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Automobile Safety: Technology, Design and Material Sciences That Make a Difference

Kevin Scanlan is a car salesman in Henrietta, Texas, who would like to change car buying, one customer at a time.


Automobile Safety: An Introduction

Everyone knows there have been amazing improvements in auto safety over the last 50–60 years. I go back that far because I still have a 1957 Chevrolet with a solid steel dashboard and no factory seatbelts. Even a minor accident in that 3500 pounds of solid steel could be tragic or at least bring about a trip to the dentist to get your teeth reinstalled.

Several major innovations over the years brought us a long way from that steel behemoth. Things like adding headrests to lessen whiplash and lap belts to keep you in the vehicle were some of the first. Simple things were done to make the passenger cabin safer. Protruding knobs were eliminated, and designers looked to bring safety into the design process when developing new models.


Safety Becomes Important and Marketable

Eventually, safety became more than a mandated necessity. Brands like Volvo touted their safety record and safety improvements. But it was not until recently that car makers really went all out and applied all the technology they had at their disposal to make a safer vehicle. Things like highly publicized government crash testing meant people had access to safety data. The window sticker of every new car shows the results of the various government crash tests and does so with a simple star rating system that makes comparing models very easy.

In the last few years, though, amazing strides have been made in auto safety. There are so many types of devices that they are now categorized into two separate areas. The first are the “active safety” devices. These are high-technology systems that have been installed into your car to help prevent an accident in the first place. The second area is the “passive safety” devices. These parts of the car protect you if you are in an accident. These are things like seatbelts, airbags and safety features designed directly into the car body and frame. We will look at each.


The Best Accident Is the One That Never Happened

Obviously, the best way to survive an accident is to not have one. I did not research this, but I am pretty sure that no one was ever killed in an accident that did not happen. Avoiding accidents is not easy, but that is the goal behind the new active safety features. In 2015, there were 6.3 million injury and property damage accidents in the US. That is a big number. Each of these happened under different circumstances with different drivers and different vehicles. Common contributing factors were identified from that diversity, which were then the focus of new safety features.


The Human Factor

The most difficult thing for engineers to deal with is the human element. All the safety equipment in the world is useless if the driver is not engaged in driving. An unbuckled seat belt does no good whatsoever. The big problem for today’s engineers is developing systems to keep drivers and passengers safe even when the driver is not fully engaged in driving. That is the real goal of the new active safety features. The idea is to put tools in the hands of the attentive driver and to use technology to re-engage the driver when they may not be paying enough attention.

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Active and Preventitive

Some of the most common active safety features are:

  1. Mirrors that have a light, sound, or both if there is a vehicle in the driver’s blind spot (Blind spot safety alert or blind spot monitoring);
  2. Audible, seat vibrating, or steering wheel warnings if the vehicle is leaving the traffic lane (lane awareness or lane centering);
  3. Back-up cameras and full-time rear-view cameras and trailer cams;
  4. Systems to let you know that there is a pedestrian or object near your vehicle when you are in parking lots or congested areas (Safety zones, pedestrian monitoring);
  5. Warning sounds and/or seat vibrations if your vehicle is getting too close to a solid object in front or behind a backing vehicle. (Proximity sensors)
  6. 360-degree vision showing you a bird’s eye view of your car from above, showing any obstacles near your vehicle as you back up. (pedestrian and parking assistance);
  7. Systems to override cruise control settings if the vehicle senses that you are getting too close to the vehicle in front of you. (adaptive cruise control);
  8. Parking and trailer backing assistance;
  9. Adaptive headlamps and lighting improvements;
  10. Anti-lock brakes and advanced braking systems;
  11. Tire pressure monitors;
  12. Traction and stability control to make adjustments to the power train and suspension to adapt to changing road conditions.

One of the good things about these systems is that they are electronic and operate at extremely high speeds. They are reacting faster than any human driver ever could and constantly reevaluating the inputs to ensure they are providing the proper correction. For instance, with antilock brakes, the processors handle thousands of data points per second and pulse the brakes as much as 20 times per second. It is far quicker and able to adjust than any driver.


Passive Life Saving Technology

Most of the passive safety devices are well-known and obvious. Some of the most important are not obvious and are hardly even known by the average car buyer. The most common and obvious are:

  1. Seat Belts. Originally these just crossed the belt line, but although those kept you in the car, they did little to stop whiplash and internal injuries and often propelled the head into the steering wheel.
  2. Airbags. These are the most obvious of the modern safety improvements. These started as simple front bags but now basically envelop the entire cabin. Even areas that caused less than life-threatening injuries have been made safe with airbags. Many vehicles now have under-dash airbags to prevent knee and shin injuries in a frontal impact.
  3. Laminated glass. The new laminations are amazing products that can absorb major impacts and still stay together, lessening the amount of glass loose in an accident situation. The side glass has also been improved and is highly tempered.

The other key passive safety devices that are lesser known and not visible are:

  1. Crumple zones. By carefully selecting materials of different strengths and flex properties, the engineers can attempt to direct the vehicle's compression in an accident. By intentionally placing more flexible materials outside the passenger cabin, they can try to have the most compression in the engine and trunk spaces and less in the passenger compartment.
  2. Safety cell. This is similar to crumple zones but specifically keeps the passenger compartment in one piece with as little deformation as possible. This is done by absorbing some of the energy in the crumple zones outside the safety cell. Additionally, crash energy is deflected or passed through to other areas of the car. The designers also work to ensure that there is as little intrusion into the safety cell area as possible. Many cars have plates that direct the engine to go under the passenger cabin in the case of a severe frontal impact.
  3. Side impact protection. Here again, the engineers use various materials to protect the cabin by bending, but not breaking, when hit from the side. It used to be that a large steel bar was simply placed inside the door. Now it's a system of metals and other materials of various strengths that work together to deflect the energy and prevent intrusion into the cabin.
  4. Steering wheel safety. Many cars have steering wheels that collapse if they detect the force of a body coming forward into them. The driver is at a much greater risk for injury in an accident because the steering wheel is so close. Even with advanced seat belts and airbags, it is difficult to completely avoid steering wheel contact in a major collision. The collapsible wheel means that the impact will be lessened when the wheel gives way to the incoming driver's body.

Safety Improvements Have Made a Dramatic Difference in Preventing Injury

Has it really made a difference?

You bet it has. I looked at National Highway Transportation Administration statistics (Report DOT HS 812690) and found that the age of the vehicle is critical in predicting the likelihood of injuries. Cars from 2013 to 2017 were considered the most recent cars, and were assigned a value of 1. From there, the cars were grouped into sets of five- to seven-year spans. Occupants in a car manufactured at any time prior to 1984 were 3.5 times more likely to suffer an injury if involved in an accident. Even the next newer set of cars, manufactured between 1985 and 1992, was still 2.5 times more likely to suffer an injury. The report has a graph that clearly shows how newer cars are just safer than the older ones—significantly so.


A Dramatic Reduction in Injuries

This report was based on hundreds of thousands of accident reports. The results are staggering when put into context. There are more than 6,000,000 accidents in the US each year. Obviously, there are far fewer cars from 1980 on the road, so the older models represent fewer cars and fewerf accidents. Regardless, they are 3.5 times more likely to be injured when they are involved in an accident. That clearly shows that the safety improvements in modern cars make a difference.

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