In 1951, Mercedes-Benz made history when it pioneered the idea of crumple zones. Volvo was the first company to make seat belts standard across all its vehicles. GM and Ford both dabbled with airbags in the 1970s, while Cadillac’s traction control system on the 1979 Eldorado was a noble, if ultimately terrible, attempt at safety. Do all of these sound familiar? They should—whether from government mandate or lower production costs, these features have proliferated to being standard equipment on every car sold in America. But how long does that take?
About three decades, says The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety. That’s about how long it takes for a ritzy, expensive safety feature on a luxury car to trickle down to 95 percent of the car market. Things like electronic stability and anti-lock brakes took about that long to expand from the Mercedes S-Class. Other features take time to popularize as the initial manufacturers work out the kinks, and other manufacturers catch on. Still, some companies (such as Volvo, who made its seat belt patent “freely available” to other manufacturers) spread their safety features altruistically, in the interest of saving consumers’ lives, no matter what car they drive.
Nowhere is this three-decade rule of thumb more notable than with anti-lock brakes, cites the IIHS. In 1985, ABS was standard on just one mainstream car: the European Ford Scorpio, with a rudimentary yet modern electronic braking system. (ABS was available on other cars such as the 1966 Jensen FF and the 1971 Chrysler Imperial, but this is why automotive nerds like me don’t get invited to parties.) Over the course of five presidents, the percentage of cars equipped with ABS has risen from 17 to 99 percent. The same goes with airbags. Now that they’re mandated by the federal government, it’s hard to imagine a time when the only car in America with air bags (and just on the driver’s side!) was the lowly, beleaguered Ford Tempo. How’s that for progress?
This trend is noticeable today with the advent of crash avoidance systems, first introduced by Mercedes as PRE-Safe but slowly making their way to other car companies. Acura has its own system now, as does Volvo, Cadillac, and BMW. The technology is still in its “early-adopter” stage, which means luxury consumers can afford to swing for the pricey systems, which require computers, cameras, and even radar in some instances to bring a car to a halt when an obstacle is detected. But in a sure sign of lowering costs and mainstream acceptance, even the Ford Taurus now comes with some sort of collision avoidance technology. The IIHS believes that collision avoidance won’t meet its 95-percentile goal until 2049—but when it does, it will be estimated to prevent 1.9 million crashes per year.