Our cars used to be veritable deathtraps. You could climb into your 1958 Lincoln Continental and expect to arrive at your destination safely—or you could lock up your brakes on an icy patch and hit your head against the metal dash. Not a pretty picture, but fortunately, not where we're at anymore either.
Here's what's truly paved the way for walking away from a crash.
Shards of flying glass destroyed many a motorists' face before Frenchman Edouard Benedictus accidentally discovered glass lamination in 1903—by dropping a beaker filled with cellulose nitrate. It didn't shatter. The formula was perfected and made cheaper for manufacturing, but the effect was the same: glass didn't splinter when broken, and it couldn't be penetrated, either, which added another layer of protection. By the twenties, laminated safety glass was being produced on both sides of the Atlantic, sold to manufacturers under lofty names like "Indestructo" and "Herculite." Here, a tester at an Acton , London glass factory demonstrates the effect of a gun striking laminated glass—a clean hole is made with no splintering or opacity.
Yes, we curse them now. But before Garrett Morgan came along with his three-position automated traffic signal in 1923, there was no way to manage the flow of traffic without slowing down first. Any four-way intersection in America must have been a hilarious compendium of horses flying into carriages, horseless carriages fumbling and falling over, top hats flying, angry fists shaken. Think Buster Keaton narrowly avoiding death.
Back when a dashboard was actually a board, your passenger wouldn't take too kindly to your slamming on the brakes. Preston Tucker first wrapped the dashboard of his eponymous car under a foam cover in 1948, but it wasn't until 1966 that padded dashboards became mandatory.
These babies can take on all kinds of shapes—W-beams, box beams, cables—but they all have one purpose: to be the only thing keeping you on the road versus plunging into the abyss. You can thank the state of New Jersey for the first concrete median highway barriers in 1955, and you can thank Le Mans hero John Fitch for the impact-absorbing yellow barrels in front of every off-ramp—designed to absorb and dissipate force.
On August 29, 1958, Nils Bohlin filed a patent in Sweden for the three-point seat belt. Since then, it's estimated that his invention has saved over a million lives, and it sure seemed kind enough for his parent company, Volvo, to make the patent to any carmaker free of charge.
Even more potentially mayhem-inducing than the padded dashboard would be the steering wheel in front of you, and the giant metal pole underneath it, inches away from your chest. But with a collapsing, energy-absorbing column, joints in the immediate shaft are designed to give way upon impact. By 1967, General Motors introduced it across all of its models. Ford and Chrysler soon followed suit.
They're not just for comfort. Head restraints were designed to protect against whiplash, supporting your head especially in case of a rear-end collision. After 1969, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated strict guidelines for headrest design.
Enthusiasts revolted when ABS became a feature in 1971, believing that their own skill in threshold braking could outsmart any computer. But the system works. , ABS reduced the amount of nonfatal crashes by 6% in cars and 8% in trucks. While ABS can improve braking performance, it allows a driver to still control the vehicle under hard braking, instead of locking up the wheels and skidding uselessly. For that alone, ABS has proven its worth—and even in motorcycles, where it's .