Three Cheers for Car Occupant Safety

Thursday, September 15, 2022

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the independent nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) (founded in 1959), engineers conducted and filmed a head-on offset crash between a 1959 Chevy Bel Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu. It's an old article and an old video, but they're worthwhile examples of the marvels of technology well applied to the problem of human flourishing:

Watching the modern Malibu, the hood area deforms significantly but the passenger area looks almost entirely intact. Shift your eyes over to the 1959 Chevy and it's the stuff of old highway-safety and shock-and-scare films, just melodrama and implied gore. There's plenty of car gore though, with the Bel Air's steering column slammed forward into the driver, the A-pillar completely mangled, and the dash pushed back to finish the punch. Trim pieces fly, shards of non-safety-glass fly forward, and ... well, that's probably enough of a spoiler.

In case there's any doubt based on the description above, according to safety engineers at the scene, the driver of the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu would likely have suffered slight knee injury. The driver of the 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air would have died instantly. [bold added]
This video is special to me for a couple of reasons. First, as someone who is quick to complain about misapplied "shiny-button" technology -- like plasma screens -- on newer cars, it does me good to see that cars have overall improved greatly over time.

Second, and much more important, the video reminds me of how grateful I was to have survived my own real-life experience with lots of this technology: About four years ago, I was rear-ended at highway speed while stopped at an intersection. I was driving my two young children home from daycare and kindergarten on the evening of my wife's birthday.

My car was totaled, but my children and I all survived without injury, save for bruising caused by a restraint on my daughter's car seat. I was in awe of the technology that sprang into play then and I am today.

And I remain grateful: It is likely that I have two healthy, whole children and am alive to help raise them today thanks to the dedication and hard work of the good people at the IIHS.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

My father was a fire fighter (now retired). One of his last runs was an accident that involved a semi truck hitting a car head-on at 55 mph, and a few other cars slamming into the resultant wreck. The saddle tanks on the semi ruptured and the fuel caught fire. Astoundingly, everyone involved walked away with minor injuries--some bruises from seatbelts, a few minor abrasions, and the like. He told me that going to the scene he expected everyone to be dead; even ten years ago no one would have survived. Now? The worst injury was a minor scrape that occurred while they were walking away from the car. Modern safety systems in cars are truly a remarkable triumph of engineering.

They are also a triumph of values. Modern safety systems work by sacrificing the car to save the occupants. This means that cars are totaled in smaller wrecks than previous cars. But it also means human lives are preserved. Lives are, rationally, more important than cars. Applying that logic consistently, however, is not always easy. It takes real courage to say "I don't care how the damn car looks, I want the driver to stay alive" and stick to it during the design process!

Gus Van Horn said...

Great story. Thanks!

Yes, these safety innovations are triumphs of engineering and, I suspect, of capitalism.

I have not delved into this yet, but the nonprofit that celebrated 50 years with that video appears to have been created by the insurance companies -- who doubtless would rather pay out for a car than a human life.