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How Has Car Safety Improved Over 60 Years?



Car Safety

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How Has Car Safety Improved Over 60 Years?

Did you know that in 2019, there were 6.7 million car accidents in the U.S. alone?

This resulted in 36,096 deaths over the year—an awful statistic to say the least—but one that would be much worse if it weren’t for seatbelts, airbags, and other modern safety devices.

In this infographic, we’ve visualized data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation to show how breakthroughs in car safety have drastically reduced the number of motor vehicle fatalities.

Measuring Safety Improvements

The data shows the number of fatalities for every 100 million miles driven. From a high of 5.1 in 1960 (the first year data is available), we can see that this metric has fallen by 78% to just 1.1.

YearFatilities per 100 million miles

What makes this even more impressive is the fact that there are more cars on the road today than in 1960. This can be measured by the total number of miles driven each year.

Vehicle Miles Driven

So, while the total number of miles driven has increased by 371%, the rate of fatalities has decreased by 78%. Below, we’ll take a closer look at some important car safety innovations.

1. The Seatbelt

The introduction of seatbelts was a major stepping stone for improving car safety, especially as vehicles became capable of higher speeds.

The first iteration of seatbelts were a 2-point design because they only looped across a person’s waist (and thus had 2 points of mounting). This design is flawed because it doesn’t hold our upper body in place during a collision.

Today’s seatbelts use a 3-point design which was developed in 1959 by Nils Bohlin, an engineer at Volvo. This design adds a shoulder belt that holds our torso in place during a collision. It took many years for Volvo to not only develop the device, but also to convince the public to use it. The U.S., for instance, did not mandate 3-point seatbelts until 1973.

2. The Airbag

The concept of an airbag is relatively simple—rather than smacking our face against the steering wheel, we cushion the blow with an inflatable pillow.

In practice, however, airbags need to be very precise because it takes just 50 milliseconds for our heads to collide with the wheel in a frontal crash. To inflate in such a short period of time, airbags rely on a chemical reaction using sodium azide.

The design of an airbag’s internal mechanism can also cause issues, as was discovered during the Takata airbag recall. As these airbags inflated, there was a chance for them to also send metal shards flying through the cabin at high speeds.

Dual front airbags (one for each side) were mandated by the U.S. government in 1998. Today, many cars offer side curtain airbags as an option, but these are not required by law.

3. The Backup Camera

Backup cameras became a legal requirement in May 2018, making them one of the newest pieces of standard safety equipment in the U.S. These cameras are designed to reduce the number of backover crashes involving objects, pedestrians, or other cars.

Measuring the safety benefits of backup cameras can be tricky, but a 2014 study did conclude that cameras were useful for preventing collisions. A common criticism of backup cameras is that they limit our field of vision, as opposed to simply turning our heads to face the rear.

Taking Car Safety to the Next Level

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), having both seatbelts and airbags can reduce the chance of death from a head-on collision by 61%. That’s a big reduction, but there’s still plenty of room left on the table for further improvements.

As a result, automakers have been equipping their cars with many technology-enabled safety measures. This includes pre-collision assist systems which use sensors and cameras to help prevent an accident. These systems can prevent you from drifting into another lane (by actually adjusting the steering wheel), or apply the brakes to mitigate an imminent frontal collision.

Whether these systems have any meaningful benefit remains to be seen. Referring to the table above shows that fatalities per 100 million miles have not fallen any further since 2010.

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The Incredible Historical Map That Changed Cartography

Check out the Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi (c. 1450s), a historical map that formed a bridge between medieval and renaissance worldviews.



Historical map of the world depicted as a circular planisphere of the world crafted in the 1450s in Venice, Italy by Fra Mauro.

The Incredible Historical Map That Changed Cartography

This map is the latest in our Vintage Viz series, which presents historical visualizations along with the context needed to understand them.

In a one-paragraph story called On Exactitude in Science (Del Rigor en la Ciencia), Jorge Luis Borges imagined an empire where cartography had reached such an exact science that only a map on the same scale of the empire would suffice.

The Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi (c. 1450s), named for the lay Camaldolite monk and cartographer whose Venetian workshop created it, is not nearly as large, at a paltry 77 inches in diameter (196 cm). But its impact and significance as a bridge between Middle Age and Renaissance thought certainly rivaled Borges’ imagined map.

One of ‘the Wonders of Venice’

Venice was the undisputed commercial power in the Mediterranean, whose trade routes connected east and west, stretching to Flanders, London, Algeria, and beyond.

This network was protected by fleets of warships built at the famous Arsenale di Venezia, the largest production facility in the West, whose workforce of thousands of arsenalotti built ships on an assembly line, centuries before Henry Ford.

A stone Lion of Saint Mark from the pediment of the Arsenale di Venezia, holding a closed book in its in paws.

The lion of St Mark guards the land gate to the Arsenale di Venezia, except instead of the usual open bible in its hands offering peace, this book is closed, reflecting its martial purpose. Source: Wikipedia

The Mappa Mundi (literally “map of the world”) was considered one of the wonders of Venice with a reputation that reached the Holy Land. It is a circular planisphere drawn on four sheets of parchment, mounted onto three poplar panels and reinforced by vertical battens.

The map is painted in rich reds, golds, and blues; this last pigment was obtained from rare lapis lazuli, imported from mines in Afghanistan. At its corners are four spheres showing the celestial and sublunar worlds, the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and an illumination of the Garden of Eden by Leonardo Bellini (active 1443-1490).

Japan (on the left edge, called the Isola de Cimpagu) appears here for the first time in a Western map. And contradicting Ptolemaic tradition, it also shows that it was possible to circumnavigate Africa, presaging the first European journey around the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.

NASA called the historical map “stunning” in its accuracy.

A Historical Map Between Two Worlds

Medieval maps, like the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c. 1300), were usually oriented with east at the top, because that’s where the Garden of Eden was thought to be. Fra Mauro, however, chose to orient his to the south, perhaps following Muslim geographers such as Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi.

Significantly, the Garden of Eden is placed outside of geographic space and Jerusalem is no longer at the center, though it is still marked by a windrose. The nearly 3,000 place names and descriptions are written in the Venetian vernacular, rather than Latin.

At the same time, as much as Fra Mauro’s map is a departure from the past, it also retains traces of a medieval Christian worldview. For example, included on the map are the Kingdom of the Magi, the Kingdom of Prester John, and the Tomb of Adam.

T and O style mappa mundi

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae (c. 600–625). Source: Wikipedia

The circular planisphere also follows the medieval T-O schema, first described by Isidore of Seville, with Asia occupying the top half of the circle, and Europe and Africa each occupying the bottom two quarters (Fra Mauro turns the ‘T’ on its side, to reflect a southern orientation). Around the circle, are many islands, beyond which is the “dark sea” where only shipwreck and misfortune await.

Fra Mauro’s Legacy

Fra Mauro died some time before 20 October 1459, and unfortunately his contributions fell into obscurity soon thereafter; until 1748, it was believed that the Mappa Mundi was a copy of a lost map by Marco Polo.

In 1811, the original was moved from Fra Mauro’s monastery of San Michele to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, following the suppression of religious orders in the Napoleonic era, where it can be viewed today.

Two digital editions have also been produced by the Museo Galileo and the Engineering Historical Memory project, where readers can get a glimpse into a fascinating piece of cartographic history.

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