How have cars gotten safer in the past 40 years?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore...

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Reviewed byJeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer

UPDATED: May 6, 2020

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It is estimated that over 87 percent of people wear their seat belts. Laws require babies and young children to have the proper seat restraint, and children under the age of 12 cannot sit in the front seat. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Over the past 40 years, several modifications have been made to cars and new laws and practices have been introduced. Other technological advances that have been made, such as GPS have revolutionized the way that we get around today. We interviewed car experts to find help us put together a comprehensive timeline of the past 40 years. Let’s take a look at the timeline and see how far we have come:

The 1980s

1984: “New York State passed the first U.S. law requiring seat belt use in passenger cars. Seat belt laws have since been adopted by 49 states (New Hampshire has not). NHTSA estimates the resulting increased seat belt use saves 10,000 lives per year in the United States.” – Lauren Fix, the Car Coach

1985 – 1998: The NHTSA (National HighwayTraffic Safety Administration) began using crash test dummies in vehicles and slamming them at high speeds in cement walls.

“They would videotape these crash tests and televise them countrywide to scare people into wearing their seat belts. Since then, many states will ticket you if you aren’t wearing your seat belt.” – Ethan Lichtenberg, research expert here at

These ads portrayed Vince and Larry, crash test dummy characters. The ad used humor and the negative examples of Vince and Larry to help viewers understand the importance of wearing a seat belt. Often, the punchline was that they didn’t wear their seat belts because they were “dummies.”

1986: “The central third brake light was mandated in North America with most of the world following with similar standards in automotive lighting.” – Lauren Fix

Congress enacted the Motor Vehicle Enforcement Act in order to reduce motor vehicle theft. They provided simple steps to follow in order to help with this.

  • Park in a well-lit area
  • Take your keys with you
  • Close and lock all windows and doors when you park
  • Never leave valuables in your vehicle

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The 1990s

1991: We Have a Little Emergency (W.H.A.L.E) was implemented. W.H.A.L.E requires drivers with children in the car to place stickers on both of the rear windows of their vehicle so that, in the case of a wreck, emergency personnel can identify that there is a child if the parent is not able to tell them.

1993: The NHTSA implemented the 5-Star Safety Rating Program so that consumers would be better informed on how safe certain vehicles were. A vehicle that received a five-star rating was the safest.

1995: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) began frontal offset crash tests. Also in the same year, Volvo introduced the world’s first car with side airbags.

1999: Dual airbags were required by the Federal Government, one for the driver and the passenger.

drivers hands at 10 and 2 on VW steering wheel

The 2000s

2000: The NHTSA instituted a new regulation, making trunk releases mandatory for new cars by September of the following year. They also made it mandatory for vehicle manufacturers to report safety recalls and information on injury or death related to their products.

2003: The IIHS began conducting side-impact crash tests.

The “Click it or Ticket” campaign went National.

2004: NHTSA released new tests designed to test the rollover risk of new cars and SUVs. Only the Mazda RX-8 got a five-star rating.

2007: Electronic Stability Control is introduced which uses computer-controlled braking to individual wheels to help drivers keep control of their car. Between 2008 to 2018, the NHTSA estimated that this advancement saved 2,202 lives.

2009: NHTSA upgraded its roof-crush standard for vehicles weighing 6,000 pounds or less. The new standard increased the crush load requirement from 1.5 to 3 times the vehicle’s curb weight.

The 2010s

2010: The statistics on every vehicle produced in the United States were made available to determine the safety of vehicles. This leads to car manufacturers making safer cars so they can shoot to the top of this list.

2012: All cars under 10,000 lbs sold in the United States are required to have Electronic Stability Control.

2014: ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) were introduced, which also added the driver seat belt reminder.

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What’s in store for the future?

white SUV driving down dusty, orange clay road

Today, we have more technological advances available in cars than we have ever had before. Items such as V2V, which is in the test phase, will provide Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication with the hopes of reducing accidents. This technology will send information to nearby other cars about speed, location, and direction.

Self-driving cars are also being tested, with Tesla leading the pack with their model Y releasing in 2020.

This will help with the growing number of fatal crashes each year that are caused by distracted driving. Who knows what will be possible with cars in the next 40 years?

Guest Author:
Riley Clark is a marketing writer for She specializes in car warranties and mortgages.

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