How Vehicle Safety Has Improved Over the Decades | NHTSA (2024)

Vehicle safety has changed drastically over the years. Thanks to advanced engineering, in-depth research and analysis of crash data, newer vehicles are built better and have more safety features to protect you. Advanced technologies that have emerged in recent years give you even more safety options.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been involved in vehicle safety improvements for decades. NHTSA sets and enforces safety standards, and develops innovative approaches to vehicle safety — such as our New Car Assessment Program. NCAP, expanded in 1993 to include the 5-Star Safety Ratings system, marked 40 years in 2019. Here’s a look at some overall vehicle safety improvements that have made cars safer over the decades.

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Equipment and technology

Seat belts

Most standard equipment in cars today wasn’t even an option decades ago. Depending on your age, you may remember when cars didn’t have seat belts, or when the belt just went over your lap. Today, the three-point seat belt, which restrains occupants across both their lap and shoulder, is standard in all vehicles. The advanced three-point restraint system includes a pretensioner that pulls the seat belt tight and prevents excess slack during a crash— saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Air bags

Air bags have come a long way since the first one was invented in the 1950s. Though early air bags saved lives, they had to be reengineered so the air bag itself did not injure or kill someonewhen it deployed, especially women and children. Air bag placement in vehicles has also changed to protect occupants better. Frontal air bags were widely adopted by 1987 and have since saved more than 50,000 lives. Now, many car manufacturers offer side air bags, or side curtain air bags, as standard or optional equipment.

Electronic stability control

Losing control of your vehicle is never a good thing, but vehicle safety systems are in place to help you if you are in that situation. For example, electronic stability control aims to reduce spin-outs and plow-outs. Electronic stability control systems, required in all new cars since September 1, 2011, use automatic computer-controlled braking of wheels to assist you in maintaining control if you begin to lose control of your vehicle.

Backup camera

A rearview video system, also known as a backup camera, aims to help prevent backover crashes by showing objects that are directly behind your vehicle, and if an object may be coming into your vehicle’s path. Originally, the issue with backover crashes was thought to be the inability to see directly behind you, but further investigation showed a high number of incidents happened because a person was coming into the vehicle’s path from a side. Now, rearview video systems, a required safety technology on all new cars since May 1, 2018, show a wider view.

Blind spot warning

In response to crashes where drivers did not see what was next to them because of a blind spot, blind spot warning was developed. It uses either digital cameras or sensors to monitor if a vehicle is in an adjacent lane. The system, which is offered as standard or optional equipment on many new cars, sends a warning to the driver that it may be unsafe to merge or change lanes.

Driver assistance

One day, automated driving systems could potentially handle the whole task of driving. As we head down the road to full automation, there has been a lot of development in Level 1 and Level 2 automation: driver assistance. This is where a vehicle is controlled by the driver, but there are some driving assistance options like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control. The continuing evolution of automotive safety aims to save more lives and prevent injuries on America’s roads.

Lives saved

The average vehicle on the road in 2012 would have an estimated 56% lower fatality risk for its occupants than the average vehicle on the road in the late 1950s. NHTSA estimates that vehicle safety developments helped raise the annual number of lives saved from 115 in 1960 to 27,621 in 2012. Cumulatively, these improved safety technologies saved over 600,000 lives between 1960 and 2012.

We anticipate more vehicle safety improvements in the years ahead. NHTSA plans to propose major upgrades to NCAP, which uses the 5-Star Safety Ratings system to inform consumers about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles, beyond what federal law requires. The program also assesses the performance of new crash avoidance technologies. By shining a light on the benefits of various safety features, NCAP encourages automakers to continue investing in innovative safety technologies.

How Vehicle Safety Has Improved Over the Decades | NHTSA (2024)

FAQs

How has car safety improved over the years? ›

Vehicle safety has changed drastically over the years. Thanks to advanced engineering, in-depth research and analysis of crash data, newer vehicles are built better and have more safety features to protect you. Advanced technologies that have emerged in recent years give you even more safety options.

How has the car improved over time? ›

In the modern age, computers have transformed cars. Safety features like anti-lock brakes, tire pressure sensors, and electronic stability control help drivers react faster and maintain control of their cars in difficult conditions. Backup cameras and lane-change assist also help eliminate blindspots for drivers.

