Ed Wallace

The Danger in Safety Devices


Over the years, many important safety devices have been added to our automobiles; and with a proper realization of what those devices are and what they can and cannot do, driving has gradually become much safer. That said, it’s stunning how many individuals put all their faith in new technology, far beyond those devices’ capabilities.

Case in point, airbags. GM offered them as far back as 1974 in many of its premium vehicles, including the Oldsmobile 98. As I recall it was a $300 option, expensive at the time, but nobody wanted them at any price. Fast forward 14 years, and Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca had no new product for the 1988 model year. And so he hung that year’s ad campaign on a driver’s-side airbag being standard equipment. Those ads were tag-lined, “Sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks” — spinning off Iacocca’s previous position that airbags were not all that safe. Later ads showed a woman holding up an airbag with a perfect lipstick impression on it and claiming it saved her life in an accident. My first thought was how in the world it saved her life without smudging the lipstick imprint in the least.

By the early Nineties, a few customers would come into my office and tell me how the car we had sold them had saved their lives because of the airbag. Typically I’d walk back with them to the body shop to see the level of damage to their vehicles, and inevitably it was a fairly minor accident. Just enough to damage the front end, maybe even bend the radiator; but, because the air bag went off, the customer assumed it had somehow saved his or her life. Advertising had convinced them of that — only it wasn’t true. I’d say, “I’m glad you’re OK; but, looking at the damage to your car, if you didn’t have an airbag, weren’t wearing your seatbelt and had this accident, you’d have opened the door and walked out without a bruise.”

In every one of those cases, though, the vehicle also had anti-lock brakes. That device has probably saved more lives than any other safety device of the past 40 years.

How? If you are of a certain age you will remember driving in the rain with bias ply tires and drum brakes and having to stand on them because of something that happened in front of you. When you locked those brakes up, which most everyone did, the car would turn and slide out of control. Until something immovable stopped its forward or sideways progress. Anti-lock brakes would forever keep that from happening. Even under the hardest braking in the worst conditions, they made losing control of your car nearly impossible. And because of that, even if you did end up having an accident, your controlled speed was down to the point where far more accidents were survivable.

Amazingly, the automobile insurance industry did everything it could to dismiss the safety improvement that anti-lock brakes gave cars and drivers. Keep in mind that automotive engineers well understood the value of never losing control of a car in an emergency situation. Even Gerhard Prinz, former head of Mercedes, told an automotive journalist that he couldn’t understand why there was such a public demand for airbags here, when anti-lock brakes were so much more critical in preventing an accident. He then added, but then I came here and saw how Americans drive, and realized that’s why they love the idea of airbags.

Yet in late 1996, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the same group that used to put videos of their crash tests on Dateline NBC every chance they got, released a study claiming that 10 years of studying accidents showed you were more likely to die in a car with anti-lock brakes than in a vehicle without them. Brian O’Neill, head of that group, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “These findings add to the evidence that anti-lock brakes aren’t producing overall safety benefits.” The moment I read that comment, I lost all faith in the IIHS.

Here’s how they did the test. They looked at year model 1986 – 1996 vehicles involved in fatalities with identical cars one year apart where the manufacturer had added anti-lock brakes to any given model. So half of the cars had them and half didn’t. But his point was that you were 45 percent more likely to die in a single car accident, such as when a car runs off the road, with anti-lock brakes. Really? Was alcohol involved? Did the customer even know they had anti-lock brakes? Because if they did, they likely would not have run off the road to begin with.

Again, who are you going to believe? A group funded by the insurance industry, with less than admirable reasons for wanting to downplay anti-lock brakes on cars — in the earliest days some insurance companies gave discounts for that safety device — or automotive engineers worldwide, who knew that device’s safety value? Come to think of it, the entire IIHS study was bunk to begin with. The only way to test how well anti-lock brakes save lives is not in accidents, but in finding individuals who were not involved in an accident because they had those brakes. Only that’s almost impossible.

But there was one other thing that played to the IIHS study. In many cases salesmen across America were not informing customers that their cars were equipped with anti-lock brakes; or, if they did, they were not showing them in a real-world situation how they worked. If you have a safety device that no one knows they have or how to use it, it’s fairly worthless.

