How ‘Safety’ Requirements Make Your Car Less Actually Safe

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by Eric Peters

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The government enacts laws – or issues regulatory fatwas – requiring that new cars comply with various “safety” standards. Ironically, the result of these standards – in terms of vehicle design and otherwise – may just be cars that are less safe to actually drive.

For example, you may have noticed that the beltline (door height) of the typical new car is higher up than was typical in the past. This makes it feel as though you’re sitting lower in the car, as you’re surrounded by a bathtub of steel. (No more resting your arm on the top of the door as you drive with the window rolled down.) Beltlines are higher to meet increasingly stringent side impact standards. But for every action, there is a reaction.


First, there’s aesthetics:

To maintain reasonable overall proportions, the designers abbreviate the vehicle’s side glass height to make up for the higher doors – and rake the front and rear glass. You get a “chopped” look. (Otherwise, the vehicle would look overtall.) But reduced glass area means decreased visibility – and this along with the now-commonplace steeply raked glass (in particular, the rear glass) results in a diminished view that’s also frequently distorted on top of that.

You can’t see as much – and what you do see isn’t seen as clearly.

Another factor impinging negatively on visibility is the growing thickness of the car’s A, B and C pillars (roof crush standards – as well as making room for side-impact air bags) in addition to taller/thicker seat headrests (whiplash). In several new (2013) cars I’ve driven recently, it is very hard to see cross traffic coming at you from either side – making it much more dangerous to enter a busy intersection. Blind spots are larger, too – requiring more situational awareness of drivers – who are not infrequently more aware of their sail fawns than what’s going on around them as they drive.

You have to drive an older car to get a sense of how much has changed. The other day, I went for a ride in my friend’s ’63 Buick Special sedan. You felt like you were in a greenhouse. Excellent visibility all around. They used to make “pillarless” sedans – no B pillar at all – so when you rolled down the front and rear side glass, the entire area was completely open. Not anymore. It’s illegal.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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