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I've spent a large amount of my life thinking back on past times, both long ago and "recently", meaning ~1950s to me.

A lot of things make sense, but some things just fundamentally baffle me. One of those things is the seemingly total disregard for safety when driving cars.

People were not idiots a few decades ago. Well, at least not the ones who invented and manufactured large machines such as cars. They must have very quickly, long before the 1950s, had tons of evidence of people dying in traffic accidents, or getting seriously hurt. How did it not occur to them to have some kind of belt or any other safety measure?

It's not like the safety belt wasn't invented, and used in various military contexts. And even if that weren't the case, it's a very obvious invention. We aren't talking about hi-tech sensors and air bags all around the passengers and refined safety measures like that -- we're talking about a basic belt around the humans so that they don't come flying through the window and become a pulp of blood and guts.

And those seats, leaving the whole head part "free", seems just silly as well. Who felt safe driving like that? Even at a low speed, you can feel it in your neck when there is an unexpected stop and there is nothing supporting your back of the head. These two things seem like they would've been implemented at the latest months after the modern car was invented in what I assume must've been around 1900 -- long before the 1950s when they (well, some) seemingly started to even consider human lives and health in the making of cars.

I can understand if they didn't bothered with seat belts in a wagon powered by one or two horses, but even then, they probably had some kind of handle or something to grab on to. When you introduce powerful engines, well, it just seems to go without saying that you would have to think about the consequences.

Is it possible that I'm somehow over-estimating the amount and seriousness of car crashes and traffic accidents in general? Did people really not care whatsoever about whether they were alive or dead or in a hospital for the rest of their lives, as long as they got to drive a car without any safety measures whatsoever? I don't understand this mentality, and I'm having a hard time understanding it.

Again, many other things can usually be explained in a satisfactory way, but this especially just doesn't make sense to me.

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  • $\begingroup$ In addition to the technical and regulatory points mentioned in the answers below, there is also an historical context. During the two decades before the 1950s, people and governments were much more focused on surviving than on improving safety - the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s took a lot of attention away from safety and quality of life issues. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 6 at 2:46
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I started driving in the UK in the 1960s, so this is "first hand" experience of what you find hard to imagine.

You are ignoring the fact that typical driving speeds were lower, general car handling performance (i.e. acceleration/braking/cornering - drum brakes, cross-ply tires, and rear wheel drive were all standard) was much lower, traffic density was lower, and (at least in the UK) there were virtually no modern-design high-speed roads - the national motorway network only reached 1000 miles of road in 1972.

To summarize, any fool can get in a modern car and within 30 seconds have a head-on crash with an immovable object (or worse, an oncoming vehicle) at a speed of 70 mph or more, and since there are plenty of fools who do drive modern cars like that, the cars need safety systems to mitigate the consequences.

If you tried driving a 1950s-era car the same way, you would have slid sideways of the road (relatively safely, except for a damaged ego) long before you got into a life threatening situation.

Consider the spec of a typical UK small family car from the end of the 1950s: the Ford Anglia 105. Four-speed manual gearbox (no synchromesh on 1st and reverse). Max engine power, 40 bhp. Max torque, 53 ft-lb. Max speed, 73mph. Acceleration: 0-60mph in 30 seconds. Drum brakes on all four wheels. Not a vehicle designed to be even capable of having modern high speed road accidents!

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  • $\begingroup$ What were the road speed limits at the time? 70mph is still over 100kmh...anything above 100kmh in collision is basically still insta death. $\endgroup$ – morbo Feb 5 at 17:07
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  • There wasn't as many catastrophic accidents. Our body disintegrate s around 20g. There were not many crashes that intense.

  • There were not enough public awareness and expectation.

  • The technology to design a strong path of force from the belt to it's bracket and through the seat frame to car frame was not well developed.

  • The consumer safety standards were not universally accepted. And manufacturers did not share their internal research results of course.

  • Today many of even economy cars have safety features like automatic collision avoidance, multiple airbags, driver alertness alarms, because it cost next to nothing and society knows of them and demands them. I bought for my old airplane a satellite position reporting radar for 1/10 of what it used even a couple of years ago. We are making smart things more efficiently. And we have learned to expect no compromise when it concerns our safety.

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In the US, the NHTSA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was formed in 1966. Prior to this there really wasn't a regulatory agency in the US for such things - the world was a much more laissez faire place then. Innovations in safety came from the manufacturers, who noticed and wanted to do something about deaths rates. Volvo introduced the 3-point belt in 1958, but it wasn't until well into the 70s that cars came with them standard as part of the default belt. Mercedes pioneered crumple zones. US cars in the 60s often had safety belts as options, not even standard equipment. We had a 1973 Ford that had shoulder belts strapped up in the overhead over the windows and you had to take them down and connect them to use them. They were terrible. No give, so you couldn't even reach the radio.

Old cars were death traps. Anyone who gives their kid a 60s Mustang to drive is giving them a bomb. Gas tanks behind the rear seat, solid steering columns that extended past the front wheelbase, no side impact protection, etc.

It's really the same thing with head restraints and airbags. It took government regulations to make them happen, because people tend to just not care. There was a national outcry about the extra expense of airbags when they were introduced. A car without them would be unthinkable today. It wasn't until the 80s that wearing seat belts even became widespread. The popular opinion of the time was, "I want to be thrown free of the accident," a view since proven as wholly terrible.

Lately, the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has led the way for changes. Smaller side windows (protection against SUV side impacts) and larger A pillars (offset frontal crash protection) are the direct result of their tests and manufacturers wanting better rated vehicles.

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Seat belts were considered racing equipment. You couldn't get insurance for a car that was hot-rodded to include features like roll bars and seat belts.

Oh, Neck supports get in the way of hats (but they were invented in 1921 in the form of the removeable headrest). People wore hats back then— you know— bowler hats. Cars were designed to accommodate bowler hats until the mid '50s. The pork-pie hat came into existence because of MGs and other little ragtops. The car seat was supposed to look and feel like your living room sofa.

And let's not forget the solid steel dashboards that would crack you skull open like an egg. Tucker introduced the first padded dash in the 1948 Tucker Torpedo. Advocates had already been calling for them for 20 years by then.

Here's an interesting read when you have some time - http://mvhap.org/mvhappdfs/styling.vs.safety.noteworthy.pdf

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