Designed for Safety
Car Safety Engineering

Engineered For Safety: Your Car's Features You May Not Know About

Updated Sept. 30, 2020

While visual appeal is a key driving force behind a car’s design, modern vehicle manufacturers place far more emphasis on engineering for safety to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities. Looking at your average modern car, it is difficult to grasp just how much thought, time and money has been spent making it as safe as possible for the driver and passengers that will occupy it. Every aspect of the design (including frame, engine, electronics, seats, bumpers and even upholstery) has been engineered to give you the safest possible driving experience.

Vehicle safety has improved dramatically over the past few decades, largely as a result of new laws holding vehicle manufacturers to stricter safety standards. Cars are safer than ever before but ultimately, the responsibility of staying safe on the road rests with you, the driver. The way you choose to operate your vehicle and react to events on the roadway matters far more than any advanced safety features your vehicle has.

While practicing safe driving habits will help you to avoid most conflicts and collisions, you can never completely eradicate the risk of being involved in a crash. Rest assured that if the worst should happen, your vehicle has been engineered to protect you.

Vehicle frame safety features

Over the past few decades, various safety improvements have been made in passenger vehicle frame designs. All modern vehicles are engineered to minimize the force of impact, when a car strikes or is struck by another object at any angle. When the frame itself absorbs the brunt of the impact, the occupants within the vehicle are less likely to be killed or seriously injured.

Crumple zones

Crumple zones are designed to absorb the energy expelled during a crash, which would otherwise be transferred directly to the occupants of the vehicle. They also serve to prevent any deformation of the passenger compartment during the collision, so that driver and passengers are less likely to sustain injury as a result of the passenger compartment frame buckling inwards.

Both the front and rear of most modern vehicles have crumple zones, to offer protection during rear and head-on collisions. Crumple zones are constructed with a softer and more easily compressed metal than the main passenger compartment. As this softer material crumples inward from the point of impact, the energy created by the crash can dissipate, rather than passing through the entire vehicle at full force. Since becoming a standard vehicle feature, front and rear-end crumple zones have saved thousands of lives.

Side-impact reinforcement

Unfortunately, crumple zones do not offer much protection when a vehicle is struck side-on. For this reason, modern vehicles are built with steel or aluminum reinforcement beams in the doors or across the sides of the car. These heavy-duty beams help to stop the passenger compartment buckling inwards during a side-on collision. They also absorb some of the force of impact, encouraging it to dissipate throughout the frame of the vehicle rather than sending a shockwave through the passenger compartment.

Roof crush reinforcement

So, that’s front, rear and side impact taken care of, but what if your vehicle rolls over during a collision? If the roof cannot withstand the weight of the vehicle or the force of the rollover, it may be crushed into the passenger space. This is a big problem in many older vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate roof collapse during rollover crashes could cause up to 6,900 fatal injuries a year. Stricter standards have now been introduced so that modern cars must be built with reinforced roof frames, which ensure the vehicle will maintain its shape when rolling over.

Shatter-resistant windshields

According to federal law, all vehicle windshields must be made from laminated safety glass, comprised of two layers of glass sandwiching a thin layer of plastic. Safety glass is stronger and less likely to shatter during a collision. If safety glass does break, if forms small smooth-edged chunks rather than jagged glass shards which could injure the vehicle’s occupants. Shatter-resistant glass also minimizes the chances of a driver or passenger being thrown through the windshield during a crash and prevents debris from the roadway entering the vehicle.

Tempered side windows

Most modern cars are built with tempered glass side windows. Like laminated safety glass, tempered glass is shatter resistant and will break into small glass cubes rather than shards. This dramatically decreases the risk of serious lacerations to the head, neck and upper body occurring during a collision. Tempered glass is the perfect choice for side windows as it is not as strong as laminated safety glass. This means that the windows can still be broken from the inside with relative ease, should a passenger or driver need to escape the vehicle following a collision.

Internal vehicle safety features

The internal components of modern passenger vehicles are also designed to minimize injury during a collision or accident. Thanks to these engineering advancements, vehicle occupants are less likely to be thrown from a vehicle, injured by the vehicle controls or killed by an exploding fuel tank.

Door locks and recessed handles

Strict federal safety standards govern vehicle door locks and latches, to minimize the likelihood that a door will fly open during a collision and eject a driver or passenger. During high speed collisions, inertia can cause an unlocked door to unlatch itself and open, as the rods within the locking mechanism will continue to move for a few milliseconds beyond the moment of impact. To prevent this, many modern vehicles feature door locks which automatically lock when the vehicle is in motion. Certain manufacturers have expanded on this safety feature by programming the door locks to release following a collision, making it easier for emergency service operatives to assist injured people within the vehicle.

