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Safety Industry shifts emphasis from crash survival to avoidance

October 9, 2012 Car Care

Vehicle safety is no accident. Industry advances have made cars lighter with a nearly constant influx of devices designed to help motorists survive or avoid accidents.

Automobile safety is an evolutionary process aimed at one issue: How to keep people from dying in traffic accidents.

Andrew Smart, director of SAE International’s Automotive Division, said that automotive safety had its origins in design standards that were created to help keep drivers, passengers and even pedestrians safe.

SAE International, with its headquarters in Thorn Hill Industrial Park, Warrendale, helps research and draft standards and regulations for the auto and aeronautics industries. Many of those deal with safety issues.

From headlights and seat belts to alcohol detection sensors, automotive safety is always “about the next advancement,”Smart said.

“Originally, the industry was focused on crash worthiness, or how to make sure people in a car crash survived,” he said. “Now the industry has moved on to crash avoidance.”

That means crumple zones — those areas where vehicles crush absorbing the impact — and defusing the crash energy. It also means air bags and anti-lock brakes.

“These are innovations that we now take for granted that have led to crash ratings on various vehicles,” Smart said.

The increase in crash worthiness can be seen in data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, which shows the number of crash deaths nationwide. In 1950 that figure was 33,186 compared with 32,788 in 2010.

“That’s almost the same number, however the subtle differences are that in 2010 we had more cars on the road, more miles driven at higher speeds in lighter cars,” Smart said. “In the end, 1950 there were seven deaths for every one million drivers, while in 2010 there was only one death per one million drivers.”

Design changes

The changes in how vehicles are built have helped to reduce deaths and injuries.

“In the 1950s, cars were heavy with chrome and metal fenders,” Smart said. “Now cars are lighter with smarter designs.”

One such design and safety advancement can be seen in vehicle headlights, many of which are now made of small, LED lights, which means, vehicle front ends are built differently.

With older, large glass lights, the front ends had to be built straight across to support the heavy lights.

“Now front ends are curved and lighter, not doing the same amount of damage to pedestrians and other vehicles in accidents,” Smart said.

He said other parts have gone through similar modifications, including the seat belt, which originally didn’t exist.

“Then the lap belt came along for the front seat in cars, and it was found to help reduce injury and keep people in the car during an accident,” Smart said, adding that seat belts were then added to back seats, and then the three-point shoulder strap belt came into use.

Along with these mechanical safety innovations came new regulations, such as mandatory seat belt laws and drunken driving laws.

Driverless cars

Radios, eating, putting on makeup, shaving, smart phones, children, pets — these and other activities are considered distractions to driving by the NHTSA and the cause of many accidents.

However, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has said that the biggest distraction to driving is drivers. Because of that, he advocates driverless cars as he did during an event this July at the annual Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference, hosted by private investment firm Allen & Co.

The conference has taken place in Sun Valley, Idaho, since 1983, and features business leaders, political figures, and major figures in the philanthropic and cultural spheres, according to multiple media websites.

Smart said driverless or autonomous cars are the next step in the search for ways to stop accidents from happening.

“Currently, we have vehicles with parking aides, cruise control, and new blind-spot detection technology, but the industry is pushing towards automotive connectivity, in which cars know where they are in relation to other cars,” Smart said.

The cars will talk to each other, yielding at intersectiond by which vehicle got there first and speaking with traffic signals, so if there is no other traffic, the light can change and let a vehicle pass without having to wait for a timed-signal change.

An added bonus, besides safety, to such systems would be vehicles driving at set speeds that will save fuel.

Smart said the U.S. Department of Transportation has determined that 80 percent of all crashes occur when drivers are either distracted or impaired.

“The department has said many of these crashes could be mitigated through vehicle connectivity,” he said. “When there are regulations, the industry follows.”