From MOTs To Car Service Centres: The History of Automotive Safety

10 March 2020 / Motasoft Administrator

From MOTs To Car Service Centres: The History of Automotive Safety

With around 38.7 million licenced vehicles on UK roads today, it’s safe to say us Brits are pretty reliant on our cars. Whether it’s getting to and from work every day or ferrying the kids around, the UK public has been enamoured with the automotive industry for over a century and during this time, a lot has changed, especially when it comes to vehicle safety.

While crashes sadly do still occur, road accidents have thankfully become decidedly rarer than in previous decades, with a substantial drop in incidents since the 1990s. This long term decline has been primarily down to the host of automotive safety measures brought in by both the UK government and the vehicle manufacturers themselves.

However, these measures didn’t all come at once and it has taken a fair amount of time for safety precautions to reach the levels they are at today. With this in mind, we decided to take a closer look at the history of automotive safety and learn a little bit more about how we made our vehicles safe throughout the decades.

Road accidents: a new issue

With the advent of locomotion during the 18th and 19th century, giant steam-powered vehicles, from trains to agricultural equipment revolutionised the UK and the wider world. It was also during this time that individuals became interested in creating steam-powered cars. Inventors looking to make the first steam-powered car can be seen as far back as 1801, with Richard Trevithick’s full-sized model hitting the road in Camborne. 

Yet, with this attempt to create the car came significant backlash from the railways lobby, leading to what could be seen as one of the first vehicle safety laws known as the Locomotive Acts of 1861 and 1865. This made driving any form of vehicle on UK roads extremely slow, requiring someone to be stood in front of the automobile with a horn and red flag.

It was also around this time that the world’s first automotive fatality was ever recorded in 1869. Irish naturalist and author Mary Ward had come to watch her cousin’s new steam-powered car prototype in action when she fell under its wheels and was killed. This event sent shockwaves around the world and helped to give credence to the idea of automotive safety.  

The rise of the commercial automobile

As automobiles began to take more of a hold during the latter half of the 19th century, so too did automotive safety, with a variety of components being introduced. For example, the first electric headlight was designed and implemented in vehicles throughout North America from 1889 onwards, making it much easier to operate vehicles in the dark. 

Only six years later, the iconic Michelin tyre company, headed by their founder André Michelin, invented the first pneumatic car tyres, increasing traction for vehicles and, in turn, minimising the chance of a vehicle slipping off of the road.

Along with these changes came institutional amendments with the introduction of the Locomotive on Highways Act 1896. While these amendments relaxed laws on overly strict speed limits, it did also provided basic guidelines on how road vehicles should be constructed.

The first motor vehicles

By the turn of the century,  mass production of motor vehicles had begun, with pioneers such as Henry Ford revolutionising the industry. Because of this cars became more affordable for the average person, however, with the rise of these heavy, tricky to operate vehicles came the inevitable rise in road accidents. 

Luckily, manufacturers were working hard to continuously innovate the automotive industry, introducing a host of new safety precautions. For example, the world’s first four wheel disc brake was fitted. Being much more efficient at slowing a vehicle down in comparison to drum brakes, discs would later help pave the way for newer innovations like the first hydraulic brakes developed in 1922.

It is also around this time that we saw the introduction of window wipers in 1903. Connected to a simple lever, these early wipers had to be operated by hand, however, they increased visibility during wet weather tenfold and have become vehicle staples ever since. On the topic of windows, only 24 years later, laminated safety glass was invented in the UK and implemented in many of Henry Ford’s vehicles, drastically minimising the chance of injury from shattered glass.

The 1950s

For many people, especially in the US, the automobile had grown to become a status symbol of the American dream. This, coupled with innovations in mass production lead to the automotive industry skyrocketing throughout the decade. From 1950-60, nearly 58 million cars were produced and sold throughout the US, equating to nearly one vehicle for every three people in the country. This was also the era of the ‘sportscar’ and ‘muscle’ car; vehicles which could reach speeds never seen before. 

The proliferation of vehicles and increase in speed, however, lead to a spike in road traffic accidents, not just in the US but around the world. In the UK, fatalities rose consistently during the 50s and early 60s, which is why many manufacturers looked for ways to keep their drivers safe.

The airbag

While the first full patent for an airbag wasn’t fully introduced until 1968, ideas had already been floating around nearly 20 years earlier. Rudimentary patent applications were submitted by both German Walter Linderer and American John Hetrick in 1951 and 1953 respectively. 

Basing their ideas on bags filling up with compressed air upon impact, later research came to the conclusion that this method would not inflate the bag quick enough to protect the passenger. However, their ideas paved the way to one of the most effective safety components found in a vehicle.

The 3 point-seatbelt

Although seatbelts had been used in one way or another since the mid-19th century, they weren’t as effective as they could have been. As road travel became increasingly popular, Vattenfall, the Swedish national electric utility, carried out a study of accidents happening to their employees. 

The study found that many workplace accidents happened when employees were on the road, so they decided to develop a more effective seatbelt. This lead to the now ubiquitous three point seatbelt, first added to Swedish manufacturer Volvo’s cars in 1959.

1960: the beginning of the MOT

The 1960s were an extremely important decade for UK automotive safety as this is where we see the introduction of the Ministry of Transport test or, as we more likely know it, the MOT. coming into force in 1960, every car over 10 years old was legally obliged to have their car’s brakes, lights and steering checked. However, due to the high rate of failures in the first year, they lowered the vehicle age to 7 years in 1961. 

Throughout the decade, the age was lowered even further and the test itself was subsequently tweaked until it became what it is today. It was also during the 60s that the first mandatory seat belt law was introduced to the UK, forcing manufacturers to fit vehicles with safety belts and by 1983, it was against the law to not wear a seatbelt in the car.

70s and 80s

With electronics becoming more intertwined with our lives during the 70s and 80s, it was going to be inevitable that our cars would change as well. Aside from cassette tapes being introduced, manufacturers were finding a variety of ways to incorporate new technologies into our vehicles, from the advent of electronic traction control in 1971 which would become an industry standard by the 80s, to the development of supplemental restraint systems (SRS).

The way vehicles were being built changed again in the 70s too. Volvo began adding bars to car doors in order to protect occupants from a sideways impact; this would lead the Swedes to developing a side impact protection system in 1991. A host of legal changes came into force during this period as well, with laws enforcing the inclusion of rear seat belts in UK vehicles in 1987.

1990 to the present day

Over the last 30 years, manufacturers and lawmakers have continued to tweak and innovate in order to protect drivers on the road. In 1996, the European Crash Safety Assessment Programme was introduced, grading vehicles on their level of safety. Stability control was also developed by Mercedes around the same time, working with the current traction control system to become one of the most vital safety components in modern vehicles. 

These days, we’re entering a completely new and unknown level of automotive safety with the introduction of self driving cars. With the government issuing manufacturers with permits back in 2015 strictly for research purposes, self driving vehicles could revolutionise car safety as we know it.

Looking for a quality MOT or a full car service? Get in touch with St Albans Car Clinic today

As you can see, automotive safety has come a long way over the last 150 years, yet, while our vehicles are infinitely safer than they were back in the day, it’s important to remain vigilant when it comes to your car’s overall performance.

One of the best ways to ensure your vehicle is safe on the road is by having it serviced by a quality garage like St Albans Car Clinic. Offering a range of automotive services, from in-depth fault checks to comprehensive MOT tests, you can count on us to keep your car running at optimum efficiency. 

For more information on our MOT and service options, visit our website or get in touch with a member of our team on 01727 867747.

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