Modern door handles are also designed to improve safety for vehicle occupants and pedestrians or cyclists outside the vehicle. By constructing recessed handles which do not protrude from the surface of the door, manufacturers have minimized the likelihood that people inside or outside the vehicle will become snagged on the door.

Collapsible steering columns

Collapsible steering columns are designed to minimize injury during head-on collisions, where the force of impact would throw the driver toward the steering wheel. Traditional steering columns feature a long steel shaft connecting the wheel to the steering gear box. In serious front-on collisions where the driver is propelled forward and the steering column is pushed backwards, there is a risk that the driver will be impaled.

Collapsible steering columns are not made of a single steel shaft but rather two “sleeves” secured with bearings to form a long shaft. During a front-on collision, the steering column will collapse in on itself like a telescope, rather than impaling the driver.

Increased fuel tank integrity

While gas tank explosions during collisions are extremely rare, there is a chance that the fuel in your tank will ignite and cause a lethal fire in the event of a serious crash. This can only happen if the fuel tank or fuel lines are breached, as gasoline needs oxygen in order to burn. This is very unlikely to happen in modern vehicles, as gas tanks are reinforced, protected and constructed to be leak-proof.

Flame retardant materials

The upholstery in your vehicle is treated with flame retardant chemicals, which are less likely to catch fire. If a fire has started elsewhere in the vehicle, flame retardant materials will slow the fire’s spread and reduce the risk of occupants sustaining burns or smoke-inhalation injuries. Most child car seat and booster seats are treated with flame retardant chemicals too.

Seat anchors

All vehicles are built with integrated LATCH systems (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) to keep child car seats safely secured in the event of a collision. The lower anchors are metal U-shaped bars fixed into the crack of the vehicle’s rear seat to secure the base of the child seat. The tethers are metal bars or rings behind the rear seats, to secure the top of the child seat. Since 2003, all vehicles must have at least two lower anchors and at least three tethers.

Padded dashboard panels

Padded dashboards are designed to minimize face, neck and chest injuries during head-on collisions. These dashboards are lined with foam panels to limit the force of impact, should the driver or front-seat passenger be thrown forward into the dashboard when the car strikes an object head-on. Padded dashboards have been widely implemented since the 1970s and are now a standard safety feature in all passenger cars.

Other vehicle safety features

Car manufacturers have developed various other safety features to minimize the risk of a collision occurring by increasing visibility or providing drivers with more information about their position on the roadway. These are available as standard in many modern vehicles but are optional add-ons in others.

Daytime running lights

Daytime running lamps (DRL) are yellow, amber or white external lights that are automatically activated whenever a vehicle is in drive. These lamps are not designed to help the driver see the roadway, but rather to make the vehicle more visible to other roadway users. DRLs minimize the risk of conflict and collision occurring during low-visibility daytime hours, when a driver may not have thought to switch on their standard low beam or high beam lights.

Increased visibility brake lights

As we know, brake lights are designed to warn road users to the rear of a vehicle that the driver is intending to slow down or stop. They activate automatically when the driver touches the brake pedal. Traditional brake lights are positioned alongside the taillights, low down on the rear of the vehicle. This can make it hard for motorists a few vehicles back to see when your brake lights are active. Increased visibility brake lights are positioned higher on the rear of the vehicle, at the top of the trunk or base of the windshield, to make sure drivers at a distance can see when you are preparing to slow down. They minimize the likelihood of rear-end collisions occurring in long lines of closely packed traffic.

Cameras and infrared sensors

Many vehicles feature cameras and infrared sensors at the side and/or rear, to warn drivers when they are moving too close to an object outside the vehicle. Rear sensors make it easier to reverse and park in tight spots, without the risk of colliding with another vehicle, the curb, or another object. Side sensors will notify the driver when objects are too close to the side of the car. This can be incredibly useful when driving along a busy street with vehicles parked alongside the driving lane. Both rear and side sensors warn drivers by emitting a flashing light and/or beeping alarm, when they detect an object too close to the vehicle.

Choosing the safest car

Buying a car is a big decision, so it is important to do your research first! Many of the safety features discussed in this article come as standard in modern vehicles, though some do not. Be sure to discuss this with the salesperson you are dealing with when purchasing a new car. If you choose to purchase a used car, keep in mind that older vehicles may not have been designed in accordance with modern safety standards.

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