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A history of road safety

From steam engines to insurance telematics

In 1888, Karl Benz – the inventor of the first automobile – introduced humanity to motor vehicles, after a nearly six thousand-year stint on horses and, later, in horse-driven carriages. It was a novel activity that posed new road safety and security issues. Indeed, Mr. Benz was forced to apply for a permit from the Grand Ducal Authorities to use his car on the public roads after residents in Mannheim (Germany) complained about the noise and smell of his “motorwagen.”

Road safety, however, actually preceded the invention of the car and was already a problem in a world traversed by horse carriages. In fact, in the United Kingdom, the 1865 Locomotive Act and the subsequent Licensing Act of 1872 stated that drinking whilst in charge of a carriage, horse or cattle was an offence and even set speed limits: 4 mph in open country and 2 mph in towns!

The first insurance policy was conceived by the multi-talented Benjamin Franklin, in 1751, when he created the “Philadelphia Contributionship” to provide free fire insurance to American colonists. Nearly 150 years later, in 1897, Gilbert J. Loomis is credited with being the first person to purchase an automotive liability insurance policy. The policy, which was issued in Dayton, Ohio (USA), protected Mr. Loomis from property damage and manslaughter.

In 1903, France was the first country to introduce standardised traffic signs. The American Automobile Association was created in 1904, while the UK introduced its Automobile Association in 1905. Then, in 1910, an International Automobile Traffic and Circulation Congress was held in Paris (France) to address the issues of vehicles crossing national borders. The congress reached an agreement recognising foreign driving permits, set vehicle standards (i.e., two lamps in the front and one in the rear, and a “driving control” allowing the driver to see the road), introduced international index marks, and stipulated that drivers must conform to local rules and not those of their home country.

The first compulsory car insurance scheme was introduced in the United States in 1925; while, in the United Kingdom, the Road Traffic Act introduced mandatory insurance in 1930 and set the maximum speed limit to 20 mph. Indeed, by the 1930s, road safety concerns led automotive manufacturers to equip their vehicles with features that have since become standard, such as hydraulic brakes, safety glass and seat belts, although it took longer – in some cases well into the 20thcentury – for driving and road safety regulations to be updated and enacted.

Insurance telematics, the newcomer to the world of roads and vehicles, exploits digital sensors and ICT technology to provide users with custom-tailored insurance policies, based on the “pay as you drive” model, but even more importantly it delivers a vast series of added-value features ranging from emergency alerts in case of accidents to vehicle geo-location in case of theft to real-time traffic alerts. Telematics has lead to connected cars – cars that receive and share information to increase safety, decrease traffic congestion and optimise routes.

The next milestone in this history of road safety and security will be a self-driving car, which experts believe will be commercially available within a decade.

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