Safety in crashes (protecting you): Improvements are visible on a decadal scale and the tend to aggregate over time. (this is somewhat backed up by the plot with the dips discussed above)
2016: Cars commonly come with lane centering, adaptive cruise control, devices to keep the driver awake, and automatic stop features.
2010: Pretty much every car comes with ABS and ESC/Traction control. Cars have airbags all over the place and advanced collision cells and crumple zones
2000: ABS and Dual airbags are standard in many new cars. Middle passengers likely have a 3 point restraint. Child seat anchors. Passenger head restraints.
1990: Airbags become available. All cars have crumple zones.
1980: Fuel tanks have to be inside the car's frame.
1970: 3 Point seatbelts are starting to be commmon
1965: Unsafe at Any Speed Published (from here you can add things like "roofs that don't collapse when the car rolls)
Things that help the driver be safe
2016: Rear back up cameras are ubiquitous
2010: Rear warning systems common. SUVs built on car platforms handle well and resist rolling. ESC and traction control are ubiquitous.
2000: Passenger cars commonly come with 4 wheel disc brakes, wide tires, and abs: better handling and shorter stopping distance.
1990: Cars come with both driver and passenger side mirrors. Finding a car with rear wheel drive is rare: average new car has superior cold-weather road handling.
1980: Finding a car without power steering is rare.
1970: Cars commonly come with front disc brakes, stopping distance decreases dramatically.
There are a few areas where safety has decreased over time:
- The loss of visibility as belt lines have come up, A-pillars have thickened, and rear windows have shrunk and been crowded with passenger neck restraints. The driver's situational awareness in a modern car is far less.
- The advent of the 175 horsepower commuter car lets people get into trouble before they can react. (Easy fix: go light on the gas)
- The big tires tend do worse in the snowy weather than the skinny tires did in the 1980's and 1990s since they don't punch through to the ground. (Just buy chains)
- New cars have many controls and entertainment systems to fiddle with. (Eyes on the road!)