A Chronology of Car Safety

Written by Carly Hallman

Cars, trucks, vans and all other varieties of personal automobiles have a long history of safety advancements. Since the earliest cars, auto makers have continued to revolutionize safety features piece by piece, gradually decreasing the chances of death or injury in the event of a collision. Today, automobile manufacturers are working towards injury-free cars! Car safety has come a long way, from the simplest of features, to the exceptionally advanced, and continues to make you and your family that much more safe while behind the wheel.

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A Chronology of Car Safety: Saving Lives With Automobile Safety Technology

As the automotive industry gained traction in the late 19th century, safety became a growing concern. From something as simple as the electric headlight, to advanced technology such as modern collision avoidance systems, this timeline is a visual journey through time in the quest for the ultimate safety technology and an injury-free vehicle that is still well underway.

Year Description Category
1880s The earliest automobiles begin to use a headlamp technology previously used on horse-driven buggies, which operate by burning acetylene or kerosene gas in front of a mirrored reflector. Safety Advancement
1898 First electric headlight is introduced as on option on the Columbia Electric Car. Since filaments were brittle and needed regular replacements, these lights were not widely implemented. Safety Advancement
1899 The first recorded fatal traffic accident in the United States occurs in New York City. The victim is Henry H. Bliss. Facts
1901 The first automobile speedometers are introduced by Oldsmobile. For the first time in automobile history, drivers have the ability to monitor their speed. Safety Advancement
1914 First traffic signal is installed in Cleveland, Ohio. The introduction of these signals revolutionizes traffic safety. Safety Advancement
1919 First four-way, tri-color traffic light is installed in Detroit, Michigan. The introduction of the yellow light allows drivers to anticipate an approaching red light. Safety Advancement
1930 Laminated safety glass becomes standard on all Ford vehicles. This prevents the windshield from shattering and causing additional harm to passengers in the event of a crash. Safety Advancement
1934 General Motors conducts the first vehicle crash test in Milford, Michigan. These tests allow for a greater understanding of high-speed impacts and occupant safety. Safety Advancement
1934 The first driver’s education program in the United States is launched at a high school in State College Pennsylvania. Safety


1939 Buick replaces hand signals with the introduction of electric turn signals. Additional visibility provided by the electric turn signal means more awareness on the road. Safety


1948 The first padded dashboard is introduced in the Tucker 48. The padding provides extra protection for passengers during a collision. Safety Advancement
1949 The Chrysler Imperial is the first vehicle produced in the United States to come standard with 4-wheel disc brakes. The brakes offer more reliability and stopping power. Safety Advancement
1951 The first crumple zone concept is patented by Mercedes-Benz. Crumple zones are designed to crush in the event of an accident to absorb energy from the impact and protect the vehicle’s occupants. Safety Advancement
1959 Volvo introduces the first modern 3-point seatbelt that restrains both the lap and shoulder of the vehicle’s occupants. Safety Advancement
1966 The National Traffic an Motor Vehicle Safety Act is signed into United States law. It allows the federal government to set safety standards for automobiles throughout the country. Law
1968 Volvo introduces head restraints, or headrests, as standard equipment. The device works to prevent or limit the possibility of whiplash during a collision. Safety Advancement
1968 United States law begins to require 2-point lap seat belt in the front seats in all new vehicle makes produced for use within the country. Law
1969 All new vehicles in the United States must include head restraints on the vehicle’s front seats for whiplash protection. Law
1971 The Chrysler Imperial is the first production vehicle to come standard with anti-lock brakes. The technology allows for additional control and shorter stopping distances on slippery surfaces. Safety Advancement
1973 The United States requires all new vehicles to offer a 3-point lap-shoulder seat belt in the front driver and passenger seat. Law
1973 General Motors introduces the first commercially available air bags in 1,000 of their Chevrolet Impalas. The airbag did not perform well on the market and was shelved a few years later. Safety Advancement
1974 The United States introduces a law that requires a belt-interlock system on all new vehicles. The system requires all seat belts to be fastened in order for the engine to start. The unpopular law is later repealed. Law
1979 There are 51,093 traffic fatalities in the United States this year. Facts
1981 Mercedes-Benz introduces the seat belt pretensioner in the 1981 S-Class. The device works by tightening the belt in the event of intense braking or a collision, reducing the motion of occupants Safety Advancement
1985 By the end of the year, all states have passed a child safety seat law that requires infants and toddlers be properly secured in a specially designed child safety seat. Law
1985 The United States passes a law that all new vehicles must include a third top and center brake light in addition to the two existing lights. Law
1989 Chrysler becomes the first automaker in the United States to include air bags standard in all vehicles. Safety Advancement
1990 According to United States law, all new cars are required to come standard with passive restraints such as air bags or seatbelt pretensioners. Law
1990 The first head-on collision between two cars equipped with air bags occurs. Both drivers survive walk away. Facts
1991 Volvo introduces the Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) on several of its models. SIPS incorporates a crumple zone between the driver and passenger sides that absorbs energy in the event of collision on the side of the vehicle. Safety Advancement
1992 Chrysler offers integrated child safety seats in their line of minivans. Safety Advancement
1994 Volvo improves SIPS with the addition of side impact air bags. These air bags protect the driver and passenger from excessive movement in the event of a collision on the side of the vehicle. Safety Advancement
1995 Daytime running lights are offered in many new vehicle makes. This allows for greater visibility throughout the day. Safety Advancement
1995 49 out of the 50 states have mandatory seat belt laws. Over 75,000 lives were saved by seat belts during this year alone. Facts
1996 The United States experiences 2 automotive related deaths per every 10,000 motor vehicles. Facts
1998 Side curtain airbags are introduced in many new vehicle makes. These airbags offer additional side protection for front and rear passengers. Safety Advancement
2000 Cadillac offers a night vision interface which displays an infrared image on the windshield of the road ahead. The feature is first seen on its Deville model. Safety Advancement
2001 Nissan introduces the first backup camera in their Infiniti line as an option. The camera allows for greater visibility when reversing. Safety Advancement
2002 There are 42,815 traffic-related fatalities in the United States. This is down over 16% from 1979. Facts
2007 Volvo introduces the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS). The system alerts the driver with a visible alert when there is a vehicle in the blind spot while attempting to switch lanes. Safety Advancement
2008 Tire pressure monitoring systems are required on all new vehicle makes in the United States. This allows drivers to be alerted immediately when a tire is flat or unsafe to drive with. Law
2009 Volvo introduces emergency brake assist which automatically applies the brakes to prevent a collision if the driver fails to do so. System is only able to reach a complete stop at speeds under 18 mph. Safety Advancement
2013 Toyota implements the Pre-Collision System in its new vehicles. The system identifies hazards in the road such as vehicles and pedestrians and will brake or steer out of the way depending on the best determined route. Safety Advancement