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New SAE International book illuminates history of automobile safety

WARRENDALE, Pa., Aug. 15, 2012 - In 1972, before the development of many of the automotive safety standards in place today, more people were killed in driving accidents than in the Vietnam War. Since then, we’ve come a long way towards creating a safer automobile, but flaws still exist that make driving dangerous for vehicle occupants. This is the basis for a new book from SAE International by Dr. Roger F. Wells, titled Occupant Protection and Automobile Safety in the US since 1900. From the earliest automobiles to newer developments such as Electric Power Steering and stability control, the book provides a look at the progression of automotive safety systems and examines how automotive companies, consumers, and political leaders affected that development.

Wells, who enjoyed a long career in automobile safety, says that he was compelled to write the book in response to the amount of overly-positive media that tends to surround the subject. Despite significant improvements in automotive safety, thirty to forty thousand people are still injured every year in automobile-related incidents. Wells conducted Ph.D. research in order to uncover the facts behind the numbers. To share his findings, he wrote a book that may be read and enjoyed by any reader, from professional engineers to anyone with an interest in cars and automotive safety.

Evolution of safety systems
The development of occupant protection and automobile safety systems and legislation was a result of the combined efforts of automobile manufacturers, politicians, and the public. Initially, said Wells, the public didn’t want to talk about automobile safety. The focus, for both the early drivers and manufacturers, was on speed. While some companies included rudimentary safety systems in their vehicles, these features were luxury, not standard. Increasing casualties from car accidents began to emphasize the need for increased safety systems in all vehicles. One of these safety developments with which all drivers are familiar is the three-point seatbelt, which Wells believes is the most significant safety innovation of the automotive industry. In particular, he cites Ralph Nader, author of the influential book Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, as a “watershed” activist for automobile safety.

Wells stated that SAE, too, played a part in increasing safety for vehicle occupants. “SAE has always brought people together to discuss safety,” he said. “It’s good at bringing people together and providing a forum where everyone can come and share without worrying about trade secrets.”

Looking ahead
Although his book covers the history of automotive safety, Wells thinks about the future of the industry as well. “Accident avoidance is key,” he said. “The biggest issue with existing safety systems is that driver reaction time simply is not fast enough.” However, he believes the steady development of autonomous vehicles may be able to resolve many of these human error issues, and Wells believes that we may see these vehicles in the market by the second half of the 21st century. He also predicts that stability control and anti-rollover will become more standard across the industry.

“I tried to tell an interesting story,” Wells said. In this book, he highlights the history of the safety systems that we rely on today, and gives credit to some of the unsung heroes of the automotive safety industry. Readers can expect to come away from the book with new insights into the evolution of safety systems and pioneers who “risked life and limb” to create a safer automobile.

About the author
Wells has worked for several internationally known companies, including United Technologies, TRW Automotive, and BEI Technologies, and has served as an expert witness in defense of lawsuits relating to airbag deployment. His idea for the book was conceived during the writing of his PhD dissertation entitled, “A Historical Study of the Evolution and Effects of Federal Automotive Safety Legislation in the United States from 1900 to 2005.” Wells is an elected Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.