Some Thoughts on Automotive Safety

I have grown increasingly exasperated with the constant escalation of automotive safety requirements which have resulted in “economy” cars with hundreds of pounds of structural strengtheners added to protect the occupants in a collision.

While the safety measures, on the surface, are laudable, they are penalizing the consumer by mandating heavy, inefficient vehicles.  And still, a Honda Civic…which is nearly twice the size and weight of the Civic of ten years ago…would be a dangerous, possibly fatal place to be in a head-on accident with a twenty-two wheel semi, or even a large SUV.  How much safer are we in these new “safe” vehicles, and how much is it costing us in initial vehicle cost, operating costs and environmental degradation?  Clearly, there are tradeoffs to be made, but the manufacturers cannot design an absolutely safe vehicle, even if it is the size and weight of a Sherman Tank…because everyone else will be driving Sherman tanks too.  Continuing to build larger, stronger and heavier vehicles is a vicious circle with no winners.

What these safety regulations have accomplished is to make small efficient cars impossible to build.  The domestic manufacturers may applaud this…they have never been enthusiastic about building small cars.  They prefer to build full-size pickup trucks and SUV’s, with their higher profit margins.  Only the foreign manufacturers have tried to build the cars that most people need for their daily commuting and errand running.  And those cars are nowhere near as efficient and maneuverable as they could be…because of the aforementioned regulations.

Let me digress for a moment.  I can walk into the local Harley Davidson or Honda motorcycle dealer and buy a motorcycle with absolutely NO crash protection, and ride it legally on the street.  Why is it not possible to buy a four-wheeled “motorcycle” that can do the same?  The Japanese have a class of cars in their home market designated “Kei” which are small, efficient around-town runabouts.  The engine size is limited, and they are exempt from most emission and safety laws.  These cars make perfect sense for the driving that most urban drivers do.  If most urban commuters drove cars like this in the US, the savings in gasoline and emissions into the atmosphere would be huge.  Why don’t we have such cars?  Because the government doesn’t allow it.

Here is what I think should happen:  The government should get out of the safety legislation business and let the car manufacturers design the safest and most efficient vehicles they can…making whatever tradeoffs they consider appropriate.  The government SHOULD, however, be in the vehicle testing business.  They should crash test all vehicles for sale in the US, with a sophisticated and systematic methodology that performs carefully controlled crash tests with highly instrumented dummies to measure the forces inflicted on occupants.  These test results should be done ENTIRELY at government expense, using vehicles purchased at random.   The manufacturer should have no involvement at all in the process.  The test results should be made widely available on the Internet and in free government publications.  Also, the purchaser of any vehicle should be given a copy of the crash test report for that vehicle, and should be required to sign an affidavit, as part of the sales contract, that affirms that he/she has read the report and understands the crash performance of the vehicle being purchased.  Signing the affidavit indemnifies the manufacturer of the vehicle against any legal liability resulting from injuries or damage in a crash of that vehicle.

Here are some further thoughts:  In California, there is a fad which involves jacking up (usually) full-size pickup trucks or SUV’s so that the bumper is four feet above the ground or higher.  In an accident, especially involving side-impact, this bumper could go right in the window of another car and decapitate the driver or passenger.  It seems to me that modifying a vehicle in this manner should be illegal.  And then, there is the issue of vehicle weight.  Even a structurally robust small car like a Honda Civic, which weighs about 2400 pounds, is at a huge disadvantage in an accident with a 6000-pound pickup truck or SUV.  So even though crash tests against a stationary barrier might show the Honda performing well, when the accident is a head-on with a monster SUV, the small car is at a disadvantage.  At the present time, many people, for whatever reason(s) seem willing to pay the higher price for large vehicles, and the higher subsequent operating costs, to achieve a perceived safety edge.

Should bumper height and vehicle weight be controlled by legislation?  Once restrictions on vehicle design are allowed, where do they stop?  It is clear that most people do not need an eight-foot tall vehicle with bumpers four feet high that weighs 6000 pounds to drive to work or to take the kids to school or to haul groceries home from the market.  But should such vehicles be made illegal?  Should they be allowed on the roads to threaten people driving sensible-sized vehicles?  Surely, their liability insurance should be higher due to the greater damage and injury they can cause.  But that is not a government regulation issue.  That is risk assessment that should be done by the insurance companies.

It seems clear to me that most people would be better off driving smaller vehicles.  Lower initial cost, lower operating costs, less exhaust emissions, less imported oil…the benefits to the whole population, the economy, the environment and the trade deficit are obvious.  Furthermore, if most people drove small cars, the risks of accidents with huge SUV’s would be greatly reduced.  Of course, there are still the dangers of accidents with commercial vehicles of all sizes, but those dangers are nearly as great for occupants of a large SUV.  It would not do well pitted against a 22-wheel semi, or even one of the myriad smaller trucks that clog our roads, delivering furniture, beer, refrigerators, UPS packages et al.  Those dangers exist, and as occupants of private vehicles, we must accept them.

Obviously, I do not have all the answers, but I believe that as our population increases, and the price of raw materials, oil, and street repair continue to escalate, it is a real problem that is costing us untold billions, money that could be spent on better housing, food, clothing, or other products to enhance our lives.  It is time to get this monkey off our backs!

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