. . . Being in Detroit, one cannot escape having some connection to the auto industry. My dad worked for Chrysler for a long time, and he started at least three clubs for grown men who collect toy cars, and I was often called on to run his booth at toy shows while he was off schmoozing with other automotive enthusiasts.
Despite all that, automotive history is not a hot topic for me, but I am interested in the history of safety improvements. Thus this little chronology was born.
Unfortunately some experts disagree on exactly when an innovation appeared or who invented it. For example, there is a lot of disagreement over when and where the first traffic signal appeared. When I found conflicting dates I usually took the earlier date. Most of these factoids came from one of three primary sources, Borth, Phillips, or Cantor, listed at the end.
1900. First automotive headlights, kerosene, 20-candle-power, offered by R. E. Dietz Company, NYC. Borth.
1900. First car with a steering wheel rather than a tiller. Phillips.
1901. Connecticut passes first auto speed laws; other states soon follow. Borth.
1901. First car with a speedometer, Oldsmobile. Phillips.
1902. First motor vehicle with running boards; these were added as a safety feature due to the sheer height of seats from the ground. Phillips.
1903. First car with a windshield. Phillips.
1903. First car with shock absorbers, which improve safety by reducing road shock felt by the driver through the steering wheel. Phillips.
1903. First car with carbide gas headlights. Phillips.
1906. First car with front bumpers. Borth, Phillips.
1907. First electric turn signal is patented. Prior to this, a mechanical turn signal was invented but not patented by early movie star Florence Lawrence.
1907. First vehicle with camel-hair brake linings. Phillips.
1907. First speed bumps constructed, Glencoe, Illinois. Borth.
1908. First cars with interchangeable parts, seen as a safety improvement due to replacement parts being better fits, Cadillac. Phillips.
1908. First car with electric headlights with dimmers. Phillips.
1908. First car with a magnetic speedometer. Phillips.
1908. First four-wheel-drive automobile, made by Otto Zachow and William Besserdich of Clintonville, Wisconsin. Borth.
1909. First steering wheel with a corrugated underside to offer a better grip to the driver. Borth.
1909. First mile of concrete pavement opened, on Woodward Avenue between 6 Mile Road and 7 Mile Road, Detroit, on July 4. Borth.
1910. First Standardization Committee is organized, under the auspices of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Borth.
1911. First lane markings, painted by Edward N. Hines, on River Road near Trenton, Wayne county, Michigan; by 1922 all paved roads in Wayne county (Detroit area) had center lines. Cantor.
1911. First car having a rear-view mirror was used by Ray Harroun in the first Indianapolis 500; he won the race. Phillips.
1911. First self-starter mechanism to become standard is invented by Charles F. Kettering. Phillips.
1912. First car with an engine temperate indicator. Borth.
1912. First car with vacuum-operated wipers rather than those operated by hand. Phillips.
1912. First system of markings for major routes, applied to trunklines, painted on telephone poles by William B. Bachman, Michigan. He started with different colored stripes around telephone poles, but by 1920 he had run out of colors and switched to numbers. Cantor.
1913. First wraparound windshield, offered by Kissel Kar on some of its models. Borth.
1914. First adjustable driver seat, offered by Maxwell. Borth.
1914. First stop sign installed, Detroit. Borth, Phillips.
1914. First mechanical traffic signal, invented by Garrett A. Morgan, installed in Cleveland, Ohio. The signal had signs for Go, Stop, and All Stop. Phillips, Cantor.
1915. First tilt-beam headlights, Cadillac.
1915. First prism lenses for headlights.
1915. First national highway construction law, called the Federal Aid Road Act, was signed into law; it paid 50% costs for improvement of any road that carried US mail. Borth.
1916. First car with a slanting windshield to reduce glare. Phillips.
1916. First meeting of the first automobile club, established, in part, carry out a program of service to safety for motorists and tourists, founded by Martin Pulcher, June 24, called the Detroit Automobile Club. Cantor.
