Motoring: The safest car is never in a crash

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The Independent Online
Car safety is one of the biggest issues exercising the minds of motor industry boffins. It's odd, then, that in some major areas, cars are now less safe than they've ever been. The motor industry, like much of commercial business, tends to be rather single-issue obsessed, depending on the prejudices and social pressures of the moment. If the issue of the day is crash protection, then that is what the industry - egged on by naive legislators and, often equally naive media - must provide. And crash protection, to most drivers and most car makers, means minimising or preventing injury in an accident.

Cars that fail to cushion their occupants in government or motor magazine tests against concrete walls are castigated. Other factors - how nimble is its handling? How good are its brakes? How panoramic is driver visibility? How immune is it to rolling over? - are ignored. Car makers are encouraged to build massively strong structures and pad occupants with airbags. These elements are now more important than building cars designed to avoid accidents.

The two most impressive new cars of 1997 underline my argument. Mercedes- Benz was so obsessed with making the A-class the safest place to be in a crash that it overlooked its ability to avoid an accident. In an extreme slalom test, it has a propensity to tip over. It is not the only modern car inclined to lean excessively. Many new cars are unusually tall - 4x4s, MPVs, some new-breed Japanese tiny tots. In extremis, they would all be more likely to turn over than a normal saloon or coupe. Modern tyres, which offer superb grip, exacerbate the problem. As they grip, rather than sliding, so they're more likely to trip a leaning structure.

The new Volkswagen Golf, an excellent car in so many areas, has a separate safety design fault, also symptomatic of many modern cars. Part of the Golf styling character is its thick rear pillars. They give the car an appearance of solidity and add structural rigidity. And yet it is difficult to see out of the back.

Many rival small cars, keen to increase their own structural strength, have followed the Golf, with equal, visibility-reducing results. The new Citroen Xsara, a likeable, well-priced but disappointingly anodyne car, offers not much more than a porthole-sized rear window. Reversing out of a driveway, and seeing over your shoulder as you merge with traffic, are both difficult. No doubt the beefed-up rear end would withstand impacts well. This is just as well: Xsara drivers may need the protection.

Many other cars are similarly afflicted. Most new cars now offer substantially less rear visibility than a decade ago, all in the aid of strengthening bodies to avoid injury once an accident has happened.

Of course, there have been some big gains in primary safety over the past decade or so. The proliferation of anti-lock brakes and improved tyre design has helped enormously. But, at the same time, cars have become longer, wider, heavier and higher, mostly to give them more body muscle to withstand thumps. As they get bigger, they become unwieldy. One of the safest of all cars is the Lotus Elise. It weighs only half as much as many small family hatches and is the nimblest handling car on the planet. Its brakes, too, are superb. I would not choose to have a big accident in one. On the other hand, you would be at least twice as likely to avoid most accidents in an Elise, as you would in a large estate car, an MPV or - most revealing of all - an off-roader.

And as any boxer will tell you, avoiding a blow is much better than merely cushioning it.