A Century of Automobile Safety - The Early Years.
By most accounts, the first traffic fatality occurred in 1899 when a pedestrian in New York City was mowed down, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a taxi.
In the car industry’s infancy, any mechanically inclined person with a hammer and shed could cobble together a horseless carriage, etch their surname on the back, and call it a day. Crash testing? Manufacturing standards? Not quite. It’s not surprising then—that as the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation—the need arose for safety features to keep drivers and their passengers from meeting a grisly demise.
By most accounts, the first traffic fatality occurred in 1899 when a pedestrian in New York City was mowed down, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a taxi. As more and more cars took to streets and laneways across the nation, it was inevitable that the number of accidents would rise. Recognizing the need to keep drivers and passengers safe, automakers doubled down on the research and development of safety devices.
In 1904, when the first windshields were introduced, most were simply a horizontally-divided piece of plate glass, similar to the glass used for house windows. If you’ve ever had an errant rock or baseball sail through your living room window, you know how well it holds up to such an intrusion. It didn’t take long then, for drivers and automakers to realize a better solution was needed. Automakers went through several different trials trying to make safer glass, from pouring molten glass into molds and letting it harden to sandwiching a layer of cellulose between two panes of normal glass.
Clicking a seatbelt around one’s torso the moment we sit in a vehicle has become an automatic action, ranking up there with eating and breathing. While the automobile has been around for over a century, it took another forty years for seat belts to make an appearance. Even then, they were installed solely for the front passengers. Rear seat riders had to make do with a heavily padded rear of the front seat to cushion their impact. Air bags were still decades away, and effective crumple zones were just a dream.
It was in the mid-1930’s that Toyoda (the switch to the now-familiar Toyota nameplate was still a few years away) began producing its AA series of small sedans. A fully enclosed sedan, featuring a metal body and metal ladder-frame chassis, the AA ushered in many safety improvements when compared to the fabric-over-wooden-frame bodies used on cars designed before this time. With a full metal body, passengers in the AA were not only well sheltered from the outside elements but also shielded from impact should an accident with another vehicle occur. Adaptation of this construction style certainly benefitted Canadian and other northern markets, as our climate is not conducive to year-round open top motoring.
The Model AA had front glass spanning the entire width of the body, a feature which promoted frontward visibility for the driver by offering a commanding view down the long bonnet. Instead of using rod brakes favoured by Ford and Chevrolet at the time, engineers of the AA persevered with the development of hydraulic brakes, one of the first vehicles to embrace this important safety feature. With Canadian roads frequently littered with wildlife, effective hydraulic brakes are critical when Bullwinkle decides to jump into the roadway.
Thought even went into the sound of the AA’s horn at the time. As cars were a rare sight in Japan, the streets were still mainly populated by horses and carts and it soon became apparent that the animals were frightened by the new sounds emitted from cars. However, they didn’t react adversely to the sound used by local Tofu vendors to attract customers. The AA’s horn was engineered, then, to sound like the noises emanating from the vendor stands.
Over the next few articles, wheels.ca will take a look at current safety innovations put forth by Toyota Safety Sense™, a suite of active safety technologies soon to be standard on almost every Toyota vehicle. As cars continue to become more technologically advanced and convenient, Toyota has taken steps to enhance a driver’s control of their vehicle, and to educate drivers about the capabilities—and limitations—of these new technologies. The company is making the latest safety innovations accessible to the masses with an eye towards safer roadways, not just for its drivers and passengers, but for everyone who uses them.
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 Wheels.ca 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.