Vehicle Design Safety



Safety is really a subset of performance, and crash performance was discussed in the performance chapter, but, considering the numbers of cars travelling at close proximity at high speed in today’s cities, safety is of even greater importance than it has been in the past.


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As technology has developed, many safety items are being added to today’s vehicles that allow far greater survivability than in the past, even with the same types of safety equipment.  Air bags, which used to be an auto industry joke with all their failures, are now allowing people to walk away from accidents that they would have been killed in 30 years ago.  They can save your life now, unless you are one of those who has to taste the steering wheel when you drive.  If you sit with your chest within eight inches of the steering wheel as you drive, the driver’s side air bag will likely hurt you when it deploys.


The auto industry has been slow to add safety items for several reasons, including but not limited to, cost.  In the late 1950s, Ford did not want the public to even think that the car might crash, so they resisted putting seat belts into their cars.  To make their brakes seem better, Ford engineered the front end of their cars to dive dramatically when the brakes were applied.  This caused the car to stop in a far longer distance, but the public was supposed to think that the brakes were better.


Much of the corporate safety thinking was geared to how much car manufacturers had to put into the cars to avoid costly lawsuits.  It was a tradeoff between how much the car would cost to build versus what the company was going to have to pay out in legal claims and lose in bad publicity.  Even though that thinking still goes on, the car manufacturers have been put on notice by the Insurance Institute that their cars will be crash tested, and the tests and findings will be published.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) should, also, be policing the safety aspects, but the politics of who is in office determines their diligence.  Still, safety is now a big topic, and the manufacturers know it.


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With the Ford/Firestone controversy in 2001, many people are starting to again worry about rollovers, so a little about that situation would be in order.  The SUV rollover problem has already been discussed, so is it just as bad with all SUVs?  Well, no.  Ford already knew that their Bronco, and then their Explorer, had rollover problems.  Their fix to the Explorer rollover problem was to lower the tire pressure to 25 psi.  This pressure is lower than the tire manufacturers recommend for safe function of the tires.  What it does is to lower the traction of the tires, so the tire tends to slide rather than gripping and turning the vehicle over.  Whether or not that is a better situation is open for controversy, but it does create a much more serious problem.  When that same vehicle is loaded to the gills for a family cross country trip on a hot summer day, the lower tire pressure causes the tires to get much hotter, causing much higher probability of tire failure problems.  Firestone's original equipment tires, being somewhat less than the best on the market, have been more prone to failure in the first place.  The two factors together were just asking for accidents.  Firestone tires, kept at Firestone’s recommended tire pressure, will probably operate adequately for the life of the tire.  Explorers with other brands of tires kept at Ford’s recommended low pressure will have greater incidence of tire failure problems than normal.  All tall, narrow SUVs will have more rollover problems than cars.

Bottom line:  It is still you in the vehicle.  The manufacturers can make the vehicles only so safe, and no matter how much money you get in a lawsuit, you still endure the consequences of an accident.  In this ridiculous legal environment, it is the manufacturers’ responsibility to ensure that nothing we drivers can do in the operation of a vehicle will hurt us.  They are responsible for notifying us about and correcting not only all defects, but also, all combinations of occurrences that could possibly cause a malfunction in a non-defective vehicle.  But all of that does not matter when we are the ones in the casts and wheelchairs. and have the crash safety performance of different vehicles.  Please read the test results for your specific vehicle.  You will find that although add on passenger restraint equipment is important, the integrity of the vehicle in a crash is of equal importance, and if a vehicle’s gas line tends to break in a crash, the air bags will probably not put out the fire.