The “Safe” Car

Many people want what is styled as a “safe” car. The government panders to this fear by implying that any car that does not comply with the latest “safety” standards (which raise the price of the car, adds weight, and needs more fuel to operate) is not “safe.”

Logically, this means every car made before the latest round of “safety” standards is not “safe” since it does not comply with the very latest “safety” standards. They would also, for that reason, be illegal to sell today.

But what does “unsafe” mean?

In general usage, it is taken as being synonymous with dangerous. Does it mean a given car is unstable? More likely to crash because of a design flaw that causes it to handle or react erratically? In that case, the car can accurately be described as dangerous—as “unsafe.”

Credit: RL GNZLZ

But very few such cars have ever been made. Poorly made ones, indeed. But even notoriously “unsafe” cars like the first-generation Corvair and the Ford Explorer of the ’90s were only unsafe if their drivers made them so by not maintaining correct tire pressure and then driving them recklessly.

When most people talk about “safety,” and whenever government bureaucrats and politicians use the word, they mean a car’s compliance or not with the latest (and all previous) “safety” standards, including those intended to band-aid reckless/inattentive/ incompetent driving.

This is a qualitatively different thing.

The standards are about crashworthiness, i.e., a given car’s ability to lessen or prevent injury to its occupants in the event of a crash. This begs a question worth asking about crashes and what it means in terms of “safety” if a crash doesn’t happen.

Consider two extremes on the spectrum in terms of their crashworthiness and so their “safety.”

Credit: Gold Pony

On the one hand, a full-sized (and brand-new, compliant with every current “safety” standard) pick-up truck like the 2021 Ford F-150. It is enormous and hulking and very “safe” indeed if you wreck.

On the other hand, a small car like the 1974 VW Beetle, which I drove every day for many years during college and afterward, complied with none of the currently-in-force “safety” standards. For that reason, it cannot be purchased new today.

Credit: Spanish Coches

Obviously, the VW would not have protected me as well as the new Ford if I crashed it. But does that mean the Beetle was “unsafe” to drive? If it was, how come I was never injured in it despite having driven it every day, for many years? If it was “unsafe” to drive the car (and by the standard of government-speak, it was), I should have been injured at some point.

But the car wasn’t unstable, i.e., prone to crash, so it didn’t. I was competent, too, which helped. It was just as safe to drive in terms of my not being injured as the new F-150 as long as I drove it attentively and competently and thereby avoided crashing it.

There may have been a higher abstract risk of potential injury or even death in the event of a crash involving the VW. Still, these are hypotheticals, while the fact is the car was no more dangerous to drive than the new Ford I test drove recently since I walked away without a scratch after driving both of them.

My old VW was also “safer” in terms of its ability to protect occupants in the event of a crash than a brand-new motorcycle.

Yet it is still perfectly legal to buy an “unsafe” motorcycle without things like airbags and back-up cameras, etc. (i.e., one that does not comply with all the “safety” standards applicable to cars and which, therefore, is by definition “unsafe.”)

Some will say it’s apples and oranges, but not if the standard for “safety” is defined as complying with the various government standards regarding occupant protection in the event of a crash.

You either is, or you isn’t.

Credit: Meriden.triumph

So why are motorcycles allowed to be sold without airbags and so on while it is not allowed to sell a fundamentally safer (i.e., more crashworthy) new car without them?

The answer, of course, is that motorcycles predate the government’s somehow-found power to mandate car “safety” and, unlike cars, cannot be made to comply with the various “safety” standards and still be motorcycles. It would be necessary to enclose them, for instance, at which point they would be cars. For the moment, there is too much likely resistance to making motorcycles “safe” like cars.

Regardless, this “safety” business as defined by the government isn’t an actual but a possible. And to a very great extent, an avoidable.

The possibility of crashing and thus, of being injured or killed can be reduced to a very acceptable level no matter what you’re driving (or riding) by attentive and skillful driving and riding.

The proof of which lies in the fact that millions of other people also drove cars like the old Beetle I once drove without ever being injured as a result. Millions of people are driving around right now in older cars and brand-new motorcycles that are “unsafe” in the regulatory-speak sense as they do not “comply” with the latest “safety” standards.

But it does not mean they are unsafe. It only means they are not compliant.

The cost of “safety,” on the other hand, is unavoidable.

It can be measured in monetary and other terms, such as the loss of freedom of choice, including the choices involved in weighing risk vs. reward.

You must pay for every “safety” standard imposed by the government on new cars, which comes at the cost of your freedom to drive a less expensive, simpler, lighter, and so much more fuel-efficient car, among other things.

Things that benefit you in real ways every day instead of the possible benefit of a “safer” car that’s no more dangerous to drive than my old Beetle.

So long as you avoid crashing it.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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