Cars haven't gotten safer through history; they've simply received a number of innovations to make them slightly less dangerous. Once upon a time, automobiles were slow, light, few and far between. But motorized vehicles proliferated through the 20th century, exploding in terms of popularity, mass and speed potential. While cars are far safer than they were decades ago, it's a relative thing.
Speed and Mass
Force of impact (kinetic energy) equals 1/2 times mass times velocity squared. The 1883 Benz Patent-Motorwagen weighed about 220 pounds, and would top out at about 10 mph with a decent tail wind. If the Motorwagen hit a solid object head on, the impact would generate about 1 kilowatt of energy (999 joules) over the course of one second. A 4,500 pound SUV hitting a solid object at 70 mph would produce about 1,000 times the impact force, roughly 997 kW or 997,700 joules. This fact alone puts the modern automobile at an inherent 1000-to-1 disadvantage relative to a car produced over 110 years ago.
Before Henry Ford helped to perfect the automotive assembly line, cars were a luxury reserved only for the super-rich. The average buyer today will purchase an auto equivalent to roughly a year's pay or less; prior to the Model T, the average man could save an entire life's worth of wages and still never afford something with an engine. Mass-produced cars didn't immediately have the effect that they would decades later, when newer and more sophisticated cars debuted and those outdated units became cheap, used transportation suitable for young and inexperienced drivers. It was largely for this reason that automotive deaths reached a zenith during late 1940s and 1950s, and why Congress passed their first set of automotive safety standards in 1959.
The musclecar era brought to light one glaring flaw in the safety standards proposed by Congress a decade before: that automotive safety systems only worked as long as people actually used them. The 1960s and early 1970s saw some of the most powerful engines ever produced, and by a wide margin. Imagine what would happen today if every car on the road suddenly grew an extra 300 horsepower, and if the faster ones got their 2,500-horsepower engines from a Top Alcohol dragster. Small wonder, then, that the 1970s and 1980s brought us mandatory seat belts, safer radial tires and factory-equipped goodies like anti-lock brakes, airbags, traction control, stability control and sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems.
From the launch of Apollo 11, you can trace an almost linear path from computing power right through innovations in automotive safety. There's no coincidence in the fact that unibody cars utilizing impact-absorbing crumple zones came about in the same era as IBM, Apple and Microsoft. Modern physics programs allow engineers to build and "crash" their potential cars 10,000 times in a computer before the first one ever rolls off the production line; this gives the engineers ample opportunity to tweak the structure to be as safe as it can possibly be without the costs associated with tooling a "throwaway" chassis for structural testing. Additionally, smaller, faster and cheaper processors have given modern traction, braking, stability and suspension-control computers the ability to react to sensor input in milliseconds to keep a car stable.
- "Auto Fundamentals"; Martin T. Stockel; 2000
- "The Struggle for Auto Safety; Jerry L Mashaw, David Harfest; 1990
- School Transportation News: The History of Seatbelt Development
- Antique Car: Benz Patent-Motorwagen
- CSG Netwok: Kinetic Energy Calculator
- MHI Energy: Watt Conversion Calculator
- Photo Credit Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images
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