The Evolution of Road Safety

The evolution of road safety is a surprisingly interesting topic to explore. Most of the older generation can think back to when they were children and were taken by their schools to a simulated little town that had roads going through it and the local traffic officers took the time to teach them how to understand and respect road signage, hand signals and road safety. Today we most probably drive our vehicles without any thought at all of how the expression “road safety” came about.

Road safety as we know it today is truly the result of an evolutionary process that starts way back in the days of horse riding and horse-drawn carts of any sort, from huge heavy wagons carrying tons of produce to light elegant people-carrying coaches. Right from the beginning, it was an unwritten law, more a suggestion actually, that horses – whether pulling a carriage or not- going in a certain direction within a built-up area should keep to one side of the road, whether left or right, depending on the country you are in.

But due to a lack of road usage rules, many goods and products were damaged in numerous accidents. There were injuries to both the animals drawing the carriages and the humans in or on them, and finally, the tragic loss of life. Authorities had to come up with ways and means to prevent, or at least control, the chaos on the roads at that time.

Vehicle manufacturers also took a long hard look at how drivers and passengers could travel more safely. The first step in this regard was the introduction of traffic control at road junctions and fitting visible turning signalling devices to vehicles. Lane markings and directional signs slowly became common after gravel roads became tar or concrete.

The introduction of seatbelts

The introduction of vehicle seat belts certainly led to an exponential increase in the saving of lives. Most serious injuries in vehicle crashes are the result of being thrown around in the car, much like an egg in an empty metal box, or being propelled into or through the windscreen (shatterproof or not). It is estimated that some 1 million lives were saved by seatbelts over 40 years.


The latter part of the previous century saw airbags coming to the fore. This hidden piece of technology sits idly by while you drive, but when most needed it literally jumps into action and within a fraction of a millisecond can save your life. Who could ask for anything more? It is estimated in some circles that an average of 2000 lives a year are saved by airbags.

Other technology

As technology advanced so did the thinking of clever people. We now have traffic lights not to mention cameras that can not only see what is going on behind you when reversing but also eliminate those pesky “blind spots” in our rear view mirrors. Bluetooth technology lets motorists answer phone calls and change radio stations or select music channels without taking their hands off the steering wheel or looking away from the road ahead.


While legislation on its own does not prevent road accidents that lead to injuries and death, irresponsible behaviour, like driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances or not adhering to the speed limit certainly does. Authorities however rightly enforce these regulations and punish offenders with fines and jail sentences which in many cases, deters drivers from unsafe behaviour. 


As we moved into the 21st century we saw great leaps in road traffic safety, no doubt about it. Anti-lock brakes (ABS brakes) safely regulates traction of the wheels to the road by preventing wheels from locking up during braking. Electronic Stability Control monitors data, such as speed and acceleration from each wheel and continually compares the vehicle’s actual behaviour against the driver’s involvement and makes adjustments accordingly. Electronic sensors that monitor tyre pressure and GPS.

Still too many lives lost

However, according to the World Health Organization at the moment, there are still approximately two road deaths per minute, or one every 30 seconds, every 24 hours of every day of the year. A horrendous statistic when you come to think of it. And this is despite the fantastic advances in motor vehicle safety over the last 200 centuries.

In conclusion

So, that being said, where do we stand right now? Well, it’s hard to predict because technology advances with leaps and bounds, whatever the case, it will be great.

We certainly hope so, because research conducted by the AA (Automobile Association) shows an alarming amount of fatalities on South African roads.

Road safety is 99% dependent on the drivers of vehicles, the so-called “human error” factor, so regardless of our initial concerns about the introduction of driverless cars, maybe these are the ultimate road safety innovations. Who knows? Watch this space…