Federal motor vehicle safety standards and various safety technologies saved a reported 328,551 lives from 1960 to 2002. This estimate is from a 2004 report by C.J. Kahane conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Even though frontal airbags are a relatively new technology, they've already saved an estimated 12,074 lives since 1994. One of the oldest technologies in Kahane's study, the safety belt, was by far the most effective. Belt use was responsible for saving an estimated 14,570 lives during 2002 alone (59 percent of the total). Belts in all seating positions were estimated to have saved 168,542 lives during 1960-2002. Lap belts have been common in cars since 1962.
Two other important safety technologies are energy-absorbing steering assemblies and improved door locks. The steering assemblies saved an estimated 53,017 lives during the study years. Back in the 1960s these were stiff and unyielding in frontal crashes. But by the late 1970s a federal motor vehicle safety standard required steering assemblies to be designed to compress at a controlled rate, cushioning the impact on drivers' chests in frontal crashes.
Advancements in door locks, latches, and hinges are estimated to have saved a total of almost 30,000 lives by keeping doors closed during crashes to reduce the risk of ejection. The locks, latches, and hinges are especially beneficial in rollover crashes.
The starting year for each of the technologies Kahane evaluated was the first year in which at least half of all new passenger vehicles had such technologies. Effectiveness estimates were taken from NHTSA studies and then applied to fatality counts for each year of the study.
This isn't the first time the benefits of federal safety standards have been evaluated. They've been in effect since 1967. In 1976 the General Accounting Office said an estimated 28,000 lives were saved between 1966 and 1974 (see "Vehicle safety standards work, GAO reports," Aug. 30, 1976).
Over the years, NHTSA has reviewed individual standards including, for example, safety belts, fuel systems, and child restraints. A 1981 Institute study estimated that 37,000 lives had been saved from 1975 to 1978 in cars built after federal standards took effect (see "Vehicle standards pay off in fewer deaths, study shows," Aug. 21, 1981).