Estimated Time to Read: 9 minutes

Karl Benz heard the quick ratta-tatta-pop-pop. His bushy handlebar mustache quickly appeared over the side of the three-wheeled motorized carriage in front of him, the world’s first modern automobile. The vehicle vibrated as the one-cylinder gasoline engine burst into a syncopated rhythm. Benz clambered into his tiny trike in the wooden workshop, the Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik in Mannheim, Germany, where the world’s first drive promptly ended with Benz crashing the Motorwagen into the workshop wall.

If Benz was anything like modern automotive journalists, he likely picked himself off the floor and muttered, “Needs more power.” Since the birth of the automobile, engineers and garage enthusiasts have been coaxing more power and dexterity from engines and suspensions. Yet for every advance in oscillation spring damping and aluminum-silicon engine blocks comes the threat of an ever more imminent death. Cars crash. Driving and wrecking co-exist in a morbid yin and yang relationship, unwilling Olsen twins. The history of vehicle collisions is just as bizarre and perilous as the history of vehicles themselves.
The world does not agree who invented the first automobile. Engineers experimented with self-propelled vehicles capable of carrying a driver as early as beginning of the 18th century. However, cars resembling modern day inventions did not roll around – pun partially intended – until the late 1800s, when men like Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Enrico Bernardi built self-propelled horseless carriages. Yet even before these mechanical Merlins patented their inventions, people were wrecking DIY automobiles all on their own.

Mary Ward liked to collect insects. As she grew older she became interested in microscopy and was soon a well-educated amateur scientist who loved the outdoors. Then she died. According to the Offaly Historical and Archeological Society, Ward has the dubious honor of being the first recorded automotive fatality. In 1869, Ward was thrown from a steam-powered car built by her cousins and a wheel shattered her neck. Undeterred, one of her cousins, Charles Algernon Parsons, went on to create the steam turbine.

Ohio City, Ohio lays an unsubstantiated claim to the first American automobile accident. In 1891, James William Lambert and James Swoveland were driving through the green forests of eastern America when Lambert’s single-cylinder gasoline-propelled vehicle hit a tree root and unceremoniously threw Lambert from his seat. He must have hit his head in the right spot, for after his recovery, Lambert went on to patent over six hundred inventions mostly related to the automobile industry.

With the advent of automobile mass production in 1888, people were able to crash and collide on a much grander scale. The earliest American cars were little more than carriages with weedeater-esque engines, prone to instability and fracture. Savvy industrialists, such as Horace Dodge and Henry Ford, saw promise in the rickety toys and invested millions. By the 1910s and 1920s, cars had evolved into something for the Everyman, thanks to “Fordism.” In “American Standards of Living,” Clair Brown writes that one out of three white families in the 1920s purchased a new or used car every year. Some of these early contraptions, such as the Ford Model T, were relatively secure. Others, like the Briggs & Stratton Flyer, which was essentially a four-wheeled flat-bottom wagon with no enclosure or safety device of any sort, were VIP invitations to Hades. Novice motorists often drove off dirt pot-holed trails into ditches and ravines. Many of these accidents were injurious or fatal. Archives dated July 8, 1926 from the Paintsville Herald of

Paintsville, Kentucky told the following story:

“Four accidents since Sunday; Boy of 9 is Dead.

“Three accidents have happened since Sunday in which two Johnson County People have lost their lives and other lives seriously injured and horribly mangled at the Paintsville Hospital with slight chances for recovery.”

The newspaper discussed several of the events, including the following:

“Holly Lemaster had purchased the car about twenty minutes before the car ran over a cliff. He was an inexperienced driver and just before the reaching the point where the car left the road it is said he attempted to place his foot on the brake but instead stepped on the gas and the car shot like a dart over the precipice … The boys had not driven the car for more than two hundred yards before the accident happened.”

By the 1930s and early 1940s, automobiles had transitioned from motorized buggies into mechanical marvels. Wooden chassis morphed into steel structures, while safety glass first seen on the 1908 Ford Model T became an industry standard. A headrest design was patented in 1923, and Mercedes-Benz unveiled the first car to have brakes on all four wheels in 1924. Then bombs exploded in Pearl Harbor, and the nation slowed down.

In 1942, the U.S. Congress passed the “Patriotic Speed Limit” act that imposed a nationwide maximum speed limit of 35 mph in order to conserve gasoline and save rubber. The speed cap tangentially decreased traffic collisions. According to the state of Utah, fatal automotive accidents in the state decreased 50 percent in 1942 from 1941, even though miles driven had only lessened by 11 percent. The roads were safer thanks to the patriotism of American citizens and the dutiful imposition of that patriotism, wanted or not, by U.S. law enforcement.

After the last of the Axis powers surrendered in 1945, the boom and clang of commercial industry was again heard in America. Classic Streamline Moderne and Ponton cars appeared in the late ’30s and ’40s, and the ’50s brought chrome and Harley Earl’s tailfins. The Beetle was in its heyday, and Alec Issigonis’s creations zipped across Europe. Though better built, robust cars of the era were often dangerous in wrecks. Steering wheels and front dashboards often had no padding to protect occupants, no airbags and no seat belts. Mercedes-Benz invented crumple zones in 1951, arguably the most important passive safety innovation in automotive history, but the technology had yet to trickle down. To combat the growing unrest, auto manufacturers insisted vehicles were too complex to design to shield occupants in high-speed crashes.

Then dead people started to talk.

