Secrets of Highway Safety

Secrets of Highway Safety

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Have you bought a federally regulated gas can lately? The required safety features seem to include the inability to actually get gasoline poured from it. It takes more machinations than an arthritic trying to open the bottle to their pain pills.  We can complain about the government being a nanny state, regulating everything so that nobody gets a booboo or gets offended, but some lives have been saved.

With the exception of the auto manufacturer Volvo (which, on an unrelated note is owned by a Chinese company) which used safety to sell cars, the cost of safety doesn’t pay off in marketing and sales. The Ford Pinto, discontinued in 1980 after massive recalls due to gas tank explosions in rear-end collisions, is a perfect example. Management hero Lee Iacocca insisted that the Pinto weigh less than 2000 pounds and sell for less than $2000.00. The bean counters put the cost of adding safety devices at about ten bucks per car as more than what they would likely pay out in lawsuits. As many as 900 burn deaths were the result, but the car stayed in production until it was replaced by the Ford Escort.

For safety and equity, federal regulations promulgated under the Interstate Commerce clause applied to all manufacturers, thus raising the cost of production for everyone. We take for granted automatic windshield wipers, headrests, and padded dashboards, but all evolved to make surviving a crash more likely. Safety glass was one of the first advancements. Laminated glass that is designed to keep from decapitating drivers with sharp edges may grab a few hairs in its cracked web or leave some L-shaped facial cuts, but the goal is seldom to eliminate injury, just to make them survivable.

Sidelights became mandatory in 1968 to prevent invisibility at night at intersections for the same reason today’s emergency vehicles are lit up like Christmas trees 360 degrees compared to the little flashing roof lights. The huge, gaudy hood ornaments that sat majestically on vehicles of old became smaller and on a spring to avoid impaling unlucky pedestrians. Folding mirrors and recessed door handles offer the same protections, beyond being sleek and aerodynamic. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole added rear deck brake lights to help prevent collisions during traffic jams where cars are so close that the regular rear lights are hidden from view.

Although the seat belt was patented in 1885 (curiously a year before Carl Benz applied for the first patent on a gasoline powered car) it was 1953 when medical professionals advocated seat belts. Race car drivers were required to wear them by 1954 by the predecessor to NASCAR. All states required lap belts to be installed for driver and front seat passengers by 1965. 1966 saw the creation of the National Highway Safety Administration which mandated the three-point safety belt beginning in 1974. By 1995 all but one state had laws requiring seat belt use with a current compliance of 88% of all drivers. Front airbags were mandated in 1998.

While libertarians object to seat belt laws, especially those that allow police to stop cars for that violation alone, seat belts not only increase the chances of survival, they help the driver maintain control of their vehicle as well. Hardly anyone could object to the use of child safety seats and restraints, even parents who have wrestled their 2-year-olds into one.

Invisible features like collapsing steering wheels, padded dashboards, and crush zones may not reduce crashes but do reduce the severity of driver and passenger injury. For those wondering why so much front-end damage happens in even relatively slow crashes compared to the tank-like cars our ancestors drove in the 50s, the car’s structure is doing what it was designed to do by using up the kinetic energy before it gets to flesh and blood behind the wheel.

The roadways themselves are increasingly built for safety from the reflective lane markings to the breakaway signposts. The interstate system, created by President Eisenhower based on his experience as a young Army officer trying to move convoys across the country, is designed to limit the variance in speed and direction of traffic to reduce conflict which causes crashes. The ability to move troops is why defense spending includes subsidies of our highways, railways, and airways.

The rumbles, beeps, and warning lights in today’s vehicles to let us know when we are driving out of bounds are annoying to this old road warrior. Nevertheless, it was is quite an improvement over my mother’s forearm across my chest when she hit the brakes to avoid my forehead hitting the metal dashboard while I stood in the front seat in the good ol’ days.