How “Safety” Standards Make Your New Car Less Actually Safe

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

The government enacts laws — or issues regulatory fatwas — requiring that new cars comply with various “safety” standards. Ironically, the result of these standards — in terms of vehicle design and otherwise — may just be cars that are less safe to actually drive.

For example, you may have noticed that the beltline (door height) of the typical new car is higher up than was typical in the past. This makes it feel as though you’re sitting lower in the car, as you’re surrounded by a bathtub of steel. (No more resting your arm on the top of the door as you drive with the window rolled down.) Beltlines are higher to meet increasingly stringent side impact standards. But for every action, there is a reaction.

First, there’s aesthetics:

To maintain reasonable overall proportions, the designers abbreviate the vehicle’s side glass height to make up for the higher doors — and rake the front and rear glass. You get a “chopped” look. (Otherwise, the vehicle would look overtall.) But reduced glass area means decreased visibility — and this along with the now-commonplace steeply raked glass (in particular, the rear glass) results in a diminished view that’s also frequently distorted on top of that.

You can’t see as much — and what you do see isn’t seen as clearly.

Another factor impinging negatively on visibility is the growing thickness of the car’s A, B and C pillars (roof crush standards — as well as making room for side-impact air bags) in addition to taller/thicker seat headrests (whiplash). In several new (2013) cars I’ve driven recently, it is very hard to see cross traffic coming at you from either side — making it much more dangerous to enter a busy intersection. Blind spots are larger, too — requiring more situational awareness of drivers — who are not infrequently more aware of their sail fawns than what’s going on around them as they drive.

You have to drive an older car to get a sense of how much has changed. The other day, I went for a ride in my friend’s ’63 Buick Special sedan. You felt like you were in a greenhouse. Excellent visibility all around. They used to make “pillarless” sedans — no B pillar at all — so when you rolled down the front and rear side glass, the entire area was completely open. Not anymore. It’s illegal.

Apparently being able to see is less important (to the government) than what happens when you roll the car – even though you are far less likely to roll the car if you can see.

Unfortunately, we consumers aren’t permitted to decide for ourselves what’s most important — even though it’s our lives at stake. Even though it’s our money being spent.

The government has tacitly admitted there’s a problem — caused by itself — by demanding that all new cars be equipped with closed-circuit TV systems (back-up cameras) for the simple reason that it’s increasingly difficult to see what’s behind you when you’re backing up a new (government-approved) “safety” vehicle. But that Band-Aid causes its own slew of problems, including limited peripheral view and a distorted view relative to what a functioning human eye connected to an operating human brain would otherwise perceive. It is much harder (if not impossible) to see a kid on a bike coming down the sidewalk into the path of the backing-up car — because the camera has a limited field of vision. It can’t “see” the kid until the kid is within its narrow field of vision. By which time, it is already too late. Drivers who rely on the camera rather than their own two eyes may end up having a very tragic morning some day.

A lower beltline — and larger rear glass — would arguably be a lot safer. It would certainly cost less (back-up cameras are expected to add at least a couple hundred dollars to the purchase price of a new car, as well as increased down-the-road maintenance costs since the systems will have to remain in operational condition — as a government required “safety” feature — for the life of the vehicle.)

Here’s another one: Most new cars no longer carry a full-size spare tire. Not as a result of “safety” mandates — but because of pressure to comply with fuel efficiency mandates. A full-size spare is pretty heavy. A mini-spare is half or less the weight. So, what’s the problem? Driving around on three normal-sized tires and one skinny minny often results in a very evil-handling (and braking) car. Most new cars come with pretty aggressive wheel/tire packages. Seventeen and eighteen inches being pretty much the norm — along with at least 60-something series tires. You hit a roofing nail and one goes down. You put on the mini — which might be literally half or less the width of the normal tire and with a completely different (temporary use only — it says so right there on the sidewall) tread pattern/design. You have to be extra careful — and hope it’s not necessary to brake suddenly or swerve. Because if you do, the car will probably react weirdly. If you’re not ready for it, you might end up in the ditch.

But, your car got one-tenth of an MPG better gas mileage.

Thank Uncle for that as you wait for the wrecker.


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3 Responses to “How “Safety” Standards Make Your New Car Less Actually Safe”

  1. art wegweiser says:

    Well, I guess I have a death wish and perhaps not unlike the self destructive voters for the smirking slime sack Romney and Ayn Rand nutcase Ryan. I would be pleased if those ads would not appear when I bring up otherwise good car items.
    I drive a car without B pillars, lots of wonderful glass, low door sills and no air bags.
    1972 BMW 3.0 CSi and no stupid wing on the tail, another distraction to the rear.
    But I did take several real driving schools on tracks – not racing, just for good driving and that has saved by aging butt more than once.
    I might ask "uncle" to require truck type beeping squealers on those silent electric things. More than once I had to avoid being hit in a parking lot by the jerk driving the thing.

  2. Stephen Leonard says:

    I've been increasingly frustrated by these incremental changes as I've gone back and forth from the 1995 BMW 325 I'll hang on to until it falls apart to a variety of rental cars as I travel. Chrysler's implementation of all these "safety" fatwas seems to be the worst; the Japanese and Koreans have managed to make cars that you can still sort of see out of, but in none of them do I feel as safe and aware as in my 18-year-old Beamer. I'm 6'1" and I can barely see to back up in a new "safe" car; anyone shorter will need to use Braille. When the time comes to buy a new car, I'll probably cut the headrest off the driver's seat if I can't find some way to trim it or replace it with one that doesn't make backing up unacceptably dangerous.

    Of course, this whole discussion is a fine metaphor for the endless bureaucratic impulse to try to "fix" things, even if it makes them vastly more expensive and less useful.

  3. KC Green says:

    The first part (door height) of this two-part article really touched a nerve. The second part – small spare tires – doesn't bother me, since their use is temporary (and they save space). But the door height is PERMANENT. You're ALWAYS gonna have to deal with it.

    I drive a 1995 Buick Regal with 180K miles and I am the original owner. I've taken good care of it and it still drives great, but the paint is peeling and the headliner sags, amid a host of other non-critical annoyances… so I'd like to buy a new car.

    Recently, my neighbor asked me what kind of new car I was looking at. I told him, "Whatever vehicle allows me to COMFORTABLY rest my LEFT elbow on the window sill." That's not a problem with my current car. It IS a problem with new cars.

    A few years ago, I was looking at buying a new Toyota Avalon. It was highly-rated by Consumer Reports and looked stylish… so I made a trip to the local dealer. I didn't even have to test-drive to realize this WAS NOT the car for me. As soon as I sat down, I realized a HIGH NARROW window sill that would be a constant detriment to my comfort. Adding to my seating discomfort was the poor sight line – at the right rear of the car – due to a wide roof pillar.

    I often rent cars in the out-of-state work I do. Discomfort and poor visibility make me cringe. In addition to wide pillars, REAR head restraints are another sight-obstructor. Routinely, I'd be able to simply remove the head restraint and store it in the trunk. But two common rental vehicles – the Ford Fusion and Chevy Impala – now make them NON-removable (The Impala's are actually SEWN into the rear seat!).

    Needless to say, when I get back home, driving my 17-yo Regal is such a relief (like removing a tight pair of shoes)… although the cassette player doesn't work anymore.