LJK Setright: 'Safety' features can be downright dangerous

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Forty years ago, the American lawyer Ralph Nader was preparing his book Unsafe at Any Speed for publication in 1966.

Forty years ago, the American lawyer Ralph Nader was preparing his book Unsafe at Any Speed for publication in 1966. What began as a vicious criticism of General Motors and its Chevrolet Corvair (a car based on dubious Porsche design philosophy and no less vicious in its aberrations) swiftly grew into a tirade against the entire motor industry. Every manufacturer was portrayed as a callous purveyor of intrinsically dangerous cars.

The US government was delighted. This domestic issue would take minds off Vietnam. The protest grew into a consumerist movement with Nader as its god, and the liberation of purchasers from all responsibility as its aim. The doctrine of absolute liability of manufacturers for any mishap, even if caused by the customer's stupidity, took hold.

Before long, the safety-mongering business was in full swing. The US insurance industry thought to cut its losses on petty collisions by procuring legislation demanding that bumpers should survive a 5mph impact - only to find that an impact at 6mph or more would now prove much more costly. Cars had to be designed so that their occupants might survive being driven into a concrete block at 30mph: long crushable structures were added at nose and tail; and by putting on weight in quite the wrong places, cars became less controllable than before. The car most likely to survive an accident was the car most likely to have one.

The idea that a car competent to avoid an accident might be preferable to the car able to survive one carried no weight. Manufacturers committed to volume sales sought customers - and those customers regarded driving skills as no part of their obligation. It was up to the manufacturers to make their cars "safe". The customers would not even wear safety belts, unless laws requiring them were strenuously enforced.

The demands of safety legislation grew ever stiffer. Crash tests became more varied, more difficult. Airbags were introduced, and spread into the most unlikely places: today, they aretucked into windscreen pillars, thickening them and so reducing the field of view, making the car potentially more dangerous. To protect pedestrians, new regulations call for sloping pillars that have to be thickened for strength, reducing the view even more.

If there has been one worthwhile safety-oriented development, it has been anti-lock braking. Full marks to Bosch, which brought the first ABS (German abbreviation for the system) to market in 1978 - but what happened? BMW and Mercedes-Benz were both scheduled to adopt the system, and had agreed to announce it simultaneously; but Mercedes-Benz jumped the embargo. It showed no trace of remorse: working the safety racket successfully sells cars.

It still does. Today's cars come with festoons of electronic circuitry, contriving to prevent wheelspin, correct skids, stop you wandering out of your lane, discourage you from tailgating, and even to initiate braking.

Already there are plenty of cars available with twice as much horsepower as sufficed to carry Lindbergh to Paris in 1927. Put an unskilled driver into something so powerful, and he may well find himself in difficulties. He will blame the manufacturer, not himself, so into his overpowered car go all these systems which are all subtractive - that is, they work by reducing the car's performance.

The best example of an additive safety system, one that enhances the car's accident-avoidance ability, was the active four-wheel steering of the Honda Prelude. Shallow-brained salesmen did not know how to sell it, so Honda does not make it any more.

Like all the others, it is forced to follow the new fashion for tall vehicles, even though such things are fundamentally less stable. It is this trend that forces me to reckon that our safest cars were those from 10-15 years ago.

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