50 Years Of Automobile Safety Progress: Where Do We Go From Here?

By Adrian Lund, IIHS

I appreciate this opportunity to examine where we’ve come in the past 50 years and where we might go in the future.

Where we’ve been

Fifty years ago, in 1961, the motor vehicle crash death rate had just reached an 11-year low of 49.2 per billion miles of travel on public roadways. The death rate was destined to increase in succeeding years, peaking at 55 deaths per billion miles of travel in 1966. Then began a long period of almost annual decreasing fatality rates, falling to a low of 11.3 deaths per billion miles of travel in 2009.

What happened to achieve this dramatic turnabout?

  • A key factor was the creation in 1966 by Congress of the National Highway Safety Bureau, the forerunner of the current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 1967 and 1968, the bureau issued the first federal motor vehicle safety standards.
  • In the mid-1980s, safety belt use began to climb as states enacted belt use laws.
  • We began to see large reductions in alcohol-impaired driving as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other organizations changed public acceptance of this problem and effective laws were enacted.
  • Graduated licensing laws contributed by reducing the number of teen drivers crashing on our nation’s highways. Since these laws started in the mid-1990s, the fatal crash rate for passenger vehicle drivers ages 16-18 has fallen at a much faster rate (52 percent by 2009) than for drivers ages 30-59 (only 33 percent) (IIHS, 2011).
  • We also should recognize that some of the improved fatality rate is due to changes in the roads on which we travel.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that changes in vehicle design for occupant protection in crashes and the integration of new safety equipment have been key.

  • Federal motor vehicle safety standards immediately required safety belts and energy-absorbing steering columns as standard equipment.
  • Fuel tank integrity requirements, established in 1967, were upgraded in 1976 and again in 2003.
  • Automatic protection was required for unbelted occupants beginning in 1986.
  • Frontal airbags added protection for belted occupants as well.
  • Side impact protection was upgraded in 1990.
  • Roof strength requirements were established in 1971 and upgraded significantly in 2009.
  • A major boost for vehicle crashworthiness began in 1978, when NHTSA for the first time anywhere in the world made comparative safety test information available to the public. Automakers began to improve vehicles beyond the basic standards to satisfy consumer demand and allay concerns about poor performance.

How important have these improvements in crashworthiness been? As part of IIHS’s 50th anniversary celebration, we crashed 2 vehicles head on, both going at 40 mph. The cars were a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. Many of the test witnesses thought the much larger and somewhat heavier Bel Air would demolish the smaller Malibu. The opposite was the case. The unbelted driver dummy in the Bel Air was struck by an intruding steering wheel as the occupant compartment collapsed around him. At the same time, the restrained driver of the Malibu experienced relatively benign forces as the frontal structure collapsed in a controlled manner, largely preserving the occupant compartment intact.

Where do we go from here?

Much of the crashworthiness improvement has been accomplished through new technology and understanding of vehicle structure. There is a growing array of technological innovations — electronic controls and sensors — that allow all sorts of new possibilities for helping drivers avoid crashes. Forward collision warning, lane-keeping and side-view assist, turn-by-turn navigation, and adaptive headlamps already are on vehicles. In addition, a lot of work is going into vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. I am sure all in this audience are aware of the Google autonomous car as well.

New technology also could help with alcohol-impaired driving. DADSS, a partnership of the federal government and automakers, is a 5-year initiative to develop new alcohol detection systems that ultimately could prevent drivers above the legal limit from operating their vehicles and endangering others.

Clearly, the potential of crash avoidance systems is large, and we are beginning to see data indicating that some are working.

Cautionary note: At the same time, we need to remember that not all this technology is likely to perform in the real world as it appears to work in the lab. Translating lab results to the field will not be as easy for crash avoidance as for crashworthiness. Why? Essentially because technology that reduces the likelihood of crashing often affects the driving task, and anything that changes the driving task risks changing driver behavior as well. Put differently, once a crash starts the injury outcomes are straightforward outcomes of physics and biology. Preventing a crash introduces a third, much less determined factor — psychology.

Don’t forget low-tech or past-tech: While my presentation has focused on technology for crash avoidance as the next big thing in motor vehicle safety, we should not forget the myriad influences on safety in the past. Strategies that emphasize road improvements, enforcement of traffic laws, and crashworthiness still can contribute.

Roundabouts are intersection designs that both move more traffic and improve safety, and the United States is just beginning to take advantage of them.

For signalized intersections that cannot be converted, we need to improve compliance with the signals. accomplished by improved crashworthiness of vehicles (Farmer and Lund, 2006).


We have had a fantastic 50 years of progress in reducing harm from motor vehicle crashes. Developing new information and electronic technology promises to do for crash avoidance what prior developments in structure and restraints technology have done for crashworthiness. We need careful research to sort out which technologies will be effective, though, as driver behavior is likely to be a much larger determinant of success in crash avoidance. And while this sorting out takes place, we should not forget that we already know some effective strategies for preventing cashes and injuries. Nor should we forget that, until we have a crash-free environment, it will be important to continue to demand vehicles that protect people and cargo from damage.

For the full presentation including slides, click here (PDF).

About IIHS

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an independent, nonprofit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses ” deaths, injuries, and property damage ” from crashes on the nation’s highways. The Highway Loss Data Institute’s mission is to compute and publish insurance loss results by make and model. Both organizations are wholly supported by USA auto insurers. For more information, visit www.iihs.org.