In the late 1950s, researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan borrowed several human cadavers from the university medical center and dropped a few down an unused elevator shaft. They discovered the skull could endure approximately one-and-a-half tons of force per fraction of a second before fracture, and so initiated the long-standing field of human cadaver crash testing. Corpses bearing primitive accelerometers were strapped into crashing vehicles. Researchers used the data to refine automotive design to protect passengers. Cadavers are still used today, such as to test Ford’s inflatable seatbelts, but most crash testing is based on computer modeling.

Thanks to the information provided by their former owners, vehicles built in the 1960s and 1970s were built with improved safety features including seat belts, anti-lock brakes, safety glass, head restraints and deformable structures. Steering wheels, one of the most common causes of injury in accidents, were redesigned and cushioned to guard drivers from trauma. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), road accidents fell from 311 fatalities per million to 278 fatalities per million from 1931 to 1963. Guiding angels had come to American streets, but unfortunately so had demons – swift demons.

Contrary to popular opinion, muscle cars were not born in the 1960s. The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 with an OHV 5.0-liter V8 is credited as being the first American muscle car. By the time of the hippie children and John F. Kennedy, muscle and pony cars were in full swing. For the first time, affordable cars went fast – blazingly fast. The 1965 Pontiac GTO, using a big-block 6.4-liter V8 generating 325 brake horsepower, zoomed from 0-60 mph in 6.6 seconds according to Car Life. Young males with raging hormones flocked en masse, and American streets were soon inundated with cheap, two-ton Mopar coupes pushing 300 or 400 horsepower. It was “Vanishing Point” come to life. The cars’ gas mileage ratings were atrocious; the legendary 1970 Plymouth HEMI ‘Cuda 426 trundled an average of six miles per gallon of gasoline.

Muscle cars were often blamed for inspiring numerous vehicle crashes. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, total U.S. fatalities jumped from 36,399 in 1960 to 52,627 in 1970, an increase of 144 percent. However, total miles driven jumped 154 percent. In effect, the roads were safer in 1970 even with the deluge of ‘Cudas, Javelins, ‘Stangs and Chargers.
In fact, the most dangerous cars of the era were not Brobdingnagian coupes. The deadliest predators were the econoboxes sold by American corporations desperate to undersell foreign competition. The website lists several of the top offenders, including the Yugo GV, Pontiac Fiero and Ford Pinto, all strict adherents to Murphy’s Law. The Yugoslavian GV sold for less than $4,000 but was less intact than a Tumbling Tower. Meanwhile, the Fiero, due to an intrinsic deficit of oil, often caught on fire. The Pinto lacked a proper rear bumper, which meant a casual game of touch-and-go turned into touch-and-crunch.

Today, even small cars like the Chevrolet Sonic come with ten standard airbags, and federal crash test standards grow ever more stringent. As of 2012, all new cars sold in America are required to have electronic stability control. In 2009, the NHTSA estimated that only 0.01 percent of the population died due to car crashes, and also noted that automotive fatalities were among the lowest in decades.

Unfortunately, there is a new culprit, one most deadly: the cellular phone. According to, driving while texting is twenty-three times more deadly than driving without, and even conversing on a hands-free phone set is equivalent to driving while drunk. Over thirty states have outlawed texting while driving, and several states have built dedicated cell-phone use sites on heavily traveled roads.

Engineers have decided to fight fire with fire. Active aid and prevention systems are becoming standard across corporate lineups. The market is rife with blind-spot and lane-departure warning and prevention systems, rearview cameras, adaptive cruise control with collision avoidance systems, parking sensors and automatic parallel parking systems.
Matt Moore, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Technology – Highway Loss Data Institute (IIHS-HLDI), has his own opinions. After testing lane-departure warning systems, Moore said, “Lane departure warning may end up saving lives down the road, but so far these particular versions aren’t preventing insurance claims.” Claims actually increased by 10 percent in the study. He suggested that “drivers may be getting too many false alarms.” Other experts suspect risk compensation to play a major role.

However, other technologies have proved helpful. Rearview cameras have stopped hundreds of oblivious parents from backing over children in driveways. One NHTSA study noted that Volvo and Mazda owners with adaptive headlights had 10 percent fewer property-damage claims, while Mercedes and Audi owners with forward collision avoidance systems had a 14 percent decrease in insurance claims.

There is another subtle star in the war against car crashes: the civil engineer. Thanks to the efforts of agencies like EuroRAP, roads are built to encourage safer driving. Roundabout intersections replace traditional signals or stop signs and are responsible for a 90 percent reduction in fatality collisions and a 40% reduction in pedestrian collisions, according to the IIHS. Speed bumps are used to calm passing traffic; traffic circles modulate speed in suburban areas; rumble strips alert night-time motorists to curbs and upcoming signals.

To be sure, accidents still happen, even in the most unlikely of places. Vehicles have crashed into escalators, train tracks and urban sink holes. In Kootenai National Park in British Columbia, Canada, a bear ripped into a vehicle just to seek out a single Oreo cookie. Actual insurance claim statements from bizarre accidents include, “In an attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole,” and “I didn’t think the speed limit applied after midnight.”

Nonetheless, there is a bright side. Those who perish in car crashes can become crash test cadavers.

As a retired school teacher, Daniel Watson posesses a keen interest in history, finance, and education.  Although you can’t prevent accidents you can prevent the collateral financial fallout that often accompanies them.  Daniel has become quite knowledgeable in insurance matters including common coverage, and location specific best practices.  You can also put car insurance aggregators like Kanetix to work for you, and quickly compare quotes from multiple respected insurers in your area.  You can also brush-up your driving skills with some preventative driver training.