And that brings us to the latest safety craze, the automatic braking system. Now the concept seems logical: You’re not paying attention while driving, or you are outside the safe speed envelope when something happens right in front of you; and your personal reaction time isn’t fast enough to stop the car and prevent an accident. Not to worry; your car can brake without you, thereby saving your life. At least according to the ad campaigns.

Now we’re back to the airbag story. If it went off, it saved your life — even though 95 percent of the time you would have been just fine without it. Now people have come to believe, thanks to all the TV ads about automatic braking, that it is going to save your life no matter how foolishly you act behind the wheel.

But it ain’t so. Over the years I’ve tested many cars with automatic braking or collision mitigation systems in them; both are considered automatic braking. And, while it’s hard to test them, it can be done with minimal effect as long as there are no other drivers around you. And as of right now, I can say with no hesitation whatsoever that I’ve never been in a vehicle with automatic braking or collision mitigation that I felt would stop a car entirely before an accident occurred. In fact, the most reactive system I’ve tested was in the Acura MDX. It would scare the average driver, its reaction time and braking response were so exceptional.

Of course, here come the calls and emails. One person wrote last week to tell me how great his Subaru’s automatic braking worked when he drove into his garage a little fast. He suggested that I go to a Subaru dealership so the salesperson could explain it to me. Condescension aside, AAA did just such a test of these systems last year. What they found validates my conclusion: Automatic braking systems are the most oversold safety device since airbags.

AAA tested five vehicles. The Subaru Legacy, Volvo XC-90 and Lincoln MKX all had collision avoidance systems. Meaning they are supposed to stop your car before an accident happens. The Honda Civic and Volkswagen Passat have a mitigation system, which is supposed to slow the car appreciably to minimize the accident’s severity. But the results of those tests show that the collision avoidance systems, the ones designed to fully stop a vehicle before an accident, worked only 60 percent of the time with a speed differential of just 30 mph. The two cars with the mitigation system stopped prior to collision in only 33 percent of the tests. But at 45 miles an hour, hardly freeway speeds, and driving into a stationary object, the three cars with the collision avoidance system managed to slow down the car by only 74 percent. Which means the avoidance system is at best a mitigation system. Likewise, the other two vehicles under the same test slowed their speeds by a mere 9 percent. So you hit the stationary object at 41 miles an hour instead of 45.

Imagine what the level of response and safety on these vehicles might be at 70 or 80 miles an hour, like the traffic on Texas freeways?

The problem is not that these devices don’t improve things; they do. But, like airbags, the public comes to believe they are infallible and will always protect them from their inattentiveness while driving. That they won’t do. At least not yet.

In case you were wondering, here are the safety devices that have saved the most lives over the past 35 years, and you probably didn’t think a thing about them. Crumple zones in the front end of cars. Invented by Mercedes, and all automakers were allowed to use those patents without cost. Side impact protection on doors. Seatbelts. Moving away from cars on frames to unibody construction. (Full frames would transfer the energy of the accident into the vehicle’s interior.) Radial tires and anti-lock brakes. In time, automatic braking will improve things, but personally I think well-designed blind-spot indicators on every car would do as much or more to improve highway safety.

Airbags still do nothing for me. In fact, a couple of years ago on my electric car the passenger side airbag indicator light came on. Within a month I received a recall notice that the module had failed and needed to be replaced or the airbag wouldn’t deploy in an accident. I know enough about airbags that I couldn’t have cared less about that recall.

But then a second recall notice came just last month. This one warned that the passenger side airbag could explode; and therefore no one should ride in the front passenger seat until that item was fixed. Imagine that. Ironically, because I didn’t do the first recall and fix that airbag, it can’t go off — so I don’t have to worry about a passenger being hurt should it explode during an impact. Ignoring the first safety recall might well have saved the life of a passenger if that car had been in an accident.

Who would have ever thought that? But then again, just in case the obvious went past you, for the past few years we are being told the most dangerous thing in tens of millions of cars is once again the airbag system. After 30 years, they still haven’t gotten that device right.

© 2017 Ed Wallace

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:20 on Fox Four’s “Good Day and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels,” 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net