If you can ever remember being able to jump into your car without wearing a seatbelt, then you might well be shocked to realise this would have been over 35 years ago! First introduced on 31st January 1983, the UK’s first-ever seatbelt law initially required both the driver and front seat passenger to “buckle up” and since 1987 has required back seat passengers to do the same.
And that’s certainly not all that’s changed! Whilst driving licences were first introduced by the Motor Car Act 1903 they’re now regulated by the DVLA and, at £34.00 for a Provisional Driving Licence, now cost drivers a considerable amount more than the 5 shillings (or 25p) they simply used to pay over the counter at their local Post Office!
Steeped with a fascinating history spanning many years, this article took an in-depth look at the history of car safety since the first recorded car sale of petrol-driven Benz back in 1888!
A journey through the years
According to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, there were only one million drivers using Britain’s roads in 1921 yet by the 1960’s when cars became much more affordable, motoring truly became more popular, with the number of drivers rising to around 20 million by 1973.
The Road Traffic Act 1930 first introduced endorsements, fitness declarations and a formal licensing system for public service vehicles, drivers of whom could be required to take a test at the discretion of the Traffic Commissioners from 1931 onwards, thus generally promoting an element of safety for those in charge of transporting members of the public. Interestingly enough, the first edition of the Highway Code was also published during the same year and ultimately aimed to educate all types of road user in a bid to ensure safety for all.
Four years later, in 1934, the Road Traffic Act 1934 also introduced licences for lorry drivers and could again require drivers to complete a practical test. Meanwhile, “Belisha” beacons provided advanced warnings to drivers of new pedestrian crossings, thus introducing a new element of safety for other types of road user.
In 1935, significant history in terms of car safety was made when the first person passed their driving test! This proud achievement was accepted by a Mr Beene who paid a grand total of 7/6d (or 37.5p) to take his test – not to mention, of course, also making his own piece of history in terms of road safety! Suffice it to say; there were certainly no test centres like there are these days and candidates simply had to meet their examiner at a pre-agreed place, such as a post office, train station or town hall! Not an online booking system in sight!
Voluntary testing was then introduced on 16th March 1935 and primarily aimed to avoid a rush of candidates once the test became compulsory a few weeks later, on 1st June. This applied to all drivers who had started driving on or after 1st April 1934 and ultimately saw a pass rate of 63% based on around 246,000 candidates who applied to do it.
Suffice it to say, with more users on the road, speed limits were quickly introduced, and 30mph ultimately became the maximum speed across most urban areas. That said, speedometers weren’t made compulsory until 1st January 1937 which must have made ‘guesswork’ at best, a little tricky! (On the plus side, of course, there were certainly no speed cameras!)
Unfortunately, these new-found road safety initiatives were put on hold in 1939 when driving tests were suspended for the duration of World War II, although they subsequently resumed on 1stNovember 1946. What’s more, in a bid to assist the war efforts, a period of one year was granted for all wartime provisional licences which were converted into full licences without any requirement to pass a test. Ironically, the pass rate then dropped to just 50% by 1950 – perhaps not aided by the war – nor a subsequent suspension in testing from 24th November 1956 during the Suez Crisis, when learner drivers were permitted to drive unaccompanied given that most examiners were deployed to administer petrol rations. Fortunately, this time, testing resumed much quicker than it had during World War II and returned to normal on 15th April 1957.
In 1959 – and only a year after the first stretch of motorway was built (the M6 Preston bypass) – car manufacturer Volvo introduced its very first three-point seatbelt, which even today remains one of the most effective safety devices of all time. A year later Volvo then launched another innovation, the padded dashboard, which aimed to reduce both facial and chest injuries; particularly when the vehicle was driven at speed. That said, the next piece of the motorway to be constructed (the M1) had absolutely no speed limit, and despite their earlier invention, the first seatbelt legislation wasn’t introduced until 1965, when all new cars were then required to have proper anchorage points for the front outer seats. However, Volvo certainly didn’t stop there. By 1968 they’d also delivered vehicles complete with front-seat head restraints, thus providing extra protection to both the head and neck during rear-end collisions. In fact, even to this date, Volvo continues to have an exceptional reputation for building safe and reliable cars and in fact claim to cut accident claims by some 28%.
Hot on the topic of safety, Jensen Motors made the first production car, just a year later, to feature mechanical anti-lock brakes on an all-terrain vehicle fully equipped with four-wheel drive; a concept which preceded other manufacturers by some years and had only previously been used on aircrafts, lorries and racing cars.
On 10th May 1967, the Road Safety Act 1967 set certain milestones, not only promoting safe driving through film and TV shorts but also by introducing new drink-driving legislation which came into effect on the 8th October, bringing with it a legal limit of 80mg alcohol in 100ml blood. The same limit, in fact, applies to this day.
By 1973, and having already witnessed a huge increase in the number of people wanting to get on the road, safety helmets were made compulsory for both moped and motorcycle riders, with the top speed for mopeds being just 30mph on any type of road. In the meantime, yet more car manufacturers continued to improve their overall safety standards, and by 1978, Mercedes had introduced an ABS electronic system on its high-end S-Class model, a feature which continues to remain a definite favourite with consumers worldwide.
Since 1990, yet further safety standards and features have continued to evolve. Under the new legislation, anyone accompanying a learner driver must now be at least 21 years of age and have held a licence for at least three years. In the meantime, car manufacturers continue to saturate the market with new innovations such as side-impact protection (‘SIPS’), which was certainly top of Volvo’s priority list in both 1991 and 1994; the latter of which also saw side-seat airbags being added to its 850 model, thus supplementing it’s already installed metal side-impact bars. This was particularly prudent timing given that it became a legal requirement for seatbelts to be worn by all rear-seat passengers (including adults) in 1991.
In November 1995, the Government also introduced the new “Pass Plus” scheme, a practical training course aimed at improving driver skills and thus promoting safety on the UK’s roads.  This has been of considerable benefit to both new and younger drivers – not to mention the introduction of the written theory test, which was introduced on 1st July 1996 and since 2002 has also included a hazard perception element.
In more recent years, safety standards have continued to improve, perhaps more notably through tougher child safety ratings, increased safety features (such as lane departure, which first appeared in Europe on certain Citroen models) and even blind spot monitoring, which was first introduced, (yet again by Volvo), in 2007 followed by autonomous braking the following year.
As can be seen then, the history of car safety in the UK certainly isn’t without an impressive heritage and still continues to evolve through new innovations and much tougher safety regulations. More recently, during 2018, cars are even able to communicate with each other using “Car2Car” and “Car2Infrastructure” technology which not only has the capability to warn others of oncoming hazards but can even predict how many seconds you’ll have to wait until a traffic light turns green!
Suffice it to say, what car safety will look like in a decade from now still remains to be seen although given it’s truly impressive history to date it certainly seems set to raise the bar quite significantly when it comes to keeping road users safe on roads across the UK. Despite the increase in safety awareness, accidents on the road still and will always happen.