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A Century of Automobile Safety - The 80's and 90's

ABS had been around in a two-wheel variety since the sixties, it was during the 1980’s that four-wheel ABS became much more commonplace

  • corolla gt-s

The eighties might not seem like so long ago but think about this: Young Canadian drivers today will have little to no recollection of the nineties, let alone the years when Brian Mulroney was prime minister.

Yet distant as that era may feel, it was a decade when the foundations of a technology revolution were laid.

The first cell phone, the popularization of personal computers and the creation of the worldwide web. We can trace so much of what has shaped the way we communicate today back to the eighties.

The same can be said of safety technology in vehicles. Features popularized then were the start of a rapid shift towards electronic safety systems that would make a difference to keeping people safe.

No longer would this be through passive safety measures, those that mitigate the effects of a collision – but the beginnings of a shift to active safety features that aim to avoid collisions in the first place.

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ABS Advances

Chief among these active safety features was the Anti-Lock Braking System. ABS had been around in a two-wheel variety since the sixties, it was during the 1980’s that four-wheel ABS became much more commonplace – it would become available on a Toyota in 1983 and would become available on the Corolla in the mid-nineties.


These systems were designed to reduce skids and maintain steering control during heavy braking by monitoring for wheels locking and applying brake pressure accordingly. While they were expected to be a game changer, the results have proved significant but a little more nuanced.

A study by the NHTSA in 1998 suggested that the differences it made in regular driving situations weren’t quite as marked as originally thought, especially on dry surfaces as the friction caused by tires on dry pavement will always bring the car to a stop sooner. Larger improvements were seen on wet pavement, however, with stopping distances dropping by 14% as opposed to the 5% reduction on dry surfaces.

Gaining Traction

The same technology that saw the roll out of ABS also gave rise to Traction Control systems (TCS). Instead of ABS where sensors would detect wheel lock, with TCS wheel slip was monitored with the brakes rapidly applied to the wheel in question.

With the advent of four-wheel steering in 1991, these systems would evolve into modern stability control systems. Toyota was one of a handful manufacturers that introduced electronic stability controls as early as 1995. Not only would these systems combat a lack of traction but would automatically apply brakes to wheels individually to mitigate understeer or oversteer.

Airbags Arrival

It was also around this time that the first airbags started to arrive, another feature that just wouldn’t have been possible without the computing power provided by the ever-present microprocessor. They started to become available in 1985, but only for the driver side.

Less than ten years later it was clear what kind of effect airbags had. In 1996, the NHSTA published a study that looked at 10 years’ worth of accidents; it found that airbags reduced fatalities for all drivers by 11 percent. Put more specifically: if airbags didn’t exist, an additional 1,136 fatalities would’ve occurred in accidents involving cars and lights trucks between 1986-96.

We started seeing side impact examples in Toyotas by 1996, and by 1998, all new models sold in the US were required to have both driver and front passenger airbags. This marked a rapid growth in the proliferation in the number of airbags included. By 2003 the Toyota Avensis would be the first mass-market car sold in Europe to come with nine airbags.

Toyota Avensis

Toyota Avensis

Towards Today

While these features are nearly ubiquitous today, other features from this era are only just starting to become more common now. Rear view monitors first appear in 1991 yet will not be mandated in America until 2018. Dynamic Radar Cruise Control would appear as early as 1997, yet by 2017 Toyota is the first manufacturer to make this a standard feature across most of its vehicles.

As the 2000s arrived, there was no indication that advancements in safety tech – especially of the active variety – would be slowing down. What tech advancements did come, however, have the rapid growth of safety tech throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s to thank for the bedrock on which they were developed.

And this was just the start; over the next two decades, the pace of change would ramp up yet again as in-car computers became more powerful and more compact, and as the population of knowledgeable and capable computer engineers and developers continued to grow.

The automobile has been a crucial part of our technological success over the last 100 years. Evolving from slow-moving horse drawn carriages—vehicles today are fast, connected, have engines that can be powered by electrons or fossil fuels, are capable of driving themselves and have achieved a level of occupant safety that was a dream just 20 years ago.

Join as we take a journey through the last century and explore the evolution of automobile safety from its infancy to thoroughly modern systems like those found on Toyota Safety Sense equipped vehicles. No longer reserved for high-end cars this comprehensive suite of safety technology is designed to protect drivers and pedestrians alike, helping to make our roads safer for travel.

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