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Autonomous Vehicles

The Church of Automotive Safety (Part 1)

In a past article, I discussed a common safety misconception: “Safety First.” It’s an erroneous way of looking at safety, and can actually make people less safe. This was something I learned from making a mistake (falsely accusing Tesla of being unsafe with the FSD Beta), and I learned a lot trying to analyze what led to that failure.

When I started applying this thinking to more and more safety issues, I found that there’s actually a pretty big social movement that peddles a variety of falsehoods and demands that we accept them on faith or be treated like heretics. I’m going to call this The Church of Automotive Safety, and they love to use their false assumptions to bash on Tesla’s FSD program.

What I’m realizing is that there are two types of thinking people use on automotive safety: scientific thinking and religious-like thinking.

Comparing These Types of Thinking

Science isn’t something people can really “believe in.” That’s because science is a method, and not a body of knowledge. Bodies of knowledge have been developed using the scientific method, sure, but they’re all subject to re-evaluation in the event someone uses the scientific method to find new knowledge that disproves old knowledge. When that happens, knowledge improves and society moves forward. New technologies, methods of regulation, and ways of thinking emerge.

I don’t mean to bash anyone’s faith when I mention religion. I think quite the opposite. Faith can be a good thing that drives people to do good and become a better person. Religions differ from science in that there are facts religions take for granted without having first subjected them to rigorous study or otherwise demanded proof for. The Bible describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Because of this difference in method, many religions do the opposite of science. Once the leaders of the religion decide something is a religious fact, that fact is often considered eternally fixed. The deities (and sometimes the religion’s leaders) are considered to be better than humans, and maybe even perfect, so they don’t need change their mind on stuff like us imperfect mortals do. I know not all religions are this way, but most religions have at least one tenet or dogma that cannot be questioned without one being considered an unbeliever and suffering social consequences of some kind. At worst, theocratic states may even take your life for it.

Changes in beliefs to fit new social environments (allowing mixed-race marriages, accepting LGBT people are two good examples in many Christian faiths) can be very controversial in a faith community, sometimes leading to splintering and possibly the end of the religion in question. At worst, this has led to warfare historically, as competing inflexible systems came into conflict.

Once again, I’m not judging anyone here. I’m just comparing religious thinking to scientific thinking so we can take a good look at how we treat automotive safety in this article series.

The only church I’m going to be critical of in this series is The Church of Automotive Safety.

Is Automotive Safety Always Scientific?

We generally don’t like to think our automotive safety laws and regulatory systems are based on dogma or faith like a religion. We don’t think politicians and federal agencies are gods, right? Ideally, a regulation or law in this area should only be passed if there is evidence to back it while existing laws or regulations should be repealed if they’re found to not be helping.

Sadly, this isn’t always true. Some people treat regulators and lawmakers like gods. There are policies that you aren’t allowed to question without being seen as a heretic (and treated like one). Question them enough, and you might even face something like an inquisition. Speed limits, air bags, and a variety of other things don’t have the factual backing we think they must, but people questioning them are treated like they’re insane or bad.

Example 1: Safety First

I covered Mike Rowe’s concept of “Safety Third” in a previous article, but it’s worth covering again.

Now, before you jump on me for saying safety doesn’t come first, think it over for a few seconds. If safety was always the highest consideration, nobody would ever do anything. We wouldn’t drive. We wouldn’t ride bikes (especially mountain bikes). We definitely wouldn’t allow anyone to consume alcohol. We probably wouldn’t ever leave the house, like in the movie Surrogates.

The cold, hard truth is that there are two things that come before safety: (a) getting things done, and (b) making money or having fun doing it. Once we’ve made decisions on those two things, we then look for ways to adjust things to make things safer.

Rowe also points out that “safety first” often leads to a culture of rule following rather than a culture of safety. He isn’t trying to say that people shouldn’t follow safety rules, but we have to go beyond the rules and use common sense to be even safer. Just because there’s a “walk” sign at an intersection doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe to cross, for example.

Taking personal responsibility instead of depending on someone else to be responsible for your safety is the key here. Nobody else has a greater investment in your safety than you do, so you have to be an active participant in the process. Safety procedures and rules that erroneously lead you to believe that you don’t need to be looking out for yourself can get you hurt.

One type of safety thinking robs almost everyone of their sense of personal responsibility for safety, while the other keeps common sense in the loop.

In the next three articles, I’m going to look at some other “sacred cows” that exist in the Church of Automotive Safety: airbags and speed limits. While nobody can honestly argue that these policies don’t save lives, they aren’t the perfect solutions many think they are. They certainly have big shortcomings and are often not used or regulated correctly by automakers and governments.

When we treat airbags and speed limits like a religious belief instead of treating them like a scientific theory that we can question and improve, we end up not only getting people hurt, but robbing society of better opportunities for improvements in automotive safety by stifling innovation.

Next: The Church Of Automotive Safety (Part 2)

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things:


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