. Some regulations are even a part of United Nations conventions. Rear lighting must be red, turn signals must be amber, and forward lights must be white or yellow. Lighting may vary in some countries that have not joined international conventions.

Emergency vehicles including law enforcement use distinctive lighting to signal their presence to other vehicles. Tow truck drivers, postal delivery vehicles, waste removal services and similar vehicles may also employ their own lighting features to indicate their presence to others.

Today’s vehicle lighting systems are sophisticated. Low beams, high-beams, auxiliary lights, fog lights and daytime running lamps may all be a part of a vehicle’s lighting system. Lights must comply with regulations and technical standards aimed at increasing driver visibility and communication between motorists.


Mirrors allow a driver to see their surroundings without turning their head. Rear-view and side mirrors are commonplace in today’s vehicles.

Mirrors were vehicle accessories as early as the 1900s. The earliest-known use of a mounted rearview mirror was for race car driving in 1911. The rearview mirror was patented for use in mass-produced vehicles in 1921. Today, federal standards dictate the use of rearview mirrors in new vehicle production.

Placement and design have become more sophisticated over the years. Camera systems often accompany mirror use. There are features that limit glare. Side mirrors are designed to minimize blind spots. Sensors and indicators may further help a driver discern when it is safe to execute a lane change.

Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems

Once reserved for luxury vehicles, tire pressure monitoring systems are increasingly common in modern vehicles. A tire pressure monitoring system gauges the inflation of tires and sends information to the driver. The system may help the driver avoid accidents, ensure fuel use efficiency, and prevent premature wear to tires due to underinflation.

After their first introduction in the 1980s, tire pressure monitoring systems remained a luxury feature until the 2000s. Then, a string of fatalities involving Ford Motor Company and Firestone Tires prompted U.S. legislators to pass the 2000 TREAD Act. Since the law passed, tire pressure monitoring systems have become increasingly widespread throughout the world. However, they are not yet universally adopted.

Antilock Brakes

Antilock brakes prevent skidding. They keep wheels from locking up when braking. Today’s computerized systems regulate hydraulic pressure and the force applied to each wheel. The systems have been mandatory in the United States since 2012.

Air Conditioning

Dozens of children are victims of hot car deaths each year. For this reason, air conditioning in motor vehicles is a critical safety feature. New York limousine and luxury car operators first offered air conditioned vehicles in 1933. A patent was granted for a vehicle air conditioner in 1937. However, early models were impractical. It was not until the 1950s that air conditioning became an option in mass-produced motor vehicles.

Still, the feature still wasn’t popular until the 1980s. Consumers were wary of the electricity needed to use the air conditioner as well as fuel economy with the windows shut. Today, nearly all vehicles on the road are air conditioned.

Crash Warning Systems

A collision avoidance system may consist of any combination of technology that works to prevent or mitigate a vehicle crash. A system monitors the space between the vehicle and other vehicles. It transmits warning signals if another vehicle comes too close. Some systems also have automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control features.

Since the creation of the modern automobile, inventors and manufacturers have imagined the utility of a crash warning system with automatic braking. An early prototype appeared in the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that modern systems became practical.

In the 2010s, the first crash avoidance systems were implemented in new vehicle builds. Today, as many as 2/3 of new vehicles have some technology for collision avoidance.

Safety and the Future of Automobiles

Almost as soon as the motor vehicle took to the streets, people have been looking for ways to make automobile transportation safer. These initiatives have led to a series of mechanics and technologies devoted to this purpose. Some have been implemented almost immediately, while others took years to perfect and grow in popularity.

Safety continues to be at the forethought for vehicle manufactures, consumers and regulators. The coming years will undoubtedly see further developments in this important field.

We hope you’ll stay tuned for additional installments of The History of Car Safety from David Aylor Law Offices. Our next part will focus on automotive safety feature recalls.

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