Safety Winners – And Losers

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Government is always a zero-sum game. There are winners — and losers.

It is said — that is, we are told — air bags “save lives.” Well, yes. They do save some lives. Other lives have been lost as a result of air bags, though. You’ve probably seen the news stories recently. But this is not the first time air bags have hurt people. Nor will it likely be the last time.

Government decides who lives — and dies.

Here’s another: Daytime Running Lights (DRLs).

These always-on headlights are now ubiquitous. They have been standard equipment on GM cars for decades (since the early ’90s) and it’s pretty much impossible to buy a new car that doesn’t automatically turn on its headlights even on the brightest summer day — when you need headlights about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. It’s true that in some new cars, you can turn the DRLs off. But they’re default on unless you turn them off.

And most people just leave them on.

Ok, but how does that make the roads less safe? Bear with me a moment.

GM began fitting all its cars with DRLs back in the ’90s as a cost-saving measure. “Safety” might have been the window dressing, but the real reason was dollars and cents — and government force.

GM sells (and builds) a bunch of cars in Canada, where DRLs have been mandatory since 1989 (see here). Someone in the guts of GM’s accounting department realized that it would save the corporation a bunch of money for GM to build all its cars with DRLs rather than build cars bound for the U.S. without them and those slated for sale in Canada with them. And because GM — especially late 1980s/early ’90s GM — was the 800 pound gorilla of the car industry, what GM did others tended to do.

And, they did.

Suzuki, Subaru and Toyota have been DRL’ing it up since about 1995. DRLs have been mandatory in most of Europe since 2011 — which takes care of Audi, VW, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Fiat.

In Sweden — birthplace of the odious Safety Cult — they’ve been required since 1977.

Allegedly, this increases safety by making cars more visible.

But how about motorcycles?

Now that cars run around with their headlights on all the time, it’s a lot harder to see them. Because of visual clutter, washout. And glare.

That’s “unsafe,” wouldn’t you say?

Especially given that bikers are a lot more vulnerable than drivers. An accident involving two cars at 25 MPH is a fender bender. An accident at 25 MPH involving a car and a bike can be a life-ender.

For the biker.

But then, his life is valued less by government, which picks the winners and losers.

If you’re older than 40, you will remember that once upon a time and not so very long ago, it was easy to spot a bike — even at a distance — because the bike had its headlight on. And because cars did not (unless they were part of a funeral procession). In traffic, especially, a bike with its headlight on compensated for the narrower profile and reduced visibility of the cycle.

It made riding safer.

Then along came Uncle. Or rather, whatever cartoonish icon they have in Canada to represent the power of the state. Ditto Europe and Japan.

DRLs haven’t yet been mandated here, but it’s a moot issue given that DRLs are de facto standard equipment (whether you want them or not) because of the government pressure to build DRL-equipped cars for most markets. That pressure ends up with all cars DRL-equipped. I’m pretty sure every new car currently sold in the United State (singular on purpose, in the interests of editorial accuracy) has DRLs. Not because consumers clamored for them. But because governments forced consumers to buy them. Supposedly, to make the roads “safer” … for cars. But bikes got lost in the shuffle.

Who speaks for them?

Like the people killed (and many more badly injured) by air bags, their lives were deemed (to paraphrase another Uncle — Joe Stalin) a “statistic.”

Also — less lethally — the costs involved. DRLs are not free. Which you’ll discover when the array of LED DRLs your new car has burn out. They increase energy usage, too. Your DRL-equipped car burns a bit more gas than it would otherwise, to keep the lights on all the time.

But the main point I’m trying to make here is that DRLs — and air bags — have their pros and their cons. No matter how highly you esteem the pros, it is outrageous to impose the costs on anyone.

Bad enough the market’s been twisted into a Byzantine mishmash of corporate statism and lingering fumes of free choice. But the fact is people are dying as a result.

And the fact that others are “living” doesn’t help the dead much.


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