Along for the ride: Improvements in Car Safety

Globally, about 1.35 million people die of road accidents every year, with between 20 and 50 million people left recovering from non-fatal injuries. More than half of the victims are pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists.

Although a majority of accident statistics are from low and middle-income countries, in the USA, traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for people up to the age of 54. The country’s traffic fatality rate is the highest among developed countries, at 12.4 per 100,000, with 4.4 million injured people requiring hospital treatment

Most road incidents are preventable but the causes are predictable. They include poor road infrastructure, unsafe vehicles, bad drivers, lack of traffic law enforcement, and limited care for crash victims. The increased population and their transport needs have led to bigger cities throughout the world suffering gridlock as the production of vehicles increases and the infrastructure struggles to cope with the volume of traffic.

man in a car accident

The innovation of the car production line in 1913 was more about convenience and freedom of movement than preventing traffic accidents. In the 1920s, the National Safety Council of the USA began to compile road accident incidents and promoted measures to improve driver etiquette. Car manufacturers also realized design flaws which resulted in the introduction of shatterproof windshields and brakes on all four wheels. However, car producers saw improvements in traffic regulations and infrastructure as the leading way to improve road safety.

In the 1930s, the continuing level of road fatalities caused road safety advocates to look at reasons other than driver error. They found the design of the car was a leading cause, with crash injuries made worse by victims colliding with metal dashboards, steering wheels and columns, or being lacerated or impaled by sharp metal car fixtures on the door or dashboard. At this time, seat belts were available, but only as an optional extra.

The three-point seat belt was invented in 1959 for Volvo cars. The American car industry did not fully adopt their use until 1968 when the federal government made them mandatory in all new models. Between 1975 and 2008, seat belts are estimated to have saved 255,000 lives in the USA. In 2019, with 90.7 percent compliance, 14,955 traffic accident deaths were prevented.

Although the seat belt stops deaths, they cannot always prevent injuries. Common injuries include concussion and head injuries, broken bones, internal bleeding, herniated discs, and knee trauma. However, one of the biggest incidents is whiplash. Whiplash is a neck injury due to a sudden movement of the body so the head does not have time to adjust. It is often caused when a car is rammed from behind.

The severity of whiplash can vary from a stiff neck, headaches, and dizziness to blurred vision, tinnitus, loss of sleep and difficulty in concentration. Treatment for whiplash is aimed at pain management and physical therapy. Pain control is achieved through rest, application of hot or cold pads, pain relief medication, and muscle relaxants. Stretching and movement exercises bring neck movements back to normal. Other treatments include massage for short term relief and chiropractic care.

Technology is making cars safer and reducing the element of human error. Newer safety features include brake assist, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection and blind-spot warning systems. Soon, vehicles will drive themselves and eliminate the need for anyone behind the wheel. Until that happens, buckle-up.

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