By the mid-1950s, more than a million Americans had been in car accidents and died on the nation’s roads and highways.
The general consensus was that it was all on account of driver error and/or the drivers in question not following the laws. Surely, that must be the cause because, it was thought, cars couldn’t be built any better … could they? Many in the industry thought they were already at the epitome of automotive design and safety---there was nowhere else for automotive technology to go!
Automotive writer James Crate wrote in 1993 that from the birth of the automobile up until 1956, the auto had been largely unmolested by federal laws largely because those ideas were left over from the days when horses were the primary mode of personal transportation. The then-motoring public and the federal government considered the automobile a personal item, much as a horse had been. Thus, it was viewed as an inviolate part of a person’s way of life that should not come under the scrutiny of some government law or entity.
That began to change on July 15, 1956 when Congressman Kenneth Roberts, an Alabama Democrat, opened the first session of the first House subcommittee on traffic safety by proceeding directly to the subject of automotive design standards.
The auto industry was not ready for Congressman Roberts. They weren’t ready to be asked if the vehicles they were putting on the road might be designed better and safer, to first help mitigate accidents and/or to reduce their severity and save lives.
The motoring public, at the time, was apathetic. Even Roberts’ fellow legislators and other federal personnel were apathetic at best and condescending at worst. Roberts was not re-elected. However, during his tenure, he managed to get H.R. 1341 passed, which set safety standards for those vehicles purchased by the U.S. government. At the time, the federal government purchased about 35,000 vehicles a year, a proverbial “drop in the bucket” in the total scheme of things. But it set a precedent and got people and the government to give vehicle safety and design another look.
Coincidentally, this was the same year that Ford tried selling safety as a vehicle feature. An optional safety package came with seat belts, padded dash and padded sun visors, among other items. (Seat belts would not be federally mandated until 1964.) Fewer than 2,000 of Ford’s safety packages were sold.
Since 1956, the federal government has mandated much of the safety technology used in cars today. Left up to their own devices, would carmakers have advanced automotive safety on their own? Consider the following:
On Feb. 10, 1885, way before the automobile was even thought about, the first U.S. patent for a seat belt was issued to Edward J. Claghorn of New York. In the patent, it was described as "designed to be applied to the person and provided with hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object."
They would not be required for use in automobiles for another 80 years!
But seat-belted carriage passengers aside, the earliest “horseless carriage” drivers changed a car’s direction of travel with a tiller, not unlike steering a small boat. It was clumsy and not very practical. So in 1900, the steering wheel was invented, introduced in the Packard.
Early cars could only be driven safely during the day because they had no headlights! So, the first automotive headlamps were introduced for use on the 1898 Columbia Electric Car from the Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford, CT. But the new electric lamps were not very popular---the rather fragile filaments didn’t last long bouncing over the rough, early roads, and it was difficult for the car to produce enough current to even power the lamp.
Thus, in 1904, a more durable and practical headlamp was introduced---powered by acetylene. (That doesn’t sound very safe?) Vehicle lighting with headlamps, tail lamps, and side lamps, as we know it today, was not used until 1908 and then powered by an 8-volt battery. Side marker lamps would have to wait until 1968. Center-mounted, high brake lamps would have to wait until 1986.
Early cars moved along at not much more than walking speed. But that didn’t last long. To gauge how fast a vehicle was going required a speedometer. The first one appeared in the 1901 Oldsmobile. Ironically, early mechanical brake systems were still rather crude, and cars didn’t stop well. But for the first time, by watching the speedometer, it was possible for a person to judge beforehand how badly they and their vehicle would be damaged if the car collided with something.
Shock absorbers also appeared around this time. Early shocks were “knee-action” as opposed to the reciprocating tubular style we are most familiar with today. Dampening the suspension controlled wheel shimmy while traveling along unpaved roads. It also helped drivers better control their vehicle and keep themselves out of ditches and out of the way of oncoming traffic.You might call this the first lane-keep assist system.
In 1951, German Walter Linderer and American John Hedrik applied for patents for early airbags. The bags were largely ineffectual because they could not deploy fast enough, and a system to trigger the deployment did not yet exist---but they had the concept right. An acceptable triggering system would have to wait until 1968 when Allen Breed would submit for a patent for his invention, the first electro-mechanical airbag triggering system. The first airbags sold commercially on a passenger car appeared on the 1973 Oldsmobile Tornado.
In 1953, the iconic Chevrolet Corvette was introduced. It was the industry’s first production fiberglass body, which presented some new challenges to the collision repair industry. It was also the first mass-produced American car with a wrap-around windshield, which eliminated a troublesome blind spot at the corner of the windshield, increased the driver’s line of vision and ostensibly made the car safer. The wrap-around design was the brainchild of legendary car designer Harley Earl. Interestingly, Harley’s father, J.W. Earl, developed and patented a tilting windshield in 1911, another innovation of its time.
Of all the safety equipment ever invented for a motor vehicle, none has been as ubiquitous, been damaged as many times in so many accidents, generated as much income for so many parts suppliers and provided as many labor hours for so many collision technicians as the item invented by Frederick R. Simms.
Simms was born in Hamburg, Germany on August 12, 1863. He became a British mechanical engineer, businessman and inventor. He was a personal friend of Gottlieb Daimler and became involved in the company that eventually became known as Daimler-Benz. In association with Robert Bosch, he invented the magneto and started the Simms Magneto Company in New Jersey. The company eventually went on to produce electrical items through the 1940s and later was bought out by the British company Lucas.
But by those in the collision repair industry, Simms is not remembered for his achievements in the world of automotive electrics. Simms is known as the inventor of what is arguably the most maligned safety item ever---the automotive bumper.