“Back to the Future” of Car Safety

When my grandfather, J.B. Barron, negotiated Calgary streets one hundred years ago, he had to invent car safety from scratch. In 1920, there were no manuals or driving schools. There wasn’t power steering or power anything. My grandfather had to figure out, through trial and error, how to steer on icy roads and when to apply or not apply his brakes.

When my father began his own family in the late 1950’s, seat belts were brand new for the driver and weren’t available for passengers. My father was very afraid of his wife and children going through the windshield or being ejected in a car accident. He tinkered in his workshop trying to build a viable car seat that would protect his children. My parents put their children in those homemade seats, some built to hold three toddlers at once. In retrospect, my father realized that the seats he created probably wouldn’t have helped in an accident. But, at least he tried. Otherwise, all he could do was to buy a large vehicle (physics trumps all) and drive like our lives depended on it, because they did.

Then, in 1965, Ralph Nader published his book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” that led to the passage in the United States of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Laws of increasing stringency in the U.S. and other developed countries began to force motor vehicle manufacturers to make safety belts for passengers, stronger windshields and more. However, one may be surprised (I was) to learn how recently laws requiring consumers to use the seat belts came into being: 1976 in Ontario and Quebec, 1977 in Saskatchewan and B.C. and not until 1987 in Alberta. Canada was overall ahead of the United States in this regard, though. The first state mandating seat belt use in the United States was New York, in 1984.

My father taught his children many driving safety rules. One is leaving at least two car lengths between ourselves and the vehicle in front of us. Another is starting to brake as soon as the light in front turns yellow, even if it’s a long distance ahead. Another is to follow another car on night time roads because, if there’s a danger on the road, the vehicle in front of you will sound the alert. Another that I’ll never forget is my father’s admonishment that nothing must ever distract a driver including, for example, being stung by a bee. He said words to the effect that “If being stung by a bee would cause you to take your hands off the steering wheel or stop focusing on the road ahead of you, you have no business driving.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org), has been my primary resource to research a new or used vehicle for as long as I can remember. The IIHS safety tests have become more varied and rigorous over time. As stated on the website’s home page:

          To qualify for 2016 Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must earn
          good ratings in five crashworthiness tests — small
          overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength
          and head restraints — as well as a basic rating for front
          crash prevention.

While I greatly respect the Consumer Reports Organization (www.consumerreports.org) for its impartial product reviews, until a few years ago I ignored their vehicle ratings because Consumer Reports placed primary weight on driver comfort and repair records, which I thought was ridiculous. After all, a dishwasher tends to be stationary; we don’t drive around in them or possibly fatally endanger ourselves and others by the way we operate them.

However, a few years ago, Consumer Reports decided that safety was a critical factor and thereafter would not recommend a vehicle unless it met a “good” IIHS safety standard.

Now, Consumer Reports has made a more radical shift, advocating manufacturing and legislative change. In its recent 2016 Annual Car Issue, Consumer Reports stated as follows:

          Consumer Reports sees FCW (Forward Collision Warning)
          and AEB (Automatic Emergency Braking) as the most
          promising safety breakthroughs in the automobile industry
          since the advent of electronic stability control almost two
          decades ago. We are urging automakers to make those
          features standard on all cars, from luxury to economy
          models, as quickly as possible.

          We feel so strongly that this level of safety should be
          available to everyone, no matter their income level, that
          starting this year our new vehicle Ratings are being adjusted
          to award bonus points – and thus a higher Ratings score – to
          vehicles that offer those safety features as part of the car’s base
          sticker price.…

          Though Consumer Reports is reserving judgment on other
          new safety technologies – such as lane-departure warning
          with lane-keeping assist – we believe FCW and AEB stand out
          and already have been proved to save lives….One day cars
          will be able to drive themselves; AEB is one of the prerequisites
          that will allow for that kind of self-driving car technology.

It is widely predicted that, within five to ten years, self-driving cars will be a common sight. Probably within twenty years, driving one’s own vehicle will be as quaint as taking a classic car out for a Sunday drive is today. Given the fact that smart phones and other highly distracting technology are entrenched in our society and used by drivers, despite laws and common-sense mandating against their use, in my opinion, the sooner we have self-driving cars, the better.

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