How Cars Got Safer: A History

From mandatory seatbelt laws to airbags, a history of car safety.

rusted classic cars

Most of us take for granted that cars have become safer over time. Many people remember the days before wearing seatbelts was required by law—not to mention the days before they were mandatory in cars. And have you ever heard somebody tell a story of infants swaddled and tucked between a car’s bench and backrest by the blanket, no car seat (or even seatbelts) in sight? So, we know that cars have gotten safer. But how much safer, and which cars? Quoted is here to tell you.

Cars have been evolving and adding safety features since the first combustion-engine automobiles were manufactured in the late 1800s. A few important safety leaps that are still making cars manufactured today safe:

  • All cars were required by law to have seatbelts in 1968, and since 1995, all passengers—adults and minors—have been required to wear them in every state (except New Hampshire)
  • Anti-lock brake systems became widespread in the 1970’s, and are now standard in almost every car on the market
  • Airbags became widespread in the 1980’s
  • Four wheel drive and all-wheel drive, which have been evolving since the turn of the 20th century, are now offered on most cars, SUVs and trucks

These safety advances, along with better structural designs and crash-tested technologies have all saved lives and made our roadways less dangerous.

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Quoted Breaks Down the Numbers:

Researchers affiliated with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at vehicle-related driver deaths over the past three decades (the presence of passengers is often unknown and difficult to track, so all numbers include the driver only). They report that, across all car types and models, there were 7,700 fewer fatalities in 2012 than there would have been if cars hadn’t improved since 1985—and this number excludes lives saved over the 27 intervening years. Researchers took driver demographics (such as sex and age) into account, as well as outside factors such as the economy, and concluded that the main reason for the reduction in driver deaths was the improved structural design of cars, as well as the addition of better safety features. The IIHS goes on to report that new safety measures in cars manufactured after 2011 have reduced vehicle-related deaths by more than a third in the last three years.

Better safety features in cars have reduced deaths by more than a third in the last three years.

Some more big news: as few as eight years ago, there were no car models on the road that could report a driver death rate of zero, while now, incredibly, there are nine:

(2011, or equivalent earlier models)

The fact that two-thirds of these cars are SUVs might surprise anyone who remembers that, just a decade ago, SUVs were some of the most dangerous vehicles to drive. New anti-roll technology, called electronic stability control (ESC), as well as rollover sensors have allowed the advantages offered by SUVs to shine: their large size and weight being the most prominent. Another fact we can’t help but celebrate: three of the safest models on the road (the first three on our list) cost under 30K—and that’s brand new, 2015 dealer prices (before you haggle ‘em down to nubs). We were surprised the most expensive cars aren’t always the safest, and that many affordable cars offer the same safety protections as their higher-end counterparts.

For a wider selection of cars proven to keep you and yours out of harm’s way, check out the IIHS’s 2015 Safety Awards.

Vision Zero

As cars become safer and safer, safety advocates have the complete elimination of vehicle fatalities within their sights: borrowing from a Swedish initiative, New York City introduced its Vision Zero plan in January of last year. It’s goal? Getting the number of vehicular deaths and serious injuries down to zero. We expect more municipalities to jump on the Vision-Zero bandwagon in the future.

Safety Feature RoundUp:

Say you’re in the market for a new car, but don’t want (or cannot afford) one of the best-rated models: Quoted has some tips for finding equivalent safety features in other vehicles. We looked at the cars and models to which IIHS most recently gave their safety awards, and we found some recurring themes. Most of the top-rated cars had the following features:

  • Daytime running lights
  • Anti-lock brakes
  • Electronic stability control
  • Rollover sensors
  • Side airbags
  • Driver and front passenger knee airbags

So when you’re shopping for that new (or new-to-you) car, focus on the cup holders, paint job, and upholstery, but also be sure your prospective new whip has the latest in safety technology.