Passengers are protected far more than ever before in today’s cars. Here are the biggest advances made in the last 25 years.
The 1980s were important years for brake improvements, and the systems were very good for their day, but they pale beside those we have now.
Only a few 1986 models, mostly high-end or performance cars, had disc brakes on all four wheels. Most of them had front disc brakes — required equipment since 1975 — but used drums on the back wheels.
That setup is still found on some lower-priced vehicles today, but luxury brands such as Cadillac and Lincoln, which exclusively use four-wheel disc brakes today, still used discs and drums in 1986 on some of their models.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard equipment on all upcoming 2012 vehicles, but the system was still working its way into the auto market in 1986.
Chrysler, Cadillac and Ford had offered rudimentary anti-skid programs as options on some models in the 1970s, but historians generally agree that the first modern ABS system — completely electronic, four-wheel and multi-channel — was produced by Bosch.
It prevented the wheels from locking up while braking and allowed the driver to steer around obstacles. It first appeared as an option on the 1978 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and shortly after, on BMW’s 7 Series.
In 1986, both domestic and import manufacturers had ABS on some of their cars. Most were on higher-end or performance models such as the Corvette, where they were standard, or the Audi 5000CS, where they were a $1,000 option.
BMW was the first manufacturer to put ABS as standard equipment in all of its vehicles sold in the United States in 1986, but buyers would have to wait until the early 1990s for it to be included in the price of any high-volume family or economy cars.
Electronic stability control, which uses the ABS sensors, is also standard on 2012 vehicles, but it didn’t come out until 1995.
Driver and front passenger airbags are found on every car today, and almost all of them also include side and curtain airbags. Some also have airbags in the rear seat sides and under the dash for the front occupants’ knees.
They were still a mystery to most car buyers in 1986. They’d first appeared more than a decade earlier, but the vast majority of drivers were still looking at steering wheel centres that only contained the horn button.
Still, the year marked a new beginning: the newly announced 1987 Porsche 944 would be the first car sold in the U.S. with a driver and front passenger airbag as standard equipment.
Inventors John Hetrick in the U.S. and Walter Linderer in Germany held patents on inflatable bags by 1953. The missing link was a reliable crash sensor to deploy them, created by U.S. engineer Allen K. Breed in 1968.
The earliest airbags — they were an expensive option on a few vehicles in the early 1970s — were initially proposed as alternatives to seatbelts, which many people refused to wear. But since seatbelts hold the occupants safely away from the bag’s extreme detonation force, using airbags alone could be dangerous.
Even with a seatbelt, high deployment speed was still a problem for smaller occupants. In 1997, the U.S. government required airbags that deployed with less force. Front bags became mandatory for the 1999 model year.
Today, airbag systems determine deployment force by measuring such factors as the occupant’s weight, seating position, seatbelt use and crash severity.
Drivers in 1986 had such mandatory safety features as rupture-resistant fuel tanks, doors that stayed latched in crashes, impact-absorbing steering columns, emergency flashers, backup lights, an exterior driver’s side mirror and seatbelts for every passenger, thanks to the U.S. Motor Vehicle Safety Act signed into law 20 years before. It was also the first year that the centre high-mounted stop lamp — the “third brake light” — was required.
Since then, you can add to that list front airbags, ABS and electronic stability control, daytime running lights, and minimum head restraint height.
Cars were crumpling up in collisions to dissipate energy and protect their occupants in 1986, although many drivers mistakenly believed that the safest car was a big, sturdy one that “held up” in a crash and came out relatively unscathed. (Unfortunately, some still believe that today.)
Crash tests in 1986 were performed by running the vehicle into a frontal barrier and assessing any head or chest injuries on the dummies inside. Today, cars are evaluated for front, side, rear and rollover protection, using dummies and computer models to measure external and internal injuries.