Are cars today safer than in the 1950's?

My GF got on this discussion while driving her Civic Hybrid. Her statement is that cars are not as safe today because they are smaller and built to such high-strength, and because of this have to implement multiple air-bags and other safety items.

My defense is that if the car was made of one solid structure, the force of the impact would go directly to the occupant…, and that’s bad. Current cars essentially shatter, spreading the force into kinetic energy away from the occupant. Is the crush zone there because most of the cars today aren’t as big as before? Or made as strong?

It’s a strange argument in that there are some twists. Did the safety devices of today (air-bags, crush zones, seat belts) come from people asking for more safety, or are they the result of cars getting smaller and less able to survive an impact?

…you could go head on in a '55 chevy with any passenger car made today and come out better off, if this is what you mean…

all cars would be ‘safer’ with modern safety equiptment ie. air bags, seatbelts, abs brakes, impact absorbing bumers, crush zones, steel passenger cages, etc.

most of those safety requirements are because of the work of consumer advocates lobbying congress to pass legislation. Ralph Nader is probably the most famous of these people. other lobbyists like insurance companies fight to make cars safer - which saves them $$.

crush zones are there to ‘absorb’ the energy of an impact and use that energy to crush parts of the car to protect the occupants, which are usually in a steel cage. without crush zones it was more common to see steering columns and engine components thrust into the passenger cabins.

FYI, Seat belts were not required by law until 1968: Seat belt - Wikipedia

Statistically cars are safer now than ever before, but cars get destroyed a lot more easily. We’re just sacrificing cars instead of humans.

Cars used to be built like tanks and could take some serious hits and keep on going. All the energy of a collision would just be transferred to the occupants though. “Crumple zones” were developed to cope with that and then air bags after that. Safety glass has replaced plate glass. Shoulder belts replaced lap belts, and lap belts had replaced supposedly “padded dash boards.” Even seats are designed to hold your ass in place now, while before you could slide all around on a bench seat.

There are also all of those things that help avoid accidents in the first place such as anti-lock brakes, traction control, speed-sensitive steering, etc.

Econo-boxes are still death traps. If you want safety don’t drive a frigin’ GEO. You want ultimate safety out of something other than an SUV? Retrofit a 58 El Dorado with all the safety gear I’ve mentioned. :slight_smile:

Take F1 race cars for example. With crashed at such speed and force, drivers usually just get s shock of their life time, but in the past, the car will be much less damaged and the survival rate for the drivers is significantly lower.

In the past we used to believe that the car protects us by protecting itself. We saw car as the body armor. Now we see it as the sponge.

There’s one more way to protect yourself in a collision… be fit, strong and healthy. Heavy people with little muscle tone will be less likely to survive an impact, even when belted in and the headrests set properly.


Good point.
Physically fit people are less likely to sustain injury in any situation. And even when they are injured they tend to recover more quickly.

Cars have gotten safer, but your average American has gotten fatter…so perhaps it’s been a bit of give and take. :slight_smile:

There is also an unwritten assumption in this discussion, ie that car safety applies only to those inside the car. I have never worked in the car industry so cannot be certain, but it seems to me car designers rarely take account of the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists etc.

Even when you account for the fact that there are more vehicles on the road, as a non-car user you are more likely than ever to be involved in an accident, and your injuries are more likely to be fatal. There are a number of reasons:

Speed - outside of congested rush hours, driver’s average speeds are higher, causing more accidents and causing more severe injuries

Distraction - cd players, mobile phones, gps systems etc all cause a driver to pay less attention than he/she would otherwise

‘Cocooning’ - old cars were noisy, drafty and shaky, especially at speed. Todays cars by comparison are insulated bubbles which isolate the driver from the car’s exterior

Legislation - there have been studies in Europe which show that drivers who wear seatbelts drive faster (apparently because they feel safer)

Design - for example, SUV’s fitted with bull bars will kill pedestrians in an accident more often than those without, and are more likely to run over people when reversing

I realise this isn’t strictly what the original poster was discussing, however I think it’s interesting to consider how widely we as designers should consider the usage of our products. Is a cyclist run over by a car a ‘user’ of that product, or can the cyclists needs be disregarded?

Hey, great points guest1.

In Europe, new legislation is forcing automakers to consider pedestrian safety. Some of this filtering over to the states. I can’t tell you why, but higher hoods help to keep pedestrians heads intact.

I think that cars feel way to safe at speed. When I drove my '74 914 on a daily basis, I learned to appreciate speed. At 65 on the highway the light front end, carefully shaped like a wing, would make the steering incredibly light. It’s at times like that you learn you are never 100% in control on the highway.

Lastly, I think everyone can learn from Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed”. It is absolutely amazing how little thought was put into safety in cars. The most shocking part for me was the x-ray of a woman killed in a relatively low speed accident. She was killed instantly when a knob from the radio went right into her head like a bullet. Even with crumple zones, old cars would still be death-traps.

There’s always Bush and his backyard full of oil to safe the day.