Shifting Gears

16 Ways Driving Has Changed in the Past 50 Years

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Shifting Gears

shifting gears

While one benefit of getting older is having first-hand knowledge of how much cars have improved, it’s easy to forget how much driving procedures and automobiles have changed in the century or more since their invention. These are some of the most formative changes to driving laws and culture to occur in the past five decades, in roughly chronological order.
An Uptick In Distracted Driving

an uptick in distracted driving

Maybe the biggest shift in modern driving habits is that we’ve become more distracted. Gradually cars have come with more built-in distractions, while we also bring distractions like smart phones on the drive. In 2014, it was reported that 3,300 people die and an additional 400,000 are injured in the United States annually due to distracted driving.
A Crack Down On Drunk-driving

a crack down on drunk-driving

Though New York became the first jurisdiction to enact laws against drunk driving in 1910, for decades afterward it was considered a dismissible “folk crime,” and its legal penalties were rarely enforced. Beginning in 1972, states began cracking down with DUI laws, which required only a blood alcohol content over the legal limit for conviction rather than proof of impaired driving. Beginning in 1980, organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) drove public awareness, leading to the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, penalizing states whose drinking age was under 21.
A Focus On Fuel-efficiency

a focus on fuel-efficiency

Before the 1973 oil crisis, gas prices had lagged well behind the nation’s overall rate of inflation and large, fuel-guzzling autos were popular. The shortage contributed to increased focus on fuel economy and compact imported vehicles, which has continued to wax and wane based largely on gas prices.
The Adoption Of Four Wheel Drive

the adoption of four wheel drive

Though pioneered as early as 1903, four-wheel drive was a feature reserved mostly for tractors and military vehicles until the early ‘80s, when Audi released two Quattro models — standard sport cars enabled with 4WD for easier gear changes and greater control. Followers like the American Motor Company’s Eagle model popularized a whole new product category, the crossover sports utility vehicle, equally well-equipped for off-road exploration and elementary school carpooling.
Laws Dictating Seat Belt Use

laws dictating seat belt use

New York became the first state to have a law requiring auto passengers to wear safety belts in December 1984, but others were quick to follow. Today New Hampshire stands as the only one without a law governing seatbelt use — at least for riders over 18. Research has shown that mandatory seatbelt laws reduce traffic fatalities by 8 to 9 percent.
The Cupholder Trend

the cupholder trend

Cupholders became a fixture of cars’ interior designs starting with the 1983 Dodge Caravan. Cupholders reinforced the practice of drinking and eating on the go, to the point that fast food chains now tailor their meal containers to conform to cupholders’ shape.
The Airbag Shift

the airbag shift

For decades, the common wisdom was to place one’s hands on a steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions, but now many state DMVs and safety experts recommend placing your hands lower at 9 and 4 or 8 and 4. The reason for the change was the advent of airbags in more vehicles around 1990, meaning hands higher on the wheel became subject to fly into one’s face or cause other injuries if the airbag was deployed in an accident.

The End Of The National Speed Limit

the end of the national speed limit

The fuel crisis of the ‘70s prompted President Nixon to impose a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour in 1974, leading to reduced traffic fatalities and gas prices. The national limit was raised to 65 on rural interstates in 1987, then abolished outright in 1995, permitting states to allow limits up to 85 mph.
The Adoption Of In-car Gps

the adoption of in-car gps

Oldsmobile began implementing a computerized routing system called Guidestar in their 1995 Eighty Eight models, and the way we drive hasn’t been the same since. On top of making road maps obsolete, there’s evidence that our reliance on GPS systems when driving is altering our minds’ ability to orient ourselves in the world without technology.
High-tech Toll Collection

high-tech toll collection

The electronic tolling system E-ZPass went into effect on the Atlantic City Expressway in November 1998, inaugurating for seven mid-Atlantic-area states a new method of monetizing popular commuter routes without contributing to traffic congestion. Today electronic toll collection (ETC) systems are being used for congestion pricing and other economic incentives to better control the flow of traffic in major urban areas.
In-car Phone Charging Instead Of Cigarette Lighters

in-car phone charging instead of cigarette lighters

Cars have commonly come with cigarette lighter receptacles since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until recently that the socket became more commonly used as a standard DC connector for chargers and appliances. Many cars now come with multiple sockets in lieu of the old heating elements, and more appliances from phone chargers to hair straighteners have released car-charging compatible versionsę – as if we didn’t already have enough distractions while driving.
Texting While Driving
miodrag ignjatovic/istockphoto

texting while driving

As cell phones and SMS texting became common throughout the 2000s, phone use rapidly became the most dangerous and talked-about form of distracted driving. Surveys found that one in three teens admitted to using their cells while driving. More US states have adopted conditional or blanket bans on such practices.
Harsher Teen Driving Restrictions

harsher teen driving restrictions

Driving around town with friends became an iconic pastime of American adolescents around the 1950s, but many state governments have taken a restrictive approach to teens driving other teens in recent years. New graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws limit when or how many (if any) fellow teens teenage drivers can transport in the first years of being licensed.
The Traffic Explosion

the traffic explosion

The world’s human population boomed throughout the 20th century, and our automobiles largely followed suit, especially following the post-WWII economic boom. From 1980 to 2000, their US numbers grew at a rate of 1.2 cars for every 1 person. This has contributed to urban areas’ ever-worsening traffic congestion, which last year took an economic toll of $305 billion nationwide, up $10 billion from the previous year.
The Lengthening Commute

the lengthening commute

A side effect of suburban living and increased traffic has been that more Americans spend longer each year driving to and from their workplaces. The Washington Post reports that the average commute length crept up another 18 seconds between 2016 and 2017, and that the region’s drivers spent an additional 12.5 more hours in transit than they did a decade prior.
The Influx Of Smart Cars

the influx of smart cars

Companies were already trying to connect auto and computer software as early as 1998, when Microsoft paired their Windows CE operating system with Clarion’s car dashboards. Since then, dashboard consoles have increasingly become tech-enabled LCD touchscreens serving as an all-in-one GPS, audio player, and Bluetooth-connected smartphone interface. There were already 36 million connected cars on roads in 2015, and today more auto companies are investing in app-integrated cars that relay and report things about themselves and the world around them.