How are cars safer today than they were 50 years ago? ›

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), modern cars are much safer, notably, since the implementation of seat belts, airbags, and crash avoidance technology has considerably improved the chances of a driver surviving a car crash.

What makes vehicles safer? ›

Belts, airbags and head restraints all work together with a vehicle's structure to stabilize and protect people in serious crashes, reducing the chance you'll slam into something hard or get ejected from the crashing vehicle and be injured or killed.

How have cars improved in the last 10 years? ›

Ten years ago, the majority of cars had, at most, two front airbags. And now, cars also have accident avoidance features such as collision warning systems, blind spot recognition, and alert sensors. Some cars are even prototyping exterior airbags to prevent collision damage. 3.

Why are modern cars safer than older cars? ›

In the decades since, airbags, anti-lock braking systems (ABS), and better crumple zones that help protect occupants during a collision have become standard. Crash avoidance technology and driver alerts in modern cars also protect lives on the road.

How much safer are cars now? ›

ABOUT NEW CARS

In 1997, the occupant fatality rate per 100,000 registered vehicles was 17.81 for passenger cars. Compare that to 2017, when the rate dropped to 10.05 per 100,000 registered vehicles. Improved occupant protection, use of seat belts and air bags, and crash avoidance technology saves lives.

When did cars get safer? ›

It was during the 1970s that the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) was created began testing safety features and publishing the results. Some car manufacturers began to provide airbags as an option for passengers, and electronic anti-lock brakes made an appearance.

Why is car safety important? ›

Research shows advanced car safety features may reduce the risk of a serious crash by 49% and lower injury risk by 53%. Car safety features can be passive (seat belts and airbags) or active (stability control and automatic emergency braking).

Is a longer car safer? ›

Larger vehicles are usually safer than smaller cars because of their size and weight—two very important forces that directly relate to your risk of getting injured. Bigger vehicles tend to be more spacious and have more distance between the front of the car and its occupants.

What ages crash cars the most? ›

According to a research brief from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers between the ages of 16 and 17 have the highest crash ratings, including crash-related injuries and deaths. Meanwhile, drivers aged 80 and above face the highest fatality rates.

Were cars safer in the 60s? ›

Better designs and improved safety systems have made cars much safer over the past 60 years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says fatal car accidents in 1960 occurred at a rate that is five times higher than today.

What technology makes cars safer? ›

Adaptive cruise control systems can sense vehicles ahead and adjust your speed to keep a safe following distance. Some (but not all!) systems also incorporate emergency braking to help slow your vehicle to avoid a collision. Another responsive technology that's come along are adaptive headlights.

What is the greatest risk in a car? ›

The most common types of car accidents
  • Distracted driving. One of the most common types of car accidents is due to distracted driving. ...
  • Speeding. Speed limits aren't an arbitrary number. ...
  • Bad weather. ...
  • Failing to adhere to street signs. ...
  • Poor vehicle maintenance.

How has car technology changed over the years? ›

Today's cars have many sensors to help you with various driving and car maintenance tasks. Many of these sensors originated in the 1970s and 1980s but then were modernized in the 1990s and beyond. With increased computerization, automobiles included features for safety and ease.

How much safer have cars become? ›

In 1997, the occupant fatality rate per 100,000 registered vehicles was 17.81 for passenger cars. Compare that to 2017, when the rate dropped to 10.05 per 100,000 registered vehicles. Improved occupant protection, use of seat belts and air bags, and crash avoidance technology saves lives.

What is the history of the safety car? ›

The first official Safety Car was a Porsche 914/6 deployed at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1973. Since then, Formula One has used various cars to fulfill the role, including a Lamborghini Countach at the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix. More unlikely cars included the Ford Escort Cosworth, a Renault Clio, and the Fiat Tempra.

When did cars start to become safer? ›

The need to revolutionize auto safety was not fully realized until the 1950s, when the first usable airbags were developed, among other safety mechanisms. Then, in 1970, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was created.

What are the safety features of cars in the 2000s? ›

In the 2000s, car safety took a leap into the future with the debut of autonomous systems. These include features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and automatic emergency braking. While still having room for improvement, these systems represent a significant step towards fully autonomous vehicles.

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