Designed for Safety
Vehicle Safety Systems Test

Safety Systems in Your Car: Safeguarding Your Life

Updated Sept. 28, 2020

The Highway Transportation System consists of three main components: drivers, vehicles and roadway infrastructure. In order to minimize traffic-related deaths, all three of these components must be analyzed and adjusted to improve safety. In this module, we’re going to discuss vehicle safety standards, new developments in safety technology and the myriad of ways in which your car has been built to protect you. While driving is still an inherently dangerous activity, the car you drive now is considerably safer than the cars people were driving 30 or 40 years ago.

A history of vehicle safety standards

For over 50 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) has been working with the federal government to devise and introduce Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), the first of which were enacted in 1968. In the United States, we are fortunate to have some of the strictest vehicle safety standards in the world, and yet traffic collisions are still the number one cause of injury-related death across the country.

The field of study and design that aims to reduce traffic collisions and roadway fatalities by improving vehicle safety is known as automotive safety. The researchers, designers and engineers working in this field seek to minimize roadway deaths by creating vehicle safety systems, which either:

  • Reduce this risk of a collision occurring, or
  • Make the consequences of a collision less severe

Unfortunately, it often takes a long time for vehicle safety regulations and laws to catch up with what automotive safety experts understand to be the most effective risk-reducing vehicle features. For example, we know that collision avoidance systems dramatically reduce collision risk, but it will be a few years yet before all new cars are built with this technology as standard.

Seat belts are another perfect example of this problem. The first passenger cars with seat belts were available in 1950, yet it was not a legal requirement for manufacturers to include seat belts in the vehicles they produced until 1968. Even at this point – when we KNEW how important seat belts were – the first law requiring vehicle occupants to wear a seat belt was not introduced until 1984, some 16 years later! Most people would consider air bags to be a modern vehicle safety feature, though they were introduced for the first time in 1974. Despite the life-saving implications of this simple and inexpensive technology, dual-front air bags did not become a legal requirement for new vehicles until 1998.

It is important to keep in mind how slow on the uptake federal vehicle safety standards can be, when you’re choosing a new vehicle. Many safety features are not legally required and yet can dramatically decrease your risk of being injured or killed in a traffic collision. With the information in this module, you can better understand how different vehicle safety features will protect you and your passengers. Then, you can make an informed decision.

Active and passive vehicle safety features

The safety features in any passenger car are either “active” or “passive”. In general, active safety devices are those designed prevent traffic collisions and accidents from occurring, or that require input from the driver. These features might include crash avoidance systems and anti-lock braking. Passive safety features are those designed to minimize the severity of a collision, by protecting the vehicle’s occupants from serious injury and death. Air bags and crumple zones are examples of passive safety features.

Active and passive safety are equally important pieces of the automotive safety puzzle. While the ultimate goal should be to prevent collisions from occurring in the first place, we cannot ignore the fact that it is impossible to completely eradicate roadway risk. When the unavoidable does happen, your life may depend on your vehicle’s passive safety features.

Safety restraints

According to Newton’s first law of motion: an object that is in motion tends to stay in motion. Though it may not feel like it, your body is in motion while you’re riding in a moving vehicle. If the vehicle were to collide with another object and stop or reduce speed abruptly, you body would continue to move at the original speed of the vehicle until some other object stops it. Due to this phenomenon, collisions at relatively low speeds can cause catastrophic injuries if the vehicle’s occupants are not properly restrained. 30mph may not feel very fast while you’re driving but it certainly will if you’re moving at that speed when you hit the steering wheel, dashboard or windshield.

The term “restraints” covers a far broader range of safety features than just seat belts. Any part of the vehicle that is designed to hold you in place, cushion your body or prevent you from being ejected during a crash qualifies as a type of restraint. This includes air bags, safety glass, head rests, padded dashboards and even sun visors!

Seat belts

Often, the simplest safety measures are also the most effective. Seat belts save thousands of lives around the United States every year, though they only work when all vehicle occupants remember to buckle-up. Every state has enacted strict laws on seat belt use and ploughs money into pro-seat belt public awareness campaigns, so there is no excuse not to fasten your seat belt before every journey.

Despite this, many people still neglect to wear seat belts when driving or riding as a passenger. If you, your parents or somebody you know is guilty of not wearing a seat belt, you need to check out the “seat belt myths” covered in our next article. Think you will be safer without a safety belt? Think again.

During a collision, your seat belt may be the only thing stopping you from being thrown into the dashboard or through the windshield. While the belt will hold you in your seat, your body will still “hit” the straps of the belt with some force if your car collides with another object. For this reason, it is essential to position your seat belt correctly before you start the car, to avoid any seat belt-related injury to your neck or torso. We cover proper seat belt positioning in our seat belt article, to make sure you know what you’re aiming for. Though incorrectly positioned seat belts can cause injuries during a crash, it is important to realize that an improperly secured seat belt is still better than no seat belt at all.

