TV Reviews: Horizon and Crash

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The Independent Culture
It seems we have Mr Henry Lindfield to thank for the recent pile- up of programmes about car crashes. In February 1898 he became the first recorded fatality in a road traffic accident. Maybe it would have consoled him to know that in a little under a hundred years' time various producers and executives would look at their lists of anniversaries and say, "What about something on motor safety for first quarter '98?" Naturally with everyone aiming at the same stretch of road, collisions are difficult to avoid; last week an excellent Horizon programme on BBC2 considered the sluggish development of safety features in modern cars. This week it was rear-ended by the first episode of Crash, a three-part Channel 4 series about exactly the same subject and containing much identical material. Once again you saw Murray Mackay, one of Britain's foremost accident investigators, once again you heard the stirring story of Ralph Nader's battle against the Goliaths of the American motor industry, once again you saw the rending gavotte of shattered glass and crumpled metal, and once again you were given a tour of the mutilating repertoire of a Fifties dashboard by a blithe connoisseur of carnal damage.

On the whole the Channel 4 programme came off worse, largely because it came second. Horizon offered a grave concentration on the process of research, including some grim footage of cadaver tests, in which dead bodies were subjected to a variety of collisions with hard surfaces. Early tests on skull strength involved attaching accelerometers to corpses and dropping them down lift shafts. It wasn't all morbid gloom - the programme's hero was Professor Larry Patrick, the original crash test dummy. Needing data on the resilience of living flesh, Professor Patrick volunteered himself, and would go into work in the morning to be assaulted by various Heath-Robinson contraptions which could measure with some precision the resistance of cartilage and ribcage. But despite such moments of slapstick comedy, a sombre tone was never very far away in this film - the programme ended with the revelation that we know much less about how to protect children in crashes because of the understandable reluctance to perform tests on juvenile corpses.

Ironically, as Crash made clear, it was the very same sensitivities that paved the way for the introduction of compulsory seat-belts in this country - the most successful safety device ever. Even the more die-hard libertarians didn't dare oppose a law requiring safety belts for children and when it became clear that deaths had dropped significantly as a result, resistance crumbled. And if Horizon was better on the detailed science of sudden impact, Crash was rather fiercer about the politics of the matter - in particular the profound reluctance of American manufacturers to admit that safety might be their responsibility. David Darlow began his series with a wonderful image - a Chevrolet perched on a pinnacle of rock in Monument Valley. Apparently the wind got up shortly after the helicopter took its fly-by footage and the unfortunate model who had been waving winsomely from the driver's seat was left to sit out the storm in a state of increasing hysteria. As an emblem of the knot of sexual promise, phallic assertion and corporate ruthlessness that characterised America's early love affair with the automobile it could hardly be bettered.

Not all companies came out of the film badly. Volvo, who worked out fairly early that the human body could withstand very sharp decelerations provided it was properly restrained, were the first to develop a three-point safety belt. But despite having a solid patent on the device they allowed everyone to use it for free - in pointed ethical contrast to a notorious Ford document about the Pinto in which an anonymous executive pointed out that it would be more cost-effective to pay compensation for 180 fatalities and 180 mutilations than to re-engineer the car so that it wasn't a Molotov cocktail on wheels. He left only one thing out of his calculations; the rage of the jury who, after seeing this supremely callous piece of paper, gave a badly burned boy $125m in punitive damages.