1916. First safety patrol program established in an elementary school, Newark, New Jersey. Other cities soon establish similar programs. Cantor.
1917. First crow's nest in which a traffic control officer is stationed, established in Detroit, at the corner of Woodward and Michigan Avenue, 9 October.
1917. First enclosed cars with heating. Borth.
1919. First car with standard front and rear bumpers, Wescott touring car. Borth.
1919. First three-color traffic light. Borth.
1919. First cars with indirect lighting of dashboard instruments. Borth.
1920. First three-color, four-way traffic light, invented by William L. Potts, a Detroit police lieutenant. Cantor.
1920. First car with four-wheel hydraulic brakes, developed by Malcolm Loughead (Lockheed), Duesenberg. Borth.
1921. First system of synchronized traffic signals, Detroit. Borth.
1921. First car with backup lights that automatically turn on when the car is put into reverse, offered by Wills-St. Claire. Borth.
1922. First car with a gas gauge; or, in other words, a dashboard instrument showing the level of gasoline in tank; thus the driver was no longer forced to pull over and use a dipstick to establish how much gasoline was in the car. Phillips.
1922. First electrically interlocked traffic signal system, established in Houston, Texas. Borth.
1922. First time motor-driven vehicles are used to clear snow from roads. Borth.
1924. First cars with headlights with two filaments, thus allowing headlight bulbs to project low beams and brights.
1925. Uniform markings are standardized for federal highways: even numbers for east-west roads, odd numbers for north-south roads. Borth.
1926. First windshields made of "shock-proof" safety glass comprised of two layers of glass enclosing a layer of celluloid, Rickenbacker. Borth.
1928. First roadways with no-passing zones indicated with yellow lines painted adjacent to white lines, invented by Michigan governor Fred W. Green; accident rates were significantly lowered after these were deployed.
1927. First research into aerodynamics as applied to auto bodies, by Carl Breer. Borth.
1927. First internal expanding hydraulic brake system, invented by Malcolm Loughead (Lockheed). Borth.
1929. First car with tail lights on both sides of the car. Borth.
1929. First car with front-wheel drive, Cord. Borth.
1929. Detroit establishes the first traffic court; in other words, a court created solely to hear traffic cases; this was done in order to put an end to the common practice of letting auto thieves and reckless drivers off with a slap on the wrist due to the sheer volume of cases that clogged the Recorder's Court. Cantor.
1930. First police cars with radios. Borth.
1932. First car with adjustable inside sun visors. Phillips.
1933. First cars with power brakes. Borth.
1936. Hudson cars are made with a steel torque arm called a "radical safety control" which provides for easier steering and braking; Hudson also adds an emergency backup braking system that goes into effect if the primary brakes fail. Borth.
1937. First windshield washing system, Studebaker. Borth, Phillips.
1937. First car with an adjustable seat that goes not only back and forth but up and down, Chrysler. Borth.
1937. Oldsmobile and Buick both offer an automatic gearshift called an "automatic safety transmission." Borth.
1938. First car with self-canceling turn signals, Buick. Borth.
1940. First car with two-speed windshield wipers, Chrysler. Borth.
1942. National speed limit set at 40 mph to conserve gasoline; later it is lowered to 35 mph. Borth.
1946. First cars with radio-telephones. Borth.
1946. First car with self-adjusting brakes, Studebaker. Phillips.
1948. First trucks with power steering. Phillips.
1948. First dual-control cars for use in high school driver training classes. Borth.
1948. Tucker 48, a.k.a. Tucker Torpedo, a.k.a. Tucker Sedan, carries a number of innovative and first-time safety features including: seatbelts, roll bar in the roof, crash frame around entire car, padded dashboard, interior free of protruding hooks and handles, directional middle headlight that turns as the front wheels turn, scooped fenders to protect car from being hit by objects thrown up by tires, steering box placed behind front axle to protect driver in front-end collision, pop-out windshield, rear engine to keep exhaust fumes away from passengers, parking brake with its own lock and key. Other safety features which were invented for the car but not included in the final design: disc brakes, self-sealing tubeless tires, fuel injection, torque converter. Borth. (Although it produced 51 vehicles, the Tucker corporation failed before its assembly line was up and running, thus it is not credited with manufacturing a production vehicle.)
