22 Oct 2013

Why I Embrace the Advent of Safer Cars, and Why You Should Too

If you are reading this you are probably a petrol head, or at the very least a car enthusiast, and I would bet you consider yourself to be a good and safe driver.  And I'd probably agree with you.  You may have spent some time on track, you may drive an older car with no driver aids, you may drive a car that would not perform well in Euro NCAP crash tests.  But I bet you feel safe when in your car, and I bet you are happy to transport your offspring in it too.

I've just driven home from the supermarket in heavy rain, in a rear wheel drive car with no driver aids whatsoever.  My car has no traction control or ABS and only the lightest of input from the power steering.  If I lock up under braking, careen off into a hedge or crash into the back of some unfortunate soul it is my fault.  Not the car's.

I drove those 5 miles home through teeming rain, through vast puddles, with limited visibility, with reduced grip and I managed to make it home quite safely.  Something I've been able to do all my life.

I passed my driving test aged 17 and 4 months in August 1988.  In the time since I can count on the fingers of one hand the incidents I've had which could be counted as a minor incident, and none of them could be misconstrued as crashing a car.

I slewed into a ditch in my mum's Fiesta during heavy snowfall in winter 1988.  That was at less than 5mph and did nothing more than damage my pride, and is the closest I've ever come to a real crash.

The nearest I've come to injuring anyone else was when Vivian Westwood, on a bicycle flew, from behind a parked van into my path.  If my reaction to swerve and brake at the same time (without locking the wheels, in a car with no ABS) had been slower I would have made the national headlines.

Yet modern cars are becoming ever safer.  Modern cars are fitted with electronic stability control, crumple zones, Euro NCAP star ratings, reversing cameras, automatic braking, cyclist and pedestrian detection and avoidance etc etc etc.
Volvo XC60 crash test

Here's the headline of a press release I recieved last week:


I didn't write an article based on it.  But maybe I should.  There are more than 31 million cars on UK roads.  How many of those do you think are piloted by people who would consider themselves a car enthusiast, or at least take a passing interest in the science and art of driving?

Not many, I would hazard.  Most car magazines sell perhaps 50 to 100,000 copies a month.  Most car websites have a core readership.  But none are mainstream.

And it's the mainstream, or the general public to you and me, who need those safety devices and safer cars.

Uncrashable cars are a good thing because the vast majority of the general public use their car as merely a form of transport and as such do not examine or improve their own driving standards.

That is why I find myself writing articles such as "10 tips to avoid crashing your car" and "A guide to country roads for urban drivers", in the vain hope that one of these people reads one and thinks, just for once, about their own driving skills.

Most people pass their driving test and then cease to improve for the entirety of their driving life. Old habits are ingrained and compounded, even if they are a menace to other road users.  The two most common complaints from those of us who use our brains when driving are comedy parking skills and people who drive at 40mph in a 60mph, and in a 30mph.

So we should applaud car manufacturers, and particularly Volvo and Mercedes, for beating the drum for safer cars.  Because when the vast majority of cars on our roads are driven by people who only barely know how to drive it is a good thing that those cars contain pedestrian avoidance et al.

Volvo's stated aim is to that by 2020 no person, or animal, should be killed or injured in a collision with a Volvo.  That is a beautiful intent.  It will make the roads safer and less lives will be lost.

We car enthusiasts call for more simplicity, for manual gearboxes, for less driver aids, for lighter cars.  But car manufacturers rarely make cars for us, in fact the only examples I can think of are the Toybaru BRZ/GT86 and all Porsche sports cars.  

If other manufacturers follow Volvo's lead, and they will, our roads will be safer for us to continue to pursue our passion.  
Volvo Pedestrian and Cyclist detection with Full Auto Brake

If I ever find myself in a situation where I unavoidably have to come to a sudden stop, and cannot swerve to an escape route, I hope to a deity I don't believe in that the car behind is equipped with some kind of collision avoidance system.  The dullard driver won't react in time, but perhaps his or her car will.

That's a good enough reason for me to fully support modern car safety systems.

My two favourite safety features are adaptive cruise control, which makes travelling on our horrendously overcrowded (and full of erratic drivers) motorways a much more pleasant experience, and Volvo's Active High Beam Control, which means you can leave your main beams on all the time.

Cars which park themselves are also an attractive proposition.  Not necessarily from a safety perspective but at least it means people might start parking between the lines, rather than straddling them.

Article by Matt Hubbard