The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

August 11, 2008

Car safety for dummies

I returned last night from the six-state five-day four-game baseball trip my father, his high school friend and I began Wednesday — 1,350 miles of summertime Midwest humidity.

During such a trip, one’s mind wanders and notices things that are independent of the purpose of the trip. Sitting in a sport utility vehicle equipped with air bags, anti-lock brakes and reminders to fasten your seat belt, I started thinking about automotive safety.

Car safety first began to be noticed in the 1960s. That was about the time our older readers were taking driver education in high school and watching movies of the kind profiled in the documentary “Hell’s Highway” — “Signal 30,” “Mechanized Death,” “Wheels of Tragedy,” “The Third Killer,” and “The Last Date.” That was also the publication period of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, which slandered an innovative car, the Chevrolet Corvair, as part of an attack on the safety, or lack thereof, in motor vehicles. (Written by someone who doesn’t drive, by the way.)

The result of highway and vehicle safety legislation of the 1960s includes road signs that break off when hit by a car instead of stopping the car with often abruptly fatal results, padded car dashboards, anti-whiplash front-seat headrests, shatter-proof windshields, and seat belts. (Related legislation also mandated, as an anti-theft measure, locking steering columns, which is why the ignition switch migrated from the dashboard to the steering column.) My parents’ first second car was a 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan, and because it only had front lap seat belts, my parents made my brother and I share the passenger-side seat belt. My parents never hit anything with the car, fortunately, since, with just the lap belt, my brother and I probably would have had our faces rearranged by the dashboard. (If you wonder how you survived to today given the number of things in your childhood now considered unsafe, you’re not alone.)

Regulation usually operates on the idea that if some is good, more is better. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that carmakers install seat-belt warning lights in cars in the early 1970s — if the driver and front-seat passenger didn’t fasten their belts, an annoying warning light and buzzer combination would go off. Car owners responded by looping their lap belts around the latch so that the sensor thought the belts were in use because they had been pulled far enough out of the seat belt holder. NHTSA responded in 1974 by mandating that cars be equipped with seat belt interlocks — if you didn’t have your seat belt on, your car wouldn’t start. Congress responded to the rage of constituents who hadn't already disconnected the interlocks by repealing the mandate a year later.

A decade after that debacle, air bags started appearing in cars. By the early 1990s, automakers were required to install either air bags or other passive restraints in cars. My 1991 Ford Escort GT came equipped with automatic shoulder belts — I had to put the lap belt on myself, but the shoulder belt wrapped around me thanks to a motor and track mounted inside the door. The unintended consequence of that was that anyone who opened the car door to look backward to back up in a tight spot got to experience what having a seat belt wrapped around your neck was like.

My wife purchased a Pontiac Sunbird with a seat belt mounted high enough on the door that the front-seat occupants could theoretically get into and out of the car without disconnecting the seat belt. (Unless, that is, you weighed more than about 80 pounds.) GM also equipped Sunbirds and Chevrolet Cavaliers of the era with automatic door locks allegedly due to issues with car doors popping open during crashes. If you had an automatic-equipped Cavalier or Sunbird, the doors locked upon shifting into Drive and unlocked in Park. If your Cavalier or Sunbird had a manual transmission, the doors would lock at 8 mph, but not automatically unlock (do you want a car whose doors lock and unlock in stop-and-go traffic?), and since GM inside door handles did not automatically unlock locked doors, you had to unlock the door yourself every time you got out.

By the late ’90s, all new cars had air bags. By this time, as well, states had responded to federal government threats to withhold transportation funds by enacting mandatory seat belt use laws. (That damnable, undemocratic regulatory device began in the Reagan Administration.) So it may seem odd to you that car air bags of the time were designed to prevent an unbelted vehicle occupant from a head-first rendezvous with the windshield. But they were, with the result that more than 100 children and adults 5 feet 2 and shorter were killed by air bags. The notices carmakers then installed basically suggested that adults were guilty of child abuse if they put their children in their front seats. (A 1998 letter to the column “The Straight Dope” asked: “Am I crazy, or is it logical for a safety device to have a notice that it may kill you?” The response included the line that, given NHTSA’s assertion about lives saved by air bags vs. the reported air bag deaths, “22:1 is a pretty favorable kill ratio.”)

