Just last week the Insurance Institute for Highway released its report on crash tests of small SUV’s to a lot of news coverage because only two of the thirteen vehicles tested performed well. As it turns out, this was sort of a “the glass is half empty” story because the shortcomings referred specifically to a new test called the “small overlap” crash test. Small overlap crashes are the type you might encounter when a driver in an oncoming car drifts across the centerline and hits your car on one-quarter or less of the front. These are dangerous crashes that account for many of today’s auto crash deaths. Not counting this single test, the small SUV class appears to be doing pretty well and there are 13 Top Safety picks in the class as a whole.
If you are interested in how your car fares in the IIHS safety picks, you can follow this link to their website and find out.
The story really highlights more than the SUV story; it helps illustrate how far we have come in auto safety over the century or so we have had the automobile. For example, prior to 1912 when Cadillac introduced the electric starter, just starting a car was fraught with danger. Hand cranking a car with uncertain timing could result in a backfire with a kick to the hand crank significant enough to break the wrist or forearm. The condition was common enough to have earned the label “Chauffeur’s Fracture or “Backfire Fracture”. General Motors began crash testing cars in the early 1930’s and over the years successive car makers have introduced technologies that have made auto travel safer.
From 1950 to today, auto fatalities and injuries, measured as fatalities or injuries per hundred million miles traveled, have declined steadily. By 2009 motor-vehicle-related fatalities had fallen to an all-time low of only 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled nationally; Washington State had already bettered that number by 2006.
Major advances have included safety belts, crumple zones, electronic stability control and other structural advances to protect passengers, but many incremental advances have changed the safety landscape of autos and equally importantly have had an impact that goes beyond the car and its passengers to protect those on the road around it. These include advances like ABS braking systems, backup cameras and improved lighting systems. What lies in front of us includes the design advances that are virtually certain to come as a result of testing like that done by the IIHS and the advances being built in by auto makers as they compete to add safety related features to new cars. For long time drivers, some of these foreseeable advances seem almost like Star Wars.
Consumer Reports recently published an article that focused on planned, expected or in some cases available safety improvements. Among these are systems that warn the driver of impending collisions. Some are just proximity warning systems that can alert drivers about an impending crash; others can charge the brakes and air bags, close windows and activate safety-belt pretensioners. One advanced system can detect pedestrians and animals on the road as well as other vehicles. Another is a Lane-departure warning system that detects when a driver leaves their lane and blind spot and 360 degree vision systems that help alert drivers to those around them. There are also important vehicle handling advances on the way as well. Traction control systems help two-wheel-drive vehicles in slippery conditions in a manner analogous to 4 wheel drive traction control technology; roll sensors help stability control systems and determine if the vehicle is tipping up on two wheels. If the system detects an impending rollover, it can apply braking to suppress the roll motion and deploy air bags to protect occupants from impact or prevent their being ejected from the vehicle.
We have come a long way in auto safety in a relatively short time and with so many systems now aimed at prevention of accident and injury we are getting much better at managing the risks associated with auto vehicles.