Modern car safety features
While the expression "they don't make them like they used to"connotes a deterioration in quality in products like appliances or tools, this thankfully does not apply to modern cars when it comes to their safety features.
If you look at cars from the 60s or even 70s, even seatbelts were not an item that you regularly saw on production cars, and the interior surfaces were full of edges, shapes and non-cushioning materials that were unforgiving barriers and protrusions to human bodies being flung about inside the car in a crash. Even headrests, which are very effective in preventing whiplash, were non-existent. The BBC's documentary "The Killer Years" reflects the cavalier attitude towards safety then, when even racing cars and venues did not have the basic safety features that are common sense now a days.
Seatbelts are generally credited with being the most effective safety feature being invented in helping to prevent severe injuries and fatalities, with the chance of death in a serious frontal crash being reduced by 50 percent. Volvo is credited with first installing these safety devices in cars in 1959, and Australian states started mandating these devices in the 70s. Once industry and public awareness became focused on car safety however, tremendous strides were made since those days. At this point, car safety is a major selling point, although one will be amused to learn that surveys indicate entertainment systems rank higher with buyers when it comes to choosing which features of a car are important. This is probably due to the fact that safety features are now taken for granted by most buyers and work so effectively as to be effectively transparent in the public eye.
After the seat belt, one aspect of car safety that has constantly been improved with each car generation has been the body structure. Whereas cars of the 50s and 60s were produced with little knowledge of the forces and energies that occur during a crash, modern cars are designed to have crumple zones and survival cells. For this, we have high-speed cameras, computer-aided design and dedicated engineers and institutions to thank. With today's crashes, you will normally see a lot of damage in the front or rear impact zones of a car, but this is intended, because the deformation of the structure has been engineered in such a way as to absorb the energy of the crash, instead of directing it towards the interior of the car and its occupants. Even front-mounted engines are designed to drop beneath the floor of a car in a frontal collision.
The next big developments in car safety were airbags, anti-lock brake systems and tire technologies. Tires today provide levels of grip and puncture resistance that could not be even imagined just a few decades ago. It takes a lot to make a modern tire lose its grip and in a critical scenario, having tires that allow you to brake and steer can mean the difference between life or death. Concurrently, ABS has allowed drivers in a panic mode to steer away from a crash, where locked brakes would have caused a loss of both steering control and grip. Airbags, just like seatbelts, have been proven to drastically reduce death and injury in car crashes. Nearly all cars sold today have front airbags. Side airbags, which also help a lot in side-impact crashes, are not as universally available and tend to be installed only in higher-priced models.
Nowadays, the safety features that you should look for in a car include, aside from seatbelts, ABS and airbags, the following:
1. Tire pressure monitoring systems- alerts drivers to low tire pressure which could lead to loss of control or blowouts.
2. Electronic stability control- uses the ABS system and other sensors to bring impending skids and slides under control by selectively applying the brakes.
3. Lane departure warning systems- alerts inattentive or sleepy drivers when they swerve into other lanes.
4. Rollover prevention - senses severe directional changes like swerving and very fast cornering and use brakes and throttle modulation to help the driver maintain control.
5. Adaptive and side airbags- newer-generation sensor-equipped airbag systems that employ dual-stage deployment strategies as well as determine occupant size , weigh and seating position to reduce the risk of airbag-related injuries.
6. Adaptive headlights- aside from laying down a more powerful and farther-ranging beam, adaptive headlights have the ability to swivel a few degrees left or right to illuminate the road when the driver turns the wheel.
7. Emergency assist- made popular by GM's OnStar, these systems can automatically, or through a single switch or button, call a manned emergency facility for help.
8. Blind-spot systems- use a combination of cameras and radar to help the driver be aware of obstacles or cars coming up on the cars blind spots.
Because selling safety is a big thing nowadays, the buyer must be aware of "safety features" that are really just convenience features. Parking assist and HUD (heads-up display) systems, for example, are nice to have but do not play a critical part in a car's safety features in the way seatbelts, airbags and safety structures do. Cadillac had a rudimentary HUD system a few decades ago but removed the feature because the demographic group that favored Cadillacs grew to be so dependent on their HUDs at night that they conveniently forgot to look out the windshield. Aside from the well-recognized life-saving technologies like seatbelts, ABS and airbags, one should not feel too bad if the car a buyer has in mind does not contain all the safety bells and whistles that the industry provides. In fact, too much reliance on technology can be counter-productive too, as Cadillac's experience has shown. For this reason, another safety feature that is highly recommended but one that you will not see in the showroom is a driving program. Taking a driving course is one of the best investments you can make as a driver. An alert, skilled and rested driver who drives defensively and is aware of his or her surrounding environment at all times can be expected to anticipate potentially hazardous road situations and avoid them.
Please take care on the road.
Further Reading Australian Road Safety - Important History and Statistics