Today, cars are equipped with sensors that are supposed to disengage the air bag below a certain amount of detected weight on the passenger seat. Insurance companies typically classify cars as totaled if the air bags deploy. And if taller and larger readers have noticed that newer cars offer less front-seat leg room, there’s a reason — the carmakers have lined up your body so that the air bag goes off right in your face. Whereas tall drivers used to be able to mount seats farther back than the rearmost adjustable position, with frame-mounted seats, that’s no longer an option.

About the time of the seat belt interlock travesty, the national 55 mph speed limit was enacted by Congress, ostensibly as an energy-conservation measure. When energy costs weren’t an issue, the safety types then claimed saved lives as the result of lower speeds, ignoring the fact that the 55 mph law was an abrogation of the right of states to create their own traffic laws, tremendously unpopular and studiously ignored nationwide. Wisconsin never rescinded 55 for roads other than four-lanes, and there are proposals to reinstitute 55 nationwide in our era of $4-a-gallon gas prices. If for no other reason than the fact that the only truly nonrenewable resource is time, 55 was a stupid idea when it was created, and it is a stupid idea now.

Over the past eight years, I’ve had experience with child car seats — mystification at badly written directions, skinned hands, crying children and delays in arriving at intended destinations, to be precise. Evidently car designers and child seat designers are unaware of the other group’s existence, particularly on the subject of getting three child seats onto one bench seat. Many health care providers offer periodic child car seat clinics, including installation checks, but unfortunately seats get moved around from car to, say, grandparents’ cars, and the installation checkers don’t travel with your seat. The other oddity is that safety advocates recommend not purchasing car seats at garage sales, inferring that the state-of-the-art car seat you purchased a few years earlier has become an infant or toddler death trap sitting in your basement.

Legislation, at least in Wisconsin, operates on the idea that if it’s a good idea, it should be the law. So, of course, child seat use is the law in Wisconsin — rear-facing seats to age 1 or 20 pounds, forward-facing seats to age 4 or 40 pounds, and booster seats to age 8, 4-foot-9 or 80 pounds. As with seat belt laws, it seems highly unlikely that there are very many parents who wouldn’t use child seats unless the law required their use — either parents use them because they should be used, or they don’t use them because they’re irresponsible regardless of what they law says.

Cars now have air bags, side door beams, anti-lock brakes and frame-mounted latches for the aforementioned child seats. (Perhaps it's because I've never been in a crash where an air bag went off, but I'm not sure the air bag is worth the cost, in contrast to what the safety-obsessed claim, for those who wear their seat belts.) And as a direct result, cars are heavier and get worse fuel economy than they did even 15 years ago. Then again, carmakers are in business to make money (despite their recent financial statements), so cars with all that safety equipment are also incrementally more expensive, which discourages people from buying new cars with the latest safety equipment.

You may have noticed something in common with all these safety improvements — that they are apparently designed largely for someone with an IQ of 55. Seat belt and child seat laws assume that you are too stupid or negligent to grasp that you’re safer wearing your seat belt and your children are safer riding in car seats, and if that really is the case, then no law is going to change your ignorance. And as I’ve argued before, speed limits well below the design speed of highways only encourage violation and contempt of the law, in addition to wasting the only truly non-renewable resource of ours — time.

I would argue that air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and other car safety improvements have actually led to worse drivers and driving. The reason is simple — too many drivers feel invincible behind the wheel thanks to those safety devices and assume their cars can get them out of any difficulty they might drive into, or prevent them from harm from said difficulty. I do not want to go back to the days of bias ply tires and four-wheel drum brakes, but that’s because radial tires and disc brakes are performance improvements, not just safety improvements.

No safety device, law or regulation has as much an effect on safety as the quality, or lack thereof, of the driver. If government were really serious about car safety, it would be harder to get and keep a driver’s license.

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