In several objective ways, new cars are less “safe” than cars built decades ago.
A strong statement. One that probably seems ridiculous, too, given all the “safety” features new cars have that old cars did not – and also given the fact that new cars must pass a battery of crash tests before they may legally be sold to the public.
But “safety” is a slippery thing.
An analogy may help get the point across.
Battleships were considered virtually invulnerable; they had armor belts more than a foot thick in some cases. Then came naval aviation. And the air-dropped torpedo. One or two of these – a few thousand bucks each, maybe – could slide under a battleship’s armor belt (which generally did not extend below the waterline) and make short work of a billion-dollar capital ship.
How “safe” is the new car you can’t see very well out of – because of over-tall headrests and up-high beltlines and girder-thick roof support pillars – vs. the pre-“safe” car that gave you an excellent view of what was coming at you from the side and behind?
Do anti-lock brakes encourage some drivers to tailgate? Does traction control encourage some people to drive too fast on slick roads? Have higher grip thresholds given people a false sense of security? Eighty MPH in a modern car doesn’t feel as fast as 60 did in the pre-“safety” era.
The new car is probably (though not necessarily) more crashworthy. But which is more likely to be involved in a crash?
Much of government-mandated “safety” is reactive – it is about making cars “safer” to crash. More survivable when you wreck. Air bags fall into this category.
It would probably be safer to avoid the crash.
That used to be the emphasis. It’s not any more. Less and less is expected of the driver. More and more is demanded of the car. Even to the extent of simple competences such as parallel parking, which – we give up – is now in many cars handled automatically by a computer, which takes over and steers the car into its slot. The “driver” merely pushes a button.
One could make a pretty solid case that a person not able to parallel park a car on their own is probably not a “safe” driver.
“Safety” is also incoherent.
For example, on the one hand, the government makes a fuss about distracted driving and yet not a peep about new cars with so many distracting electronic gadgets it’s a miracle anyone makes it a week without at least a fender-bender. Pecking at a smartphone keyboard is an actionable offense – but it’s ok to fiddle with the car’s built-in touchscreen “infotainment” system. Which – in many new cars – has Internet access and does pretty much everything (and sometimes, more than) a smartphone does.
It is probably not “safe” to drive with someone ringing a bell or flashing a light in your face. Yet most new cars have “safety” systems that do exactly that, in some cases incessantly and for no good reason. The steering wheel vibrates like Titanic’s tiller as the doomed ship scraped past the iceberg every time a tire grazes a painted line in the road (Lane Departure Warning). A frantic red light flashes on the dashboard – and the brakes suddenly come on, jerking you forward without warning – because another car 20 yards ahead is slowing down or there is a cyclist off to the right (Collision Avoidance Mitigation/Automated Braking).
The presumption being you are too addled to anticipate, too slow-witted and low-skilled to react properly and in time.
Maybe go back to pecking at the smartphone – or fiddling with the LCD touchscreen. Why not?
People think their vehicle is “safe” to drive because on a given day, it was inspected by an Official Safety Inspector. And probably it was. But what about three months from now? By then, the brake pads (or tires) that were still ok – “safe” as defined by the government – have worn to the point of no longer being very safe at all. But the sticker on the window says the car is “safe” to drive!
Technically, the law requires them to keep up with the condition of their vehicle; to note whether the tires are going bald and the brake pads getting close to needing to be replaced. But because the car has a valid inspection sticker, many people don’t bother until some event confronts them with the reality that, in fact, the tires have gone bald or the brake pads are worn out.
In the pre-inspection era, people were motivated to keep track of the condition of their vehicles. Today, that responsibility is passed off onto an inspector.
Which era was “safer”?
Old people with arthritic limbs, slow reaction times and poor vision are by definition impaired relative to younger people not yet afflicted with those woes of the aging process. Yet that form of impairment isn’t considered the “safety” hazard that having even trace amounts of alcohol in one’s system is.
There are no Senile Citizen checkpoints. And if a glaucomic geriatric blows a red light and kills someone, the legal consequences will – usually – be far less severe than those faced by a driver who didn’t blow a red light or into anyone but did blow a BAC above the percentage that arbitrarily defines “drunk” driving.
Which form of impairment constitutes the greater “safety” threat?
In many states, there are laws against dark-tinted windows. Ostensibly because it is not “safe.” Likewise mandatory buckle-up laws. And yet, government workers – cops – are exempted from these laws. Is it “safe” for them to drive cars with dark tinted windows and not buckled up? If so, how so?
And if not, why are we hassled for doing the same?
“Safety” is in the eye of the beholder – and the pen of the regulator.
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