1950. First puncture-sealing tubeless tires, Goodrich. Borth.
1951. First car with power steering. Phillips.
1953. First car with power brakes. Phillips.
1954. First car with a "panoramic" wrap-around windshield to improve visibility for the driver. Phillips.
1954. Eisenhower establishes the first President's Action Committee for Highway Safety. Borth.
1955. First production car to offer optional seatbelts. Phillips.
1955. Michigan is the first state to require a driver education class before issuing a license to anyone under 18. Borth.
1956. Interstate Highway Act, a.k.a Federal Highway Act, is passed, establishing a range of safety standards including limited access, one-way traffic, no roadside obstacles, and safety guardrails.
1958. First double-chambered captive-air safety tire, Goodyear. Borth.
1958. First cars with anti-lock braking systems, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Phillips.
1959. First vehicles with catalytic converters are produced for sale in California. Borth.
1959. First cars with remote-controlled side-view mirrors. Phillips.
1961. First tires made of budene, a synthetic rubber that lasts about twice as long as standard rubber, Goodyear. Borth.
1961. First national database system, called the National Driver Register Service, is launched, to cross reference drunk drivers or drivers who cause highway deaths. Borth.
1961. Front turn signals are required to be amber rather than white to improve visibility. Borth.
1962 (approx). First "Michigan left" is constructed at the intersection of 8 Mile Road and Livernois, Detroit; also called a "median U-turn crossover;" the left turn is eliminated and instead the driver turns right, follows a one-way route across a median allowing for a legal U-turn, and then proceeds on the crosstreet. (Called a "P-turn" in Australia, where the design is reversed to eliminate right turns.)
1963. First manufacturer to implement factory-installed seatbelts as standard equipment in all its vehicles, Studebaker.
1965. HELP, or Highway Emergency Locating Plan, established by Automobile Manufacturers Association, to provide communications to help motorists in distress, using Channel 9 of the Citizen's Band radio system. Borth.
1965. Ralph Nader pens Unsafe at Any Speed, a landmark book exposing dangerous design elements in American-made cars and rampant corruption in safety regulation of US auto manufacturers.
1966. National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act is passed, spurred in part by Ralph Nader's testimony, to establish and coordinate safety policies in all states. The National Highway Safety Bureau is created by this act. Borth, Phillips.
1969. First car with "hesitation" or intermittent windshield wipers.
1974. President Nixon signs the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act and the national speed limit is lowered to 55 mph to conserve gasoline. An unexpected side effect is that highway fatalities drop considerably, thus the law is left in effect until 1987, when the limit is raised to 65 mph; the national speed limit is finally repealed in 1995.
1980. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is founded by Candice Lightner, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver; it soon becomes a national movement.
1986. High-mounted stop lights, a.k.a. centre high mount stop lamps, are required on all US vehicles; these reduce rear-end collisions by greatly improving the ability of rearward drivers to determine if vehicles ahead of them are slowing down; these were ushered in by Elizabeth Dole, secretary of transportation; by 1998 they were required in many other countries.
1991. First car with an integrated child safety seat, Chrysler. Phillips.
Borth, Christy, with James J. Bradley, Herry N. Rogan, Stanley K. Yost. Automobiles of America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968. Published under auspices of the Automobile Manufacturers Association.
Cantor, George. Safety, Security and Open Roads: Touring AAA Michigan's History. Troy, MI: Momentum Books, 1998
Phillips, Suzanne. History of Auto Safety: A Brief Summary. Akron NY: MGA Research Corp, n.d. (c.1995). A 30-pg booklet of reprinted articles on technological improvements to motor vehicles which also improved saftey, from MGA News, a monthly newsletter.
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