In Memphis, Tennessee, the law states that a female driver must be announced by her male counterpart with the vigorous wave of a red flag; to ensure the safety of pedestrians and other vehicles, of course. Such laws, although somehow still legitimately recorded, thankfully could not be enforced in modern society. However, the history of road safety reveals a plethora of equally baffling ideas and innovations that once were trumped as pioneering to reduce car accident injuries.
From suction cup tyres to tiny tots riding shotgun alongside their parents, the evolution of automobile safety has sure been a bumpy ride.
One of the earliest attempts at improving car safety came in the form of the “O’Leary Fender” in 1907. The mesh contraption was designed to allow the vehicle to literally scoop up pedestrians in the incidence of a front on collision; a bizarre visual for modern drivers. Unfortunately for The O’Leary Fender Company, early 20th century automobile owners weren’t convinced either, primarily because they felt that the cradle-like invention ruined their vehicles aesthetic.
A particularly baffling (and thankfully outdated car safety feature) from the mid 20th century was Ford Motor’s rotating front seats. Promising to rapidly swivel to become rear facing in the seconds before impact, the concept developed in the Cornell University Aeronautical Research Lab luckily did not gain momentum in car manufacturing. They say that in a moment of fear time stands still, but we're still not so sure we would rely on mid-century pivoting chairs to turn us from harm's way.
We also owe the early 20th century for the invention of suction cup tyres - which, for good reason, you likely weren't aware of. The rudimentary idea was that designing a tyre with suction cup laden contact points would eliminate road accidents. Roads had newly been properly established and the basic idea aimed to improve vehicle handling on the relatively smooth surfaces. Thanks to developments in physics, and common sense, the Pennsylvania Rubber Company's invention never took off.
Automobile innovators of the past could be forgiven for their assumption that an extremely hard steel exterior would protect drivers in the occurrence of a road accident. It is only through modern physics and years of safety research that we now know, in fact, the opposite is true. Cars used to be made of heavy steel and would literally bounce off a wall upon impact, resulting in the driver and passengers bearing the deadly brunt of the deceleration. Modern cars are now constructed with lighter but stronger steel; dissipating on impact and crushing to protect those inside.
A joystick design is a great way to control and steer a vehicle - or at least it was back when you spent hours after school speeding around the streets on GTA 1. When it comes to real car safety, however, it's hard to imagine that the controller of late 90's adolescent video games could be appropriate. But this was precisely the style of design that the first "roadworthy" cars were steered with until the invention of the steering wheel in 1898.
Besides a knack for designing notoriously unsightly cars, such as the Yugo and Subaru 360, Malcolm Bricklin also innovated the use of lurid bright paints for vehicles. His concept was that the atrociously bright colours would act as a "impact avoidance enhancer". This was tested with his sporty SV-1 (Safety Vehicle One). Bricklin's concept car came in citrus hues such as a vivacious orange, but despite the zesty designs the model ultimately failed and was discontinued.
A quick look into baby car seat safety will reveal inexplicably that rear facing car seats are the best option for infants and even small children, with most now fitting ages 0-4. Laws for infants travelling in cars continue to get stricter and more refined to ensure parents are well equipped with the knowledge of how to best protect their children. But what was done with the little ones before the infant car seats of today? The first safety car seat for children wasn't developed until the 1960s; but before that there was a small range of contraptions on the market that aimed to contain the child rather than protect them. In these early booster seats infants would even ride in the front passenger seat alongside their parent. This lack of knowledge of infant safety is an unbelievably far cry from the strict laws for today's parents.
With the rapid technological innovations of modern society continuing to grow, perhaps drivers of the future will look back upon our automobile practices with horror; disbelieving that we drove on the ground or fuelled our cars with petrol.