You'd think an idea like the seat belt would take hold quickly, but it was 79 years from the first patent for one in 1885 to the device's adoption by U.S. carmakers. Passenger protection has since accelerated, thanks in part to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which in 2009 celebrated 50 years of safety studies. (It is partially funded by AAA.) David Zuby, the institute's senior vice president for vehicle research, gave us a crash course on its work.
Q What effect do your safety tests have on manufacturers and the public?
A The tests help consumers choose safe vehicles and give carmakers a standard for competition.
Q How has attention to auto safety changed over the last five decades?
A For a lot of the last century the industry thought that safety didn't sell. Since the 1980s, the opposite has proved true. Carmakers now add safety features in advance of the law and they invent new features on their own.
Q What are you studying now?
A Whiplash, collisions with poles and trees, and side impacts—in which a large vehicle's front end can do a lot of harm to passengers of smaller cars.
Q What new features can we expect?
A More side air bags and better headrests. And crash avoidance tools that warn of objects ahead and steer around them automatically. Car computers may even begin to communicate
with other cars to avoid hitting them.
This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.