It’s that time of year again when the annual road toll will be announced on the news every night, and emergency services will plead with drivers to take more caution on the roads.
Buckle up. Slow down. Don’t drink and drive.
Despite the fact that the Australian road toll has been declining over the last three decades, the police have good reason for this advice. A report which looked at fatalities and injury rates in 21 countries found that speeding, seatbelt-wearing rates, and alcohol were all important factors that contribute to car accidents around the world.
While, lowering speed limits and blood alcohol limits are effective in saving lives, the humble seatbelt is one of many safety features that have made cars safer than ever before. Experts claim that the decline in the number of road fatalities isn’t because we’re becoming better drivers, and instead attribute the lower road toll to the safety features in today’s cars.
Before the 1940’s, cars had hardly any safety devices. Speed and reliability were the main criteria that buyers looked for in a car, so manufacturers didn’t invest much in safety features. Early steering wheels were made of wood, and would often splinter and spear the driver in a crash. Until the 1960’s, dashboards were made of steel so head injuries were common in car accidents. Without steel-belted tyres, a blowout could be catastrophic. Glass shards were another danger in an accident before manufacturers started using safety glass. Even the development of the rear view mirror wasn’t developed by early car manufacturers but by an Indianapolis 500 driver in 1911.
Without a doubt, the advertising of crash scores and strong consumer demand for safer cars has encouraged the industry to make car safety a priority. But how are modern cars safer?
Seatbelt – The seatbelt has probably saved more lives than any other device, especially since it became mandatory. Seatbelts are designed to keep you inside the vehicle, and reduce the risk that you will collide with the steering wheel, dashboard or windscreen. Newer seatbelts feature pretensioners and energy management systems. Pretensioners are designed to tighten the seatbelt almost immediately in the event of an accident. However, pretensioners are not strong enough to pull you back into your seat in the event of an impact, so always fit your seatbelt as tightly as possible. Energy management systems, such as load limiters and “tear stitching” in the seatbelt webbing, allow seatbelts to extend gradually to prevent all the force from being concentrated on the chest.
Lap/shoulder belts – These are significantly safer than the older style lap-only belts. Despite this, many manufacturers continued to place lap belts in the middle of the rear seat. Because children are often placed in the rear centre seat, lap/shoulder belts throughout the car can mean the difference between a car getting a top safety rating and a mediocre one.
Head restraints – Head restraints aren’t just for comfort. They are designed to limit head movement during a rear impact crash. Head restraints on front seats have specific size and strength requirements. Most head restraints need to be manually adjusted, but restraints that adjust dynamically in the event of an accident offer the best protection.
Airbag – The idea of an airbag had been around since the 1950’s, but wasn’t introduced until the 1990’s. First adopted by Mercedes Benz and Ford, and now in most production cars, this safety measure has continued to develop to include airbags around the car. These can now protect the driver and passengers from different angles.
Depending on the speed of impact, front airbags are designed to prevent passengers from hitting the dashboard, steering wheel and windscreen. Side airbags are designed to prevent passengers from hitting doors and to protect them from objects coming through the doors.
Airbags do not replace seatbelts. In fact, airbag deployment can increase your risk of injury if you are not wearing a seatbelt. For the best protection, buckle your seatbelt and keep about 10 inches between the airbag and your breastbone while driving. Children under the age of 12 are often too small to sit safely in the front seat where airbags are installed, so they should sit in the back. Never install a rear-facing child seat in the front seat unless the airbag has been switched off.
Added foam or other energy absorbing material may be fitted under the trim of your vehicle to help protect your head in the event of an accident. Some cars also have head airbags which deploy in the event of a side on collision.
Braking and steering
Braking and maintaining steering control are key factors in avoiding collisions. The first car invented had mechanical linkages to the brakes. These days, we have hydraulics and anti-lock braking systems. Split hydraulic systems developed in the 60’s gave drivers a back-up system if one system failed.
Steering also improved with the new types of linkages. The collapsible steering columns of the 1970’s have since been replaced by airbags, but there are several other innovations which have improved the steering and braking in modern cars.
Antilock braking systems (ABS) – This prevent wheels from locking during panic braking. However, ABS braking doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have a collision. Speeding and extreme steering maneuvers are still risky behaviours.
Vehicles fitted with ABS have the feature on all four wheels. Some vehicles allow you to switch to two wheel ABS so that only the rear wheels have ABS. Brake assist is a feature of some ABS, which detects emergency braking from the speed or force at which the driver hits the pedal. Brake assist activates the ABS faster than cars with regular ABS, which can reduce the stopping distance of your vehicle considerably.
Traction control systems – These systems are most common in vehicles with four-wheel ABS, and they improve the car’s stability by controlling how much the drive wheels can slip when you apply excess power. The system can also control engine output and braking force to selected wheels during acceleration.
All-wheel drive systems – AWD systems maximise traction by distributing power to front and rear wheels. Unless combined with traction control, they do not prevent the drive wheels from slipping if you apply excess power while accelerating.
Electronic stability control – This feature senses when a vehicle is about to oversteer or understeer, and automatically applies a single brake to a single wheel. This feature is designed to help the driver from veering off the road or hitting objects that may initiate a roll over. However, it cannot protect you if you are travelling at a speed which is too great for a curve and the available traction.
Automatic crash notification systems – These notify emergency services that a crash has occurred, and gives them the location of the vehicle.
Lane departure warning – A lane departure warning signals to the driver that they are drifting out of the lane they are travelling in so they can correct their course. If a driver doesn’t respond to a lane departure warning, lane keeping support may be initiated to steer the vehicle back into the lane or applying a small amount of braking.
Forward collision warning – These systems detect the vehicle in front and warn the driver to take evasive action to avoid a collision. Frontal pedestrian impact mitigation braking can alert the driver to an impending impact with a pedestrian, and apply braking to avoid or lessen the impact of a collision.
Rear view cameras - Rear cameras are an additional safety feature which can be inbuilt or added later, and can help prevent drivers from reversing into small children and animals.
Progressive crumpling - This feature is for of the outer panels of cars, and makes it safer for all occupants in an accident. A car’s weight can also be a safety feature. Crash data indicate that you are safer in a heavy vehicle than in a light one, especially if you are involved in a two vehicle crash.
Road design - Road design has also improved. Traffic lights, roundabouts, lower speed limits, and traffic calming infrastructure now encourages drivers to lower their speed in built up areas or areas with known traffic hazards.
So over the holiday period this year, when you’re on the road make sure that your car is equipped with the safety features you need to be safe when driving.