Auto History’s Biggest Safety Feature Follies

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In the 1950s, the most auto company has defined safety features in a more simplistic way. Instead of engineering handling the safety aspects of a vehicle, carmakers tragically left the progression of safety to the automotive stylist. Over decades, safety has evolved from being a laughing matter to a realistic intent for saving the lives of motorists and passengers. Anti-lock brakes, airbags, electronic stability, and better vehicle construction have been effective in reducing deadly accidents to a series of whiplash compensation claims.

With all the great innovations created to protect vehicle occupants and pedestrians, sometimes the quest for safe driving has taken a wrong turn. The following are four leading examples of automotive safety equipment set on a collision course for failure.

Chrysler’s Electronic Voice Alert

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In an age where computer technology delighted the first generation of youngsters with Pac Man, one auto company’s idea for modern safety involved treating experienced motorists like teenagers driving their family’s car for the first time with an obsessive parent. Evolving loosely from the early 1980s Speak & Spell education toy, Electronic Voice Alert provided audio messages in addition to the vehicle information center (aka. dashboard warning lights).

Introduced on the upscale K-car models, including 1983 Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 600, the Electronic Voice Alert system was initially admired for its ability to promote safe driving as computer voice warnings were given to buckle seat belts or ensure doors were closed. Incorporated in higher scale vehicles in the Chrysler lineup, the Electronic Voice Alert quickly earned a reputation for diminishing the driving experience with the repeated voice warnings. The constant instruction from the Electronic Voice Alert ended up being more of a nuisance than an advantage leading to the discontinuation of the feature after the 1988 model year.

Cadillac Night Vision


Applying military-inspired technology to automobiles is far from a new phenomenon. Finding a widespread citizen use for advances in night vision equipment, the beginning of the 21st century was to witness the vision of objects more clearly in minimum light conditions.

A highlight feature added to the 2000 Cadillac DeVille, General Motors installed the Night Vision system into the full-sized luxury car, trying to infuse life to a rather dreary Cadillac division after the 1990s. Operating through a camera mounted behind the grille of the Cadillac sedan, the Night Vision view broadcasted onto the DeVille’s windshield. Allowing views at night to be highlighted in a monochromatic black and white display, the system demonstrated effectiveness on the Cadillac DeVille but failed to win over buyers. The fact the Cadillac DeVille’s Night Vision system was a most expensive $2,000 option did not entice Cadillac luxury seekers forcing the brand to drop the advanced safety unit after the 2004 model year.

Not working for Cadillac, the notion of car-based night vision systems is not an extinct piece of automotive safety technology. Still restricted to luxury vehicles, versions of night vision are currently found on the Lexus LS sedan as well as certain Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

Rear-Engined Cars

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Accepted largely as a design feature created in the interests of practicality or performance, rear-engined vehicles were briefly promoted by automakers in the late 1940s and 1950s as a safety feature. The safety theory of a rear-mounted powerplant car was to put the dangers of engine fires behind the passenger compartment. If an engine fire occurred at speed, the flames and fumes would not rush into the cabin. During the post World War 2 era, several high-profile American auto brands sought to master the rear engine configuration.

The 1948 Tucker Torpedo was one rear-mounted powerplant car built around a vehicle that would be seen ahead of its time for multiple safety features. In a lesser-known concept, Kaiser-Fraser Motors featured a rear-engined sedan they believed would be the future of American motoring. Clearly, that future was not realized. At least in a safety aspect, a rear-mounted powerplant would not prove itself as a safer alternative to conventional front-engined automobiles. The highly-publicized campaign against the Chevrolet Corvair pointing at the rear-engined compact’s alleged handling issue did not help.

Automatic Seat Belts


In 1972, Volkswagen engineers began to experiment with a technology that would automatically apply the vehicle safety belt too many drivers continued to avoid. For American drivers up to 1979, it seemed that the only way to improve driver seat belt usage was to strap the safety device to their wrist. Mandatory on new vehicles sold in the United States since 1968, a 1983 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration authored by B.M. Phillips found that only 11 percent of drivers were using safety belts. While those numbers of seat belt usage was troubling, the automatic seat belt was a safety solution that did more harm than good.

When the automatic seat belt reached production, the only effective way the system would work was to allow only the shoulder belt to be applied to the driver requiring the driver to still buckle a lap restraint. With only part of the safety restraint engaged, the driver improper usage of the automatic seat belt system compromised protection in an accident. There was also an issue automatic seat belts were rigged on the venerable doorframe rather than a sturdier roof B-pillar.

During the late 1980s, the United States Department of Transportation buoyed the cause of automatic seat belts by allowing automakers to install the devices in a new vehicle as an alternative to more expensive driver-side airbags. Naturally, penny-pinching auto company executives during this era attempted to adapt the automatic seat belt hastily in production vehicles. Volkswagen and Jaguar products, as well as the Honda Accord, were examples employing the automatic seat belt technology during its brief popularity. As time progressed, the automatic seat belt was considered a safety gimmick gone bad and was abolished from new cars as of the mid-1990s in favour of airbags.

Information source: General Motors, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, United States Department of Transportation
Photo source: Chrysler Group, General Motors, Honda, Volkswagen

  1. Well there’s obviously going to be a few blunders along the way.  Car safety is extremely important and in many cases you just don’t know what will work well until you try.  

  2. What are you talking about?!?  The Chrysler Electronic Voice Alert monitor combined with the digital dashboard and trip computer in my 80’s Chrysler Laser turbo was the coolest thing ever!  It was like driving something out of Star Wars in those days.  Darth Vader even narrated the commercials for that car…

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