It's the drivers who are unsafe at any speed

Dec. 14, 2006
A buddy of mine once let me take his vintage 1965 Corvair out for a spin.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

Everything went great until I pulled up to the first stop sign. It was only then I recalled that most cars of that era, including the Corvair, had brakes that were strictly mechanical — no hydraulic assist. Touching the brake pedal back then was more of a suggestion to slow down rather than a command to stop.

I'm sure that hydraulically assisted brakes were billed as a safety feature when they came into wide use. I am equally sure they had little impact on accident statistics. People merely adjusted their driving habits and were more prone to tailgate.

I reflected on this incident during MACHINE DESIGN's recently completed Smart Ride event. Smart Ride was designed to see how ordinary people valued intelligent features that automakers increasingly build into their vehicles. A lot of these features target safety. And the judges we recruited for Smart Ride generally thought highly of the smart safety features they saw.

But if history is a guide, it's doubtful that smart safety features will cut down much on traffic accidents or fatalities. Air bags, antilock brakes, more visible brake lights, and a host of other features have been mandated over the years with expectations they'd reduce accident rates and fatalities. It hasn't happened. For example, when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at antilock brakes, it found their presence makes no difference in predicting whether cars will be involved in fatal crashes. The federal government figured air bags would cut the risk of dying in a crash by 40% when it mandated their use in the 1970s. The real figure has turned out to be about an 11% reduction in risk. It's clear air bags haven't brought the level of benefits promoters promised. And the same can be said for numerous other safety features.

The irony is that despite these mandates, traffic safety in the U.S. has declined over the past two decades relative to that of Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries. In the 1960s, the U.S. had the safest traffic in the world whether measured by deaths per registered vehicle or deaths per distance traveled. Now, we've dropped to 16th place. That's not because vehicles overseas are safer than ours.

The real reason, according to Leonard Evans of Science Serving Society, a safety research organization, can be tracked back to lackadaisical attitudes in the U.S. about speed limits, drunk driving, and driver distractions. He claims that driving just 2 mph faster than average, for example, essentially cancels out the safety benefits of air bags.

So I have my own suggestion for making the roads safer, and it doesn't involve even five-cents-worth of additional vehicle hardware: Make the test for a driver's license orders of magnitude tougher to pass and adopt a zero-tolerance policy on the use of cell phones in cars.

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