Front airbags, side-impact protection and three-point safety belts. They're all standard equipment on most of today's automobiles.
But back in the 1950s and very early 1960s, not even seat belts were standard. Sexy styling, not safety, is what sold cars.
The industry even had a motto: 'Safety Doesn't Sell.' It was a long-held belief that seemingly was proved when a 1956 attempt by Ford Motor Co. to sell a package of innovative safety features called 'Lifeguard Design' failed miserably. Chevrolet ate Ford's lunch in 1956. The motto stuck for decades.
Critics said Ford and other automakers didn't try hard enough or spend enough money promoting or developing safety in the early years. Pressure from Congress was only beginning to mount, and few safety laws were on the books before the late 1960s. There was no National Highway Traffic Safety Administration writing regulations and no consumer movement demanding safer cars.
In his book The Automobile Industry Since 1945, Lawrence J. White described the era. Back in 1967, when the safety
debate was still raging and laws were first put on the books, there were 13.7 million auto accidents involving 24.3 million drivers; the accidents resulted in 53,100 deaths. The National Safety Council estimated that auto accidents cost the economy $10.7 billion that year. In 1994, there were 6.5 million auto accidents, and the cost to the economy was $137 billion, according to NHTSA. Those 1994 accidents resulted in 40,676 fatalities.
White said that before it was forced to accept those 1967 government standards, the industry could have done many things, including making more reliable components, redesigning bumpers and grilles to reduce injuries to pedestrians and, finally, adding components to protect those inside a vehicle.
'When we turn to the behavior of the auto companies in respect to the safety issue, we find that generally, until 1965, they dragged their feet, behaving as if safety did not enter into the preference functions of consumers and as if the mention of safety considerations might well deter consumers,' White wrote.
The problem hadn't gone unnoticed. Auto Age reported that as early as 1955, the American College of Surgeons and the American Medical Association called for safety devices for cars in an editorial in JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association.
The turning point appeared to be accident and safety studies conducted in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Cornell University. The findings were shocking. Drivers were being thrown into steering wheels or, worse, impaled on the columns. With no lap belts and poor door latches, 25 percent of the occupants in collisions were being thrown out of their cars.
The rest of the industry did not respond to the extent Ford did. At a national safety forum in 1955, Ford introduced a five-part safety system to reduce injuries to passengers. Ford said it was offering the system as an industry first to show a new concept of 'packing the passenger' as a way to limit injuries.
Henry Ford II said the company was emphasizing safety more than any profits it expected from the package. But he added: 'I would be less than honest, of course, if I denied that we hope this safety package will help us to sell 1956 automobiles. We certainly hope at least that it won't hurt our 1956 sales. Nevertheless, I feel fully justified in saying that this is a public-service program.'
Ford also pre- sented a $200,000 grant to Cornell for continued crash-injury studies. He called for a 'new safety crusade which undoubtedly will bring about a material reduction in the annual toll of deaths and injuries.'
Ford's five-part Lifeguard System included two standard features:
1. A deep-dish steering wheel that slowly gave way under the impact of a crash. It absorbed energy and distributed it over the driver's chest.
2. Safety door latches that kept doors from springing open at impact, lessening the risk of occupants being ejected.
Three options also were offered:
1. Front seat belts anchored inside the car with a steel plate.
2. A padded instrument panel and padded sun visors.
3. Safety rear-view mirrors with backing that reduced glass fallout when shattered.
The padding and belts cost an additional $25; the seat belts alone were $16.
Ford also redesigned the front and back seat supports to reduce the possibility of their coming loose in a crash.
The system was designed by A.L. Haynes, an engineer whose mentor, Robert McNamara, was general manager of Ford Division. At the introduction Haynes said the number of injuries resulting from auto accidents could be cut in half during the next several years because of devices like those introduced by Ford.
Ford even showed pictures of crash tests with dummies to demonstrate the effectiveness of its new safety package.
Initially, the package sold. In fact, there was so much demand for seat belts that Ford couldn't keep up and delivered cars without them for five months.
But ultimately, sales fizzled out. Ford's safety campaign lasted only until midyear and was canceled. A critical industry adopted a new credo based on Ford's experience: 'Safety Doesn't Sell.' By the numbers: In 1955, Chevrolet outsold Ford by 67,000 cars. In 1956, Chevrolet outsold Ford by 190,000 cars.
But it wasn't the package that the public didn't want. Chroniclers say it was economics and industry politics that killed Ford's effort.
That didn't go unnoticed by Henry Ford II. He reportedly quipped: 'McNamara is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars.'
White suggested that consumers also didn't like the idea that a sparkling new car that cost $2,500 was unsafe. Buyers didn't really know much about what the new safety devices did. There simply hadn't been enough advertising.
Most carmakers even believed that if buyers thought they needed safety devices in a car, they would hesitate to buy one in the first place, White argued. Apparently, General Motors was angry at Ford for exactly that reason and applied pressure to have the system canceled. 'For the next several years, nothing was said or done about auto safety,' said White.
Without much fanfare, other makers followed Ford's brave example and installed deep-dish steering wheels, safety belts and other features in the following years.
In 1965, Congress got involved, passing laws to require the General Services Administration to set safety standards for cars purchased by the government. The 17 standards issued had everything the 1956 Fords had -and more - but they didn't go into effect until the 1967 model year.
And in 1966, because of safety crusader Ralph Nader, legislation was passed that paved the way for safety features for all cars made after Jan. 1, 1968.
Diana T. Kurylko is an Automotive News staff reporter.