The Church Of Automotive Safety (Part 3)

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In the previous two articles, I discussed the differences between religious and scientific thinking and how airbags became more faith-based than scientific (at least in how we treat the problems with them). Now, I’m going to talk about alternatives and how history might have gone differently if we had factored in more personal responsibility.

The prevailing narrative today is that automakers resisted safety improvements for decades, and only adopted airbags (the ultimate safety device) after governments forced them to do it. There is some truth to this, but it’s at best a half-truth. Automakers that weren’t implementing airbags actually had a variety of other effective safety measures they were improving upon.

It’s a good general rule of thumb that newer cars are safer than older cars. I don’t intend to dispute that generality here, nor could I honestly do that. While older cars often survived better in crashes, their occupants did not. Rigid construction is good for the car’s passenger compartment, but it’s not good if there’s no give anywhere in the vehicle to absorb the energy of a crash. Combined with other advances, newer vehicles are almost always better for safety than an older model.

One Alternative: Space Frames

I do want to point out an exception to this rule that we can learn from: the Pontiac Fiero. Built for the model years 1984-1988, the vehicle was a small mid-engine 2-seater car. Early versions of the vehicle were primarily meant as an economical commuter, but as the vehicle improved and got better parts, it became a fairly capable sports car. The vehicle’s biggest problem (and probably the thing it’s best known for) was that early 4-cylinder versions of the vehicle had an undersized oil pan, which led to catastrophic engine failures that would throw oil onto the vehicle’s exhaust, which set the whole vehicle ablaze.

What most people don’t know is that one aspect of the vehicle’s construction was far ahead of its time. Instead of switching to cheap unibody vehicles like the rest of GM’s cars, Pontiac used a high strength steel space frame for the Fiero, with non-structural body panels made from plastic and composites bolted on the outside. The result was a vehicle that had the second-best crash safety ratings during its run (it was only beat by the Volvo 740DL station wagon).

Even as late as 2010, the Fiero’s crash test dummy data was still outperforming new models. In terms of head injury, chest deceleration, and femur loads, one is more likely to sustain an injury in a 2009 Ford Focus, 2007 Buick LaCrosse, or 2003 Cadillac Deville. All of the cars from the 2000s have airbags, while Fieros do not.

Unfortunately, GM cheaped out when it implemented the space frame in later vehicles. The 1991-94 Saturn SLs had much worse ratings than the Fiero, as did the GM EV1, which had an aluminum space frame and similar styling to the 1990 Fiero prototypes. The Fiero wasn’t profitable for GM, which is what probably led to less successful space frames in the 90s.

Had GM stuck with making rigid and strong space frames, it could have had a great alternative to airbags.

Another Alternative: Better Seatbelts

A 2016 article at Forbes explores other alternatives to airbags. The alternatives are almost all seat belts.

Air bags were partially adopted because so many people don’t wear seat belts, and their designs could be better if nobody skipped out on wearing them. One expert told the writer that airbags would cause far fewer inflation injuries if they could optimize them around seatbelt use. Having less intense bags that go off during less intense crashes would make a major difference.

Another alternative is inflating seatbelts. Instead of inflating a big bag in front of people or beside them, the belts themselves could be made to cushion people better during the impact and keep them from hitting things. Once again, though, regulators won’t let them optimize safety equipment for seat belt use, requiring active systems that can work for the morons who don’t strap themselves into vehicles.

Finally, there are better seatbelt systems that people would probably refuse to use. 4- and 5-point harnesses are known to protect people very well in racing, and would do the same in passenger vehicles. Manufacturers and regulators aren’t interested in doing this because they think people wouldn’t use them, effectively allowing the worst people in society to hurt everyone’s safety.

This brings us back to the “Safety Third” concept. We’re so busy removing personal responsibility from the equation that we aren’t even considering good alternatives or supplements to the “Safety First” status quo. That’s a real shame.

A Third Alternative: Prevent Crashes From Even Happening

Automakers are now starting to implement systems that can prevent collisions from happening at all. Automatic emergency braking is a big one now, but we’re starting to see more advanced safety technologies go into vehicles. This will eventually culminate in autonomous vehicles that will self-select many of the worst drivers off the road entirely.

While the time is probably a long way off, if accidents become extremely rare we may see a day when many vehicles stop including so many crash safety systems.

How Things Could Have Gone Differently

I know this is speculative fiction, but let’s look at some “alternative history” that could have happened. What if instead of requiring airbags, regulators had said that automakers must achieve a 5-star rating on every vehicle sold and left the means of getting there up to automakers?

GM might have decided to go all in on space frames, resulting in excellent crash tests through the 90s while airbag technology continued to be researched. For those vehicles, deaths from airbags would have been avoided while the lives would have still been saved. Keeping this technology might have led to later vehicles with both space frames and airbags after 2000, leading to vehicles as safe as those our timeline would experience by 2030.

Other automakers would have probably experimented with other technologies from the racetrack, like racing-inspired seats and 4- or 5-point seatbelts. Inflating seatbelts, improved seats, and even primitive ADAS systems might have also been developed to get better ratings without rushing airbags into production and killing women and children.

Without all the pressure to make airbags for every vehicle, Takata might not have outsourced production to a poorly-run Mexican supplier, instead working with better suppliers for the fewer vehicles they’d have been putting airbags into.

This alternative timeline would have required regulators to factor in more personal responsibility both for drivers and for manufacturers and less micromanagement in the form of mandated technologies.

In the last part of this series, I’m going to discuss another sacred belief in The Church of Automotive Safety: speed limits. Also, I’ll discuss better regulatory philosophies that The Reformed Church of Scientific Automotive Safety might consider. Read it here: “The Church Of Automotive Safety (Part 4).”

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Jennifer Sensiba

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 get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba