The evolution of road safety

As we take a look back at the evolution of road safety, it’s interesting to see how much has changed; most of which has occurred just within the last 200 years. From the horse-drawn carriage to sensors, cameras, and wireless technology, a lot has happened in the road safety sphere over the past few decades and I can’t wait to see what happens in the future.

Horse and carriage accidents

While the term “road safety” instantly conjures up images of today’s modern cars, road accidents were occurring even before the invention of the motor vehicle.

The humble horse and carriage, when used as both a goods and passenger conveyer, combined with a lack of road rules resulted in numerous accidents, injuries, and deaths.

You might think roads with slower and fewer vehicles would lessen the risk of accidents, but the ease in which people could be ejected from an open cart, combined with a vehicle that is a horse, susceptible to spooking from the smallest of actions, means that carriage accidents resulted in legitimate injuries and even death. Goods were also severely destroyed when thrown from a cart.

The invention of the car

The invention of the first car is preceded by two important inventions:

1807 – François Issac de Rivaz designed the first car that was powered by an internal engine fuelled by hydrogen

1865 – Siegfried Marcus built the first gasoline powered combustion engine

De Rivaz’s design and Marcus’ build were simply elements of what could be, until Karl Benz combined the two ideas and developed a petrol-powered automobile around 1885.

Not long after we started driving cars, however, we also started getting injured by them. The following inventions were designed to reduce that risk.


We chastise those who neglect to use them today, but did you know that one of the first cars to have electric turn signals fitted wasn’t until 1938? Mechanical turning signals were developed earlier, and before those, hand signals were used to indicate your intentions to other drivers.

Lap seatbelt

The lap seatbelt is also referred to as a “two-point” seatbelt, as it extended across the waist from one side of a person to the other. The concept is similar to the modern-day aircraft seatbelt. This design was invented in the early 1900s.


Australian law required all car occupants to use fitted seatbelts in 1973. It became compulsory in Victoria and South Australia a few years earlier.


In 1976, Ontario became the first Canadian province to introduce mandatory seatbelt laws. The rest of the country subsequently followed.


In the UK, many governments fought for seat belt legislation (in terms of compulsory wearing) throughout the 60s and 70s. Fitting became mandatory in 1967, but wearing did not until 1983.


The US introduced mandatory seatbelt installation as early as 1961 (in Wisconsin), however the first state to pass the law of mandatory wear was New York in 1984. Laws vary considerably state-by-state.

Three-point seatbelt

The three-point seatbelt is just that: a belt that is, in appearance, a combination of the lap belt combined with a diagonal ‘sash’ belt. The three-point seat belt standard is in most vehicles today.

Volvo introduced the three-point seatbelt in 1959. Volvo patented the design but, “in the interest of safety, made it available to other car manufacturers for free” (Source).

You might notice in slightly older cars that the centre seat in the back still has a lap seatbelt. Newer

cars have replaced this belt, too, with the more modern (and safer) three-point seatbelt.

Road signs
Did you know Detroit was the first US city to use stop signs, lane markings, and traffic signals?
Around 1908, the city realised the sheer volume of people driving around with no experience (remember, anyone could drive without restrictions) and no boundaries – in terms of signage – was resulting in what the city believed to be avoidable deaths.
The first traffic lights
Traffic police would control the flow of traffic until 1914 when the first set of red and green traffic lights were successfully installed in Cleveland, Ohio. The first three-colour traffic light was invented by police officer William Potts in Detroit, Michigan in 1920.
Airbags have had a rather long history. The idea was first conceived in 1941, and a decade later, American John W Getrick patented the first airbag use.
By the ‘70s traction slowed, as it was discovered airbags didn’t work as effectively with lap seatbelts. As three-point seatbelts grew in popularity, manufacturers began creating airbag solutions to work in conjunction with this safer belt.
In the US, all cars produced after 1998 require airbags. Since, then, an average of 2000 lives a year are saved by airbags.
Reverse cameras
Rear-facing technology is a great tool for those of us who rely on a little more help when reversing and parking.
It is also helpful for those with small children by literally giving us eyes in the back of our heads. Audio cues alert you to close obstacles while the camera helps make some manoeuvring tasks easier.
No matter how much its drilled into our heads, there are still people foolish enough to think it is OK to continue using a handheld device – like a smartphone – while behind the wheel.
wireless technology lets us answer calls and change the music without looking away from the road or taking our hands off the wheel.
The future of road safety
Now that we’ve caught up to the present, there’s no better time to take a quick look into the future of road safety.
We’ll delve deeper in a future blog post (so subscribe now to keep up to date) but for now, let’s look at:
Video technology begins to replace mirrors
We’ve mentioned this futuristic step in a previous blog post. In June 2016, Japan became one of the first countries in the world to replace side mirrors with video technology. The goal is to eliminate potentially hazardous “blind spots” as well as removing a mirror’s obstruction due to weather conditions like rain or glare.
Technology replaces drivers
Of course, no conversation about the future of road safety can happen without mentioning autonomous or driverless vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are advancing at a steady rate through many small victories, rather than fewer and larger breakthroughs. More information on the exciting notion of autonomous vehicles can be found in this blog post.