Cars are heavily geared towards constantly emerging safety standards as the years go by. What was perfectly fine in 1970 wouldn’t meet safety standards on a remote-controlled car today. Many of the safety protocols we take for granted just weren’t a big deal back then.
The collapsible steering column is one such safety feature. It was invented in 1934. The problem was, none of the vehicle manufacturers wanted anything to do with them. It wasn’t until 1967 before General Motors decided to install the first one.
A collapsible steering column is designed to do what its namesake implies, collapse on impact. Rigid steering columns were essentially devices that would punch you in the chest with massive force, behind steel, rubber, and wood.
Why Were Collapsible Steering Columns Invented
They were designed to minimize the damages of an impact, well before the first airbag came standard in a vehicle. Inside a collapsible steering column, there is a tolerance ring (meaning that it has a weight or impact level that, if exceeded, breaks).
The tolerance ring is designed to break and allow the steering wheel to collapse, at least to a degree, in a certain direction, usually up and away from the driver.
Though the design implications of a collapsible steering column were quite clear, the United States government didn’t institute safety regulations requiring a collapsible steering column until the 1960s.
When Did Collapsible Steering Columns Become Standard?
Collapsible steering columns became the industry standard in 1968. However, it wasn’t until this year that new US regulations required all vehicles to have a collapsible steering column when manufactured.
You can see how long it takes safety standards and industry standards to move on things, especially safety features that have already been extensively tested and instituted in a wide variety of vehicles.
In 1967, the year before collapsible steering columns became the standard, Chevrolet developed the Energy-Absorbing Steering Column, which was essentially a collapsible steering column.
Instead of a sacrificial ring, these earlier version used a sheet of steel mesh that collapsed under pressure. GM is responsible for including this steering column in its Chevy lineup, while Ford and Chrysler received similar upgrades to their steering columns respectively.
The Positive Effects of Collapsible Steering Columns
Collapsible steering columns are designed to protect regardless of the impact direction. Whether its from the side, the front, or a rear end collision, collapsible steering columns play a role in protecting the driver, mostly by getting out of the way.
Of course, most drivers today have air bags packed neatly inside their steering wheels. Unfortunately, air bags are often capable of breaking noses and otherwise rearranging faces. Collapsible steering columns are designed to swing away from the driver, minimizing the brutal impact of the airbag.
Collapsible steering columns are designed to absorb and redirect side impacts hard enough to drive the frame of the car inward. The force of the impact is absorbed by the steering column and redirected to the center of the car, which has a much sturdier design and can take it.
The way a car is designed, rear impact forces travel up the frame and are channelled into the center of the car and the steering column. Believe it or not, your steering column is designed to absorb and channel the force of a rear impact, rather than just sitting there uselessly.
Accidents That Cause a Rollover
The steering column plays a diminished roll here. What they do, however, could be the difference between life and death. When a vehicle is impacted hard enough to roll it, the steering colum does what its supposed to do in all of the above situations. It absorbs much of the impact.
That means the rollover is nowhere near as brutal as it could have been. The G-forces applied to the human body are less severe. People who don’t wear their seatbelts are often catapulted into the air at high speeds, even though the rollover doesn’t look substantial from an observational perspective.
Steering Columns in Commercial Vehicles
Just because the collapsible steering column is most often associated with regular, everyday vehicles, doesn’t mean that it didn’t make its way into commercial vehicles around the same time. Pailton Engineering made sure of this in 1969, mass producing collapsible steering column for a broad range of commercial vehicles.
Pailton included all types of commercial vehicles as well, not just certain ones that were deemed the most important. Since 1969, collapsible steering columns in commercial vehicles became fairly wide spread and, eventually, all commercial vehicles had them.
Are Tilt and Collapsible Steering Columns the Same Thing?
Though tilt and collapsible steering columns are often mentioned in the same sentence, they are not the same thing. Both steering columns where invented in the early to mid 1900s and both were installed on a mass scale in the 1960s.
However, tilt steering columns were manufactured mostly in luxury vehicles and they were only compatible with a specific gearbox, rather than all. The collapsible steering columns came around the same time and were not associated with tilt.
Fortunately, today’s drivers get a little bit of both, with the tilt feature in their steering columns also including the collapsible feature during high-velocity impacts. What was once a feature only relegated to luxury vehicles for the rich is now standard alongside collapsible steering columns.
While some steering columns combine a little bit of both for the purposes of safety during a collision, all steering columns use some form of tilt and collapsible technology. If you want a tilt column without the collapse feature, you’ll have to go find a classic car in auction.
All Things Considered
It took a fairly long time between the inception of the collapsible steering column in 1934, to the first actual installment of a collapsible steering column in 1967. Now, all cars have the feature, since it became the industry standard in the late 60s. Unfortunately, the federal government just now got around to adding it.