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Five inventions that make cars safer

We take indicators, wipers and seatbelts for granted nowadays, but they did not always come as standard. Here are five inventions that help to minimise the risks of driving – and we have trailblazing women to thank for two of them.

Five inventions that make cars safer

1. Windscreen wipers
In the early days of motoring, drivers had to pull over and wait for the rain to stop. Or they had to poke their heads out of the side window to try and see ahead.

Maybe it’s because women care more about their appearance than men (or maybe they’re just more practical), but it was a member of the fairer sex who decided that a moving rubber blade on the windscreen’s exterior made more sense than being late for dinner or have one’s hair go into a frizz. In 1903, American real-estate developer and viticulturist Mary Anderson was granted the patent for a ‘windshield wiper’. Her device consisted of a hand-operated lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. Luckily these blades later became electrically powered, allowing the driver or front passenger to concentrate on things other than cranking a manual wiper.

2. Turn and brake signals
Is it perhaps because women are the better communicators? Or because an electro-mechanical signal is more elegant than hanging a limb out the window? Whatever the reason, we owe thanks to Canadian-born film actress Florence Lawrence. After buying a car in 1913, she created a manually operated mechanical arm that would raise a flag on her car’s bumper, showing the driver’s intended direction. Florence didn’t stop there, if you’ll excuse the pun. She also engineered a stop sign that would pop up on the rear bumper when applying the foot brake. Unfortunately she did not patent these inventions and therefore never earned any money from them.

3. Collision avoidance systems
Car enthusiasts who are vehemently against self-driving tech in cars tend to forget just how fallible human drivers are. They also forget that driving can be a pain in the neck, for example in rush hour. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the car assumed some of the driving duties, like Kitt in the TV series Knight Rider used to do?

While we still have some years to go before cars are fully autonomous, collision avoidance systems in the latest cars already act as co-pilots. One such co-pilot is EyeSight, Subaru’s driver support system. Like a second pair of eyes for the road ahead, EyeSight uses two cameras to capture 3-D colour images. A computer then determines the shape, speed and distance of other road users, including bicycles and pedestrians. When detecting a possible collision, the system warns the driver and if necessary even applies the brakes, thereby reducing the burden on the driver and enhancing their sense of security. EyeSight also works when the car reverses, using sensors in the rear bumper.

4. Airbags
“Let’s make a pillowcase from a tough fabric and then have an explosion fill it with air just before a partly airborne human slams into it!” – said no one ever. But this is what exactly what an airbag does.

On the website Scientific American, chemistry professor Joseph Merola explains that sensors in the front of a car can detect a collision. If that happens, the sensors will send an electric signal to a canister that contains sodium azide (NaN3), a colourless salt. “The electric signal detonates a small amount of an igniter compound. The heat from this ignition starts the decomposition of the sodium azide and the generation of nitrogen gas to fill the air bag,” Merola says.

From the moment the sensor detects the impact to the time the air bag is fully inflated is only 0.03 second. Some 0.05 seconds after a collision, the car’s occupant hits the air bag. “Its deflation absorbs the forward-moving energy of the occupant,” says Merola. John Hetrick (US), Allen Breed (US) and Walter Linderer (Germany) share credit for bringing us this life-saving apparatus.

5. Seatbelts
Before airbags, the seatbelt was the only device preventing car occupants from being flung forward in a frontal collision. A fastened seatbelt also keep victims of a crash or rolling car from being flung through a window, which often results in death or serious injury. Lap and shoulder belts did exist before the Swedish aircraft engineer Nils Bohlen created the modern three-point safety belt for cars. But Bohlen’s design, which made its debut in 1959, combined the two into one and moved the buckle to the hip position. This made it quick to fasten, using just one hand.
“Bohlin recognised that we are too lazy to put effort into saving our own lives,” journalist Sean O’Grady wrote in an article in The Independent. He quotes Bohlin: “The pilots I worked with were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute.” It’s estimated that Bohlin’s seatbelts saved a million lives between 1959 and 2009.

Other sources: scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-air-bags-work, lemelson.mit.edu, safebee.com, independent.co.uk and subaru.com.