Apr 18, 2016
Rüsselsheim. Once upon a time, seatbelts used to face a lot of opposition but now they are acknowledged as life-savers. In the European Union it became compulsory to wear a seatbelt in 1993 but legislation already existed in many individual countries before then. In Germany, for example, it became compulsory to “buckle up” 40 years ago today. In the meantime legislation making the wearing of seatbelts compulsory is seen as the start signal for numerous safety-innovations in cars.
The law was also the first step for Opel towards increasingly higher vehicle safety. The new Opel Astra shows the impressive progress that been made since then. Its total safety concept (awarded five stars by Euro NCAP) including state-of-the-art driver assistance systems is the current pinnacle of years of development, and proof that Opel continues to keep its long-standing promise to make innovative technology available to a broad customer base. Opel OnStar, the personal connectivity and service assistant that automatically calls for help in the event of an accident, is the youngest example.
“The law making it compulsory to wear seatbelts was a milestone in vehicle safety”, says William Bertagni, Opel’s vice president of vehicle engineering. “Despite the numerous innovations we must continue to drive further development. That means we must now exploit the opportunities of connectivity in order to send help quickly and automatically in the event of an accident. With Opel OnStar we are not only setting new benchmarks but also making driving more relaxing.”
Opel began installing seat belts in all cars as standard in 1973. Prior to that they had been available as an option on the Kadett, Admiral and Diplomat since 1968, followed in 1970 by the classic Manta A coupé. Nearly ten years before they became compulsory they were even installed as standard on the 1967 Kadett B Rallye and the 1968 Commodore A GS.
In 1974 Opel displayed its power to innovative with the “Opel Safety Vehicle 40”, a Kadett C-based concept which pioneered future safety features and was capable of withstanding a frontal impact at 40 miles per hour (65 km/h). The highlights of its design included polyurethane foam in the front bumper, at the sides and in the interior cavities. It also featured a two-piece rear view mirror to reduce the blind spot; four additional brake lights behind the rear window which signaled emergency braking and flashed as hazard lights; and extra lateral supports on the front seats for additional protection in the event of a side impact. Seat belts at all four seating positions represented the state of the art at the time.
In Germany, seatbelts in all cars became compulsory in 1974, but 12 months later, with only 39 percent of occupants bothering to buckle up, it was only logical that wearing them would become mandatory the following year.
Legislation on its own, however, didn’t change much. In Germany, where those refusing to wear a seatbelt got away with only a warning, many drivers just ignored the law. It wasn’t until 1984 and the introduction of a DM 40 fine that the situation suddenly improved. Almost overnight, the share of drivers buckling up rocketed from 60 to 90 percent. Helped by audible and visual reminders, by 2014 the figure had leveled out at 97 percent in the front and 94 percent in the rear (Source: DEKRA accident research).
As the wearing of seatbelts became compulsory and increasing numbers of drivers and passengers buckled up in their vehicles, the auto industry was already developing restraint systems supplementary to the seatbelt. On the Astra F in 1991, for example, Opel installed seatbelt tensioners which could tighten the seatbelt by up to 15 cm within 10 to 15 milliseconds to keep the occupant securely in the seat. Additional force limiters prevented too much pressure being exerted on the thorax. The risk of injury for the occupants declined further still with the development of highly stable passenger compartments and the introduction of the airbag. In 1995 Opel was the first German automobile manufacturer to make driver and passenger full-size airbags standard on all new cars.
With the emergence of active safety technology the scope widened from protecting vehicle occupants in an accident to avoiding accidents as much as possible. Active safety systems such as anti-lock brakes (ABS), vehicle stability control (ESP) and daylight running lamps have become standard equipment or compulsory on new cars since 2004. While the auto industry has been developing active safety systems since the nineteen-seventies, their number grew especially rapidly at the beginning of the 21st century.
The introduction of the Opel Eye front-camera in 2008 brought the first driver assistance systems. Initially available on the Insignia, the front camera is now offered across the passenger car range, even on KARL and ADAM.
In addition to following distance indication, traffic sign recognition and lane departure warning, the latest generation front camera on the new Astra also features lane keep assist (which gently turns the steering wheel if the car should unintentionally stray out of lane) and forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking. If the gap to the vehicle in front undercuts a pre-defined distance, the system warns the driver, pressurizes the brakes and if necessary applies an emergency braking. Automatic emergency braking operates up to a speed of 60 km/h. Below 40 km/h the system can prevent a collision by braking the car to a standstill. Additional safety is provided by Opel’s award-winning Side Blind Spot Alert. When changing lanes, overtaking or turning a corner, other road users can disappear in the blind spot. Ultrasonic sensors permanently scan wide areas around the vehicle at speeds ranging from 11 km/h to 140 km/h. If an object is detected in the blind spot, an LED warning appears in the relevant exterior door mirror.
Opel is working on driver-assistance systems of the future as part of its role in the UR:BAN research project (user-oriented assistance systems and network management). The aim of the project, which is partly funded by the German government, is to provide drivers with forward-looking support, tailored and customized to driving in urban traffic. Higher safety in this complicated mobile environment is the goal of several assistance systems under development at Opel, which can warn the driver or briefly take control of the vehicle.
Opel has already taken the first step towards higher safety in the digital age – ahead of legislation again. Launched in August 2015, Opel OnStar automatically connects the vehicle to a specially trained emergency advisor the moment it detects a crash. If the driver or a passenger requests help, or cannot answer, emergency responders are sent to the vehicle. Opel OnStar is available now on the KARL, ADAM, Corsa, Astra, Cascada, Meriva, Mokka, Insignia and Zafira Tourer models. The European regulation requiring all new cars to be equipped with “eCall” will not come into force until 2018.
The numerous safety innovations of the past decades have paid off and are reflected in Germany’s accident statistics. While the astonishing 21,322 traffic fatalities in 1970 remain a sad record, only 3,339 people lost their lives on German roads in 2013 – despite three times as many vehicles1. The share of traffic-fatalities per registered vehicle is accordingly 20 times lower.
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