Car safety – a brief history

03 February 2015 #SMMT News

The automotive industry produces some of the most innovative technologies in the world, consistently striving to increasing safety for motorists and passengers. Since 2003 the number of incidents on UK roads has fallen 37%, while the fatality rate has reduced by more than a half. Here’s a brief history of how cars have developed to be as safe as they are today.

1951 – Airbags

Mercedes-Benz pioneered the airbag in Europe Even though the first airbags were developed in the early 1950s and widely developed in the USA, in Europe airbags were almost entirely absent until the 1980s. The 1980 Mercedes-Benz S-class (W126) was the first car to be sold in Europe with airbags as an option, with the Porsche 944 and Honda Legend offering them as standard by 1987. By the end of the 1990s almost all cars featured an airbag, as an option at the very least.

1952 – Crumple zones

Mercedes-Benz W111 had first crumple zones Early examples of a crumple zones were developed and patented by Mercedes-Benz in 1952, first installed in the Mercedes-Benz 220 in 1959. Crumple zones are the simplest feature of passive safety design, absorbing the kinetic energy released in a crash to protect passengers.

1953 – Disc brakes

Jaguar C-type was the first car fitted with disc brakes The first disc brake was developed in a Birmingham factory, patented in 1902. However due to technology and material limitations, it took 50 years for the innovation to become widely adopted. In 1953 caliper-type disc brakes were developed in the UK, first appearing on the Jaguar C-Type racing car. The technology was fist featured on a production car in 1955 with the Citroen DS.

1958 – Seat belts

Nils Bohlin of Volvo pioneered the seatbelt The modern three-point seat belt that we all recognise today was created by Volvo engineer, Nils Bohlin, in 1958. In fact, Volvo pioneered this development in technology, quickly installing the seat belts as standard in all its vehicles. It wasn’t until 25 years after their invention that a law was passed in the UK making their use by front seat passengers and drivers compulsory and not until 1991 for all passengers.

1978 – Anti-lock braking system (ABS)

1978 Mercedes-Benz S-class (W116)  was one of the first cars fitted with ABS

Anti-lock braking systems were originally developed in 1929 for the use in aircraft, to prevent the wheels from locking while braking to avoid skids. In 1978 Bosch launched a mass-market system, which made ABS commonplace on luxury vehicles. The 1985 Ford Granada became the first car to offer ABS as standard.

1995 – Electronic stability control (ESC)


Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Bosch led the invention of ESC in 1995 with the Mercedes-Benz S 600 Coupé and BMW 7 Series (E38) being the first models to have it fitted. The concept quickly caught on, as Toyota, Audi and Volvo rapidly began to offer ESC for their vehicles. In 2014 legislation introduced by the European Parliament came into force, so that all new cars in the EU must be equipped with ESC.

1999 – Adaptive cruise control

110805_081007_31_jag The first worldwide radar-assisted adaptive cruise control was introduced by Mercedes-Benz on its S-Class and CL-Class in 1999. In the same year Jaguar followed suit, also offering ACC on the Jaguar XK.

2005 – Lane departure warning systems

38de03b3-cfde-489d-b620-82c286eec921 Citroën was the first manufacturer to offer LDWS in Europe, installing the technology on its C4, C5 and C6 models in 2005. The system uses infrared sensors to monitor the lane markings on the road’s surface and alerting the driver of any deviations.

2012 – Pedestrian air bags

695845_43846_1_5 The Volvo V40 was fitted with the world’s first ever pedestrian airbag, designed to protect from injury at collision speeds of up to 31mph. The system uses seven sensors around the car to detect whether it has made contact with a human, deploying an airbag from the bonnet.

2015 – Bike sense

949174_02-Bike-Sense-cyclist-in-window Jaguar Land Rover has recently released plans to introduce new technologies that will alert drivers to nearby pedestrians and cyclists by buzzing the driver’s hands and vibrating the accelerator pedal.

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