Have you ever stopped to consider exactly how safe your vehicle is? Should you be driving that classic car every day to work or save it for the car show? Should you keep “Old Faithful” or spend money on something newer? Is your old car a safe ride for yourself, your teen and the people around you?
These are all good questions to ask yourself, considering that car crashes occur, on average, about 11 times per second. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports, despite significant advances in automotive safety technology, more than 30,000 people are killed annually, a number that has risen in recent years. No matter how experienced you are or how well you care for your car, you are still quite likely to get into a car crash at the mercy of an unpredictable road.
What Causes Car Crashes?
Crash statistics are telling. More than 95 percent of car crashes are caused by human error, such as being distracted, driving drunk, speeding, acting recklessly, ignoring traffic signals or following too closely. The other accidents are caused by equipment failure, unpredictable weather, animal crossings, and road hazards, such as debris and potholes. Unfortunately, many of these also boil down to human error. Lack of maintenance can lead to tire blowouts, poor traction, or brake failure, and driving too fast or following too closely may not leave enough time or room to react to animal crossings or road hazards.
Still, no matter how conscientiously you care for your vehicle and how carefully you drive, you’re still at the mercy of other inexperienced and reckless drivers, which again brings up the concern of exactly how safe your old car really is. In the event of a crash, how likely would you walk away from it?
What Makes Car Crashes Survivable?
Out of about 6 million crashes that occur on the nation’s highways every year, about 50 percent result in injury, and 0.5 percent are fatal. New vehicle construction techniques and safety systems make today’s vehicles far more crashworthy than their predecessors. Some of these you may have heard of, and in a catastrophic moment can maintain life and well-being, and possibly prevent a crash in the first place.
Surprisingly, seat belts were only optional equipment in the late 1940s, didn’t become a common standard until the late 1950s, and weren’t mandatory until the late 1960s. Primarily, they keep drivers and passengers inside the vehicle in the event of a crash. On later vehicles equipped with airbags, they keep occupants properly positioned for maximum airbag effectiveness.
Conceived in the 1950s, airbags eventually were mandated by the late 1980s. In conjunction with seat belts, airbags are designed to prevent high-impact contact with the steering wheel, dashboard and windshield. Modern vehicles include airbags that prevent contact with the pillars and even cover the windows.
One might think brute strength is what makes vehicle construction safe, but it’s really controlled flexibility that makes modern cars crumple in just the right places, absorbing and dispersing energy instead of transmitting it directly to the occupants. Crumple zones at the front and rear absorb crash energy, as well as direct it around the more-rigid “safety cell.”
Working closely with crumple zones, the safety cell is built of high-strength materials to prevent collapse during a crash. Crash energy is directed around it instead of through it, while it is absorbed in the crumple zones. At the same time, the airbags and seat belts absorb the momentum of occupants within the safety cell.
Active Safety Systems
Numerous safety systems have been developed over the years, most designed to prevent crashes in the first place. Anti-lock brakes (ABS), adaptive cruise control and electronic stability control (ESC) are just a few of these. Active and passive safety systems work together to keep drivers alert, in the right lane, away from other vehicles and can mitigate or avoid crashes altogether.
Given that there are so many more cars on the road today than 60 years ago, it’s nice to see that the number of deaths per mile traveled is steadily dropping. Statistics, though, don’t favor the individual, and sticking with your old car just might make you a statistic. How might you benefit from an upgrade?
Don’t Get Left Behind
Fortunately, much of this safety development has not come at the expense of human lives, but millions of dollars in destructive vehicle tests during the past six decades. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was established in 1959 to test exactly how safe vehicles are being made, and statistics have improved by leaps and bounds since then.
In one particularly telling video, the IIHS pitted a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air against a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu in one of its most destructive crash tests. The moderate overlap frontal crash reproduces the typical circumstances of a type of crash that is unfortunately common enough to warrant investigation. Many modern vehicles, if they can’t evade or mitigate the crash, pass this test by protecting the occupant crash test dummies from injuries, and, possibly, death. Older vehicles without active and passive safety systems, reinforced safety cell construction and engineered crumple zones, fail miserably.
This image shows the interior space in the middle of the impact, the Malibu on the left and the Bel Air on the right. As you can see on the left, the crash has barely impacted the cabin, while the airbag and seat belt keep the driver from slamming into the steering wheel or windshield. On the other hand, the cabin of the Bel Air has completely folded, forcing the steering wheel into the driver, while the lack of seatbelts and airbags leaves the driver to face the full brunt of impact forces.
It’s true, they just don’t build them like they used to, and there are likely tens of thousands of drivers and passengers have their lives because of such advances. If you’re driving around an old car, whether it’s 10 years old or 50 years old, take the time to consider that it might be worth your safety to upgrade to a newer vehicle. This doesn’t mean you have to buy the absolute latest vehicle, though, as plenty of used vehicles score well in crash test ratings. Save that classic for a car show!