A Brief Look at The History of Road Safety

If you ever find yourself behind the wheel of a vehicle, then (hopefully) you will also have passed a driving test. And a key component of all modern driving tests are the essential rules of road safety. We learn about them for our theory tests and put them into practice every time we cross the threshold of our driveways. We are all familiar with these rules (or we should be), from remembering to buckle up to going slow on cold days when there are no grit spreaders in sight. In many ways, it seems like some if these rules are eternal. Moreover, with driverless cars still reckoned to be quite some way away in the future, new drivers will continue to be educated on the road safety essentials. Indeed, the alternative would be disastrous. 

Road safety rules, of course, are not actually eternal. In fact, the body of road safety essentials has been built up over a very long time and have evolved to meet each new challenge that has come with the parallel development of the automobile and road systems across the world. Wearing a seatbelt, for example, might seem like a fundamental of road safety, but the seatbelt did not exist before it was rolled out by Volvo in 1959. And in the UK, drink driving was not made illegal until 1967, and the harshness of the penalties took some time to get to where they are today. And the driving tests that teach motorists all these rules didn’t exist until the 1930s. 

A Long History 

Road safety, in other words, has a very long history; even longer, in fact, than the automobile itself. Road accidents were occurring long before the invention of the motor car, with horse and carriage accidents proving surprisingly common in the 19th century. People could be thrown very easily from open horse carts, and when your engine is a live animal, which can be spooked and bolt at the slightest disturbance, road safety was a concern throughout this entire period. This is one of the reasons some of the road safety rules we might think of as modern were actually introduced very early on in the timeline. Driving licences, for instance, date from 1903 and in New York State, drink driving has actually been illegal since 1910. 

And if we want to extend the scope as wide as possible, it would be technically accurate to say that road safety has been a concern for as long as roads have existed, and people have moved around by means other than their own two legs. To give the complete history of road safety then, would take rather more space than we have here! So restricting things to the age of the motor car then, here follows some of the major landmarks in the development of road safety, tracing the evolution that led to the rules and habits that are second nature to all drivers today. 

Early Road Safety 

The famous Karl Benz, who lent his name to one of the company’s that later become the now famous Mercedes Benz, invented the first petrol-powered vehicle in 1885, and it was not long after this invention that people started getting hurt by it. Some of the earliest road safety features were elements of the car itself and not of the road system. This was simply because cars at this time were neither particularly fast nor numerous. Nevertheless, indicators actually date from this time – but they took the form of human hands. Just as how a cyclist might indicate today was precisely how the earliest motorists did so. Mechanical turning signals were invented a little later, and it wasn’t until 1938 that the first electric indicators were fitted to cars. Nevertheless, the essential road safety rule “always indicate before turning” is one of the oldest in the book. And although not widely used, a lap seatbelt (similar to those in aeroplanes today) dates also from this time. 

Earliest Road Signs 

It is impossible to imagine a road network anywhere today without a comprehensive system of road signage, so essential are they for the safe driving. It was the city of Detroit in the USA that became the first city anywhere in world to implement them – way back in 1908. By this point (about a quarter-of-a-century after Benz’ invention) Detroit was a city with a fairly large number of motorists, each of them permitted to drive with no test or experience. It soon became obvious that road signage could prevent a large number of avoidable deaths. And so the city rolled out stop signs, lane markings and even traffic signals – and an essential part of modern motoring safety was born. The first three-colour traffic lights were also invented and installed in the city way back in 1920, cementing Detroit’s reputation as a hotspot for motoring innovation.

Seatbelts and Airbags 

As mentioned, the modern three-point seatbelt was introduced by Volvo in 1959. By this point, cars had long been fast enough to injure and kill their occupants in the event of a crash and so this invention was quite literally lifesaver, even having a good claim to be the number one car safety invention of all time. Volvo’s invention very quickly became a safety essential, helped along by the fact that they made the invention available to other car company’s free of charge. Eighteen years before this, the idea of the airbag was first conceived, though it was not until 1998 that they became compulsory for all cars. 

Modern Laws

As cars became more widespread and faster into the second half of the twentieth century, recognisable modern laws such as those regarding drink driving and the requirement of licences and tests became widespread across the globe. At this point the situation became far more varied, with each country doing things a little (or a lot) differently. Traffic police manually directing traffic in lieu of traffic lights continued well into the second half of the twentieth century and can even be seen today – famously installed in Rome’s Piazza Venezia – although more for cultural than specifically road safety reasons. 

So, while road safety might seem like second nature to many motorists today, that universal knowledge was a long time coming – the result of well over a century of trial and error.