Take a walk down New York City’s Central Park West, and right at the intersection of West 74th Street, you’ll see an interesting little plaque. It’s as unassuming a corner on New York’s Upper West Side as can be, but the sign nevertheless marks the intersection as an historic site. On September 13, 1899—117 years ago today—while stepping off a street car across from Central Park, a real-estate dealer named Henry H. Bliss was struck by an electric taxicab. The car knocked Bliss down and crushed him. He was pronounced dead the following morning. Bliss’s death marked the first automotive fatality in the western hemisphere.
Automobile deaths certainly aren’t a rarity any more. More than 35,000 people lost their lives in traffic accidents in 2015, and the prevalence of fatalities has lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to pressure automakers to adopt more safety-oriented technology, meet more stringent crash-test criteria, and invest billions of dollars in making their cars safer. As we learn about automated crash-mitigation systems and self-driving cars, however, it’s easy to overlook some of the most critical elements of car safety.
Stroll outside to your car and take a good look between the spokes. Chances are, you’re going to see a big disc with a crescent shaped caliper attached to either the leading or trailing edge. Disc brakes like these were first applied back in 1902, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that they began to see mainstream adoption. Initially reserved predominantly for sports cars, disc brakes have become the industry standard, thanks to their ability to brake effectively without overheating (or “fading”) with heavy use. While less-efficient drum brakes can still be found on new cars, they’re almost exclusively on rear wheels. Both styles need maintenance, and upkeep isn’t terribly hard for either. If you haven’t recently, be sure to inspect your pads and rotors for wear. If they’re overdue, a brake job can be quick work for a mechanic, or you can handle it in your driveway, assuming you’re handy with a socket wrench.
In today’s age of HID, LED, and even laser (although not in the U.S.) headlights, it’s amazing to think about the early days of nighttime driving. An entrepreneur named Carl Fisher took control of a patent for acetylene headlights in 1904. Thanks largely to Fisher’s business and promotional acumen (not to mention exceptional vision; Fisher would go on to found Indianapolis Motor Speedway, kickstart the U.S. highway system, and build Miami Beach out of a swamp), soon Prest-O-Lite headlamps were offered as standard equipment on the majority of U.S. production cars. We’ve come a long way since Prest-O-Lite—headlight manufacturing plants blow up less frequently, for instance—but the need for maintenance is still here. Keep an eye on your lights: replace bulbs when necessary, be sure to brush off dirt or snow, and if your headlights are looking a little hazy, try a headlight restoration kit.
Ford started building Model Ts on an assembly line way back in 1913, and by the end of its run, in 1927, the blue oval had put nearly 15 million cars on the road. It took until 1931, however, for DuPont to synthesize rubber for the first time, and it wasn’t until 1946 that Michelin produced the first radial tire. Head to a tire shop nowadays and you’ll find a plethora of options. From performance rubber to all-seasons, from winter to off-roading, companies have perfected their tires for any situation. Depending on where you call home, a set of winter tires may be a worthwhile investment; and no matter where you live, you’ll want to keep track of your tires’ usable life. Wear bars in the tires’ grooves will help you identify when your tread is getting too low; if the bar is flush with the rest of the tread, it’s time for some replacement rubber.
Maintaining brakes, headlights, and tires is critically important to keeping a safe car, but until we reach the point of genuine self-driving cars, the most critical safety element in a vehicle will be the person behind the wheel. NHTSA can mandate backup cameras and crash-test vehicles and push for further enhancements to vehicle safety as much as it wants, but the driver still makes the biggest difference. We’re all aware of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, but many will argue that distracted driving is the new dangerous epidemic facing motorists. Whether your car has carbon ceramic discs, LEDs, and Pirelli P-Zeros, or it’s a Tin Lizzie with Prest-O-Lites, a transmission brake, and 3-inch-wide rubber tires, failing to pay attention will put you and others in harm’s way.
What do you feel is the most overlooked safety feature on your car?