Child safety restraints

Ordinary seat belts are not safe to use with infants or children under 4’9” tall. As the driver of the vehicle, it is your responsibility to ensure all underage passengers you transport are safely secured in an age-appropriate child restraint, and that they remain secured throughout the journey. There are three main types of child restraint, suitable for children at different developmental stages. The cut-off heights and weights at which a child requires the next stage of restraint vary around the United States but are largely similar. We will discuss this issue in a little more detail in our full article on the topic. Here are some general guidelines:

  1. 1

    Stage One (Infants & Babies).
    A rear-facing child seat.

  2. 2

    Stage Two (Toddlers and Small Children).
    A forward facing child seat.

  3. 3

    Stage Three (Older children up to 4’9” tall).
    A booster seat.

Keep in mind that children are always safer traveling in the back seat of the vehicle. If extenuating circumstances mean that your child must travel in the front passenger seat, you will need to make sure there are no active air bags on the passenger side.

Air bags

Dual frontal air bags are a legally required safety feature in all modern vehicles, though there are still plenty of older vehicles on the roads which do not have them. If you have the option, always choose a vehicle with frontal air bags, as when combined with properly secured seat belts, they are incredibly effective life-saving devices. If a collision occurs, your air bag will inflate at an incredible speed to cushion your body during the impact. Once deployed, the air bag cannot be reused and must be replaced.

While air bags dramatically decrease the risk of death or serious injury in adults, they have been known to kill or injure children. Never allow a passenger younger than 13 years-old to sit in front of an active air bag. If you have no other option, you may be able to deactivate the air bag using in-car controls or have it removed altogether with approval from the NHTSA.

A safe sitting-position

Are you sitting correctly when you drive your car? If not, you are subjecting yourself to a greater risk of being injured or killed during a collision. To be properly protected during a collision, the driver must:

  • Be positioned so that their shoulders are higher than the steering wheel.
  • Be positioned at a safe distance from the steering wheel.
  • Be positioned so that the head rest is in contact with the back of their head.

As a new driver, you must get into the habit of positioning yourself correctly every time you get into the car. Crucially, you must maintain that habit. Too many drivers get lazy with their sitting position as they become more comfortable behind the wheel. You may feel as at-home in your car as you do while sitting on the couch, but you must never forget the danger you face while driving, and the importance of sitting correctly. If you are incorrectly positioned, the safety restraints we discuss throughout this module will not be able to protect you during a collision.

Engineering for safety

The frame of your vehicle has been engineered to absorb the force impact during a collision, minimizing the damage to the passenger compartment and its occupants. Front and rear “crumple zones” are designed to crush inward away from the impact site. This crumpling action will absorb the energy expelled during the crash. The passenger compartment itself is made from reinforced steel, to prevent it from buckling inward towards the passengers and driver. The roof, windshield and side windows have also been designed to contain the occupants of the vehicle and help the passenger compartment to maintain its shape during rollover collisions.

The materials used inside the passenger compartment and engine have also been designed to minimize the risk of injury during a traffic collision. You can learn about collapsible steering columns, leak-proof fuel tanks, door locking mechanisms, padded dashboards and various other common safety features in our full article on safety engineering.

Driver assistance systems

When it comes to improving roadway safety and reducing the number of traffic-related deaths in the United States, “prevention” is always far more effective than “cure”. To put it plainly, it is better to stop a collision from happening in the first place, rather than simply trying to reduce the severity of collisions that do occur (though this is important too). In pursuit of this goal, automotive safety engineers and car manufacturers are developing advanced driver assistance technologies, many of which are available in cars that are on the market today.

Driver assistance technologies are electronic systems that are designed to cut back on collisions. This may be:

  1. By providing the driver with information that may help them to avoid a collision (e.g. tire pressure warning systems and night vision systems).
  2. By warning the driver when a potential conflict or collision is detected (e.g. collision warning systems and lane departure systems).
  3. By automatically adjusting the brakes, acceleration and steering to “correct” input mistakes made by the driver (anti-lock braking and traction control systems).
  4. Taking full control of the vehicle during an emergency, or during challenging maneuvers (auto-park systems and advanced collision avoidance systems).

Driver assistance systems are the future of automotive safety. If all vehicles were fully autonomous and required no input from the driver, roadway collisions would be a rarity. Most traffic collisions are at least partly caused by one or more of the drivers involved making bad decisions. If vehicles drove themselves, this would not be an issue!

Your safe driving responsibility

Most new drivers feel comforted to know how their cars are designed to protect them. While this module is designed to be reassuring, remember that all the advanced safety features in the world do not exempt you from driving responsibly. If you do not utilize defensive driving techniques, remain attentive to the roadway and abide by the rules of the road, it is very likely that you will one day be involved in a serious collision.

The number of annual traffic-related deaths in the United States has been slowly and steadily declining over the past few decades, thanks in part to advancements in automotive safety and stricter federal safety standards. Despite this, tens of thousands of road users still lose their lives during traffic crashes every year. Driving may be far safer than it once was, but it is still extremely dangerous.

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