Milestones in Automotive Safety: A 70-Year Journey (Just Like Us!)

Cars have come a long way since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913. That giant of automotive technology had a staggering top speed of 68kph, and the only thing stopping you from feeling all the elements was a hood and a windshield.

Luckily, crashes seldom happened because few could afford a Model T, and even fewer people knew how to drive one.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that many families got personal vehicles, which, incidentally, is the decade which Willard Batteries started being locally manufactured!

Although accidents were few and far between, they did happen. Have you ever wondered how anyone survived car crashes back when our grandparents were young? There weren’t any airbags, and it wasn’t even legally required to wear a seatbelt until the 1990s in South Africa.

The story of automotive safety over the last 70 years has been a wild one. Let’s look at a few of the milestones and advancements we’ve seen along the way.


Fasten Your Seatbelts

The 1950s were a grand time for drivers. This was the decade of the Ford Thunderbird, the Aston Martin DB4, and the Porsche 550. It was also when more cars began to be produced with seatbelts. Seatbelts had been around for a while before that, but this was the era when people realised how important they were in emergencies and crashes. The first car manufacturer to bring out the three-point seatbelt was in 1959.


Crash Test Dummies

Then came the swinging 1960s. Huge technological leaps like space exploration brought improved safety tests like deliberate crash testing. There is actually a lot more to crash testing than just jamming the accelerator down and pointing the car at a wall.

Along with these frontal-impact tests (as a planned head-on collision is known) came overlap tests where only a portion of the car impacts with a barrier, side impact tests, rollover tests, and even roadside hardware crash tests that ensured roadside safety measures such as barriers helped to reduce major injuries during an accident. In the USA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was the first organisation to use these tests to evaluate car safety.


Not Your Average Windbag

The 1970s saw airbags come on the market in passenger cars. The first patent for an inflatable bag in a car was submitted in the 1950s, but they used compressed air and the technology wasn’t advanced enough yet to make them effective. The “aha” moment came in 1967 when an inventor used a small explosion of sodium azide to inflate the bag. General Motors was the first manufacturer to put them into commercially available cars, placing them in the steering wheel of the 1973 Chevy Impala. It took decades for other brands to catch on, but ultimately, they have become an everyday feature in new cars.


Achy Brakey Heart

The 1970s also saw the production of speed machines like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari 365. With great speed came the need for even better braking. Anti-locking braking systems (ABS) were invented in the 1950s for the aviation industry, but in the 1980s, more and more cars started to come off the production line featuring this groundbreaking safety feature.

ABS brakes stop skidding using the principles of cadence braking and threshold braking. Using an electronic control unit, all four wheels of the car are monitored individually. If one or more wheels’ rotational speed turns a lot slower or faster than the speed of the car, valves kick in to either reduce or increase hydraulic pressure on the wheel(s). If you’ve ever braked hard and felt a vibration through the pedal, you’ll have experienced ABS in action.


(Un)Foreseen Side Effects

1987 also saw the first production car to hit 200mph (321kph), the Ferrari F40. The speed of this development trickled into modern cars, making everyday cars faster, and the huge leaps in speed made the next safety milestone absolutely necessary.

Side-impact protection really hit its stride in the 1990s, with car designers investing heavily in reinforced doors and side-impact airbags. In the ‘90s, Volvo was the first manufacturer to roll out cars with a side impact protection system (SIPS). This system involves making the doors with energy-absorbing materials and reinforced lower sill panels and B pillars (pillars providing structural support between the car’s front and side windows).



The early 2000s were the decade of technology really entering the dashboard. This was the age of widespread electronic stability control (ESC), otherwise known as electronic stability program (ESP) or dynamic stability control (DSC). This vital piece of technology causes each wheel to brake individually when the car detects a loss of traction, preventing skidding. In the case of oversteer, the outer front wheel gets more braking, and in understeer, the same happens to the inner rear wheel.

While the technology had been in use since the ‘90s, the noughties saw ESC become standard on many brands, including Ford and Toyota.


2010: A Space Odyssey (Well Not Quite)

Then, the pace of advancement picked up even faster. In the 2010s, many carmakers began to bring out vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), which reduced human error through a human-machine interface. The list of systems includes blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, cruise control and more. ADAS is so widely used that it’s predicted 50% of all cars will come off the assembly line with this technology by 2030.

Now that we are firmly in the middle of the 2020s, what incredible new technological advancements will we see in car safety?

Well, ADAS has led to autonomous vehicles, aka self-driving cars, which we think are the next big thing. Using artificial intelligence, cars can already steer themselves and brake when necessary. This technology is still in the testing phase, but once perfected, it will make our roads much safer by reducing human error.