Are Today’s Cars Safer?

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Posted on 15th April 2018 – Car Technology

All the literature you will find is unanimous: today’s cars are much safer than they were two decades ago. To prove this point, NCAP, the Euro New Car Assessment Programme in Europe, produced a video in 2017 to ‘celebrate’ its 20 years’ existence, by crashing a car from 1997 and one from 2017 and analysing the results.


And they are sobering. The crash dummies in the 1997 cars are shown sliding around the airbags meant to protect them, the car structure crumples on impact, driving the engine into the driver’s legs. The doors are so damaged that it would be impossible for emergency services to reach the car’s occupants easily. The passengers in the 2017 car fare much better with safety measures aimed at preserving the integrity of the car structure.

So-called crumple zones are a crucial technological advance which minimises the shock of an impact on passengers and drivers. Located at the front, sides and rear of vehicles, they are designed so that the energy of the crash is deflected from occupants.

A strong metal skeleton around the cabin protects passengers and drivers from the issue demonstrated in the video by preventing the steering column, dashboard, roof pillars, pedals and floor panels to be pushed inwards as well as protecting the doors so that they are still functional.

There are numerous other technological advances that have made cars safer, but these are particularly interesting because, by making the people inside the cars safer, they have made cars more dangerous for people outside: if the structure of the car will not yield during a collision with a pedestrian, it is their bodies who will absorb the shock of it, at the cost of their lives or at least leaving them with very serious injuries.

Over 270,000 pedestrians die on roads each year worldwide – that’s almost a quarter of all road deaths. In Australia, one pedestrian is killed every two days, most of them in cities, and in many places, walking is more dangerous than driving, despite traffic control measures and the fact that walking is about the slowest travelling speed possible.

Various policies have been put in place over the years to try and make roads safer for pedestrians by leaning on drivers with breath-testing, speed cameras and traffic control measures but they have had limited success: although random breath-testing was implemented 34 years ago in New South Wales for example, 12% of car crashes in that state are still caused by alcohol; speed cameras may indeed be somewhat effective but 33% of crashes in the state are speed related.

These problems endure because these policies are fundamentally flawed: they rely on drivers abiding by traffic rules and being deterred by penalties when, let’s be honest, we all turn into short-tempered banshees as soon as we sit behind a wheel and all we care about is going from A to B as quickly as possible!

In addition to human nature, the fact is that our reflexes are sometimes too slow and that a mere second of inattention can lead even the most careful and well-intentioned driver into a collision.

There may be some improvement on the horizon, however, as the automotive industry has a few cards up its sleeve, some of them better than others.

A few months ago, Google revealed a new programme that would make its driverless cars safer for pedestrians – once the technology is really working and they, actually, no longer kill them by accident!

Although a common expression is that people get ‘run over’ by a car, it is, obviously not to be taken literally. To be run over, someone would have to be lying on the ground in the first place! What actually happens in a car vs human encounter is that the person is flipped in the air or over the car. Google’s solution? Stick ’em to the car! Google proposes to coat the exterior of its autonomous vehicles with an adhesive so that pedestrian adhere to it. Granted, this would save them from a rough landing but, somehow, this doesn’t sound quite like the safest idea!

American car manufacturer General Motors has been granted a patent for another novel idea: they would install airbags on the outside of cars so that, in the case of an impact, pedestrians would be shoved out of the way for their own safety… That ought to teach them!

However, there are other ideas out there that sound a whole lot better than dragging pedestrians glued to your bonnet like a fly or ejecting them forcefully!

Over the last decade, various technological features aimed at assisting drivers can also benefit pedestrian safety with some adjustments.

Sensors, for example. Although they were developed to help with parking, they could as easily be used to become aware of pedestrians, and car manufacturers are currently testing a new type of sensors that would automatically stop the car when it is getting too close to a person.

The technology around driverless cars could also be very useful. They are, for example, able to communicate with one other and this could be used to alert other cars to errant pedestrians or situations that may be dangerous to them.

But improving car features isn’t the only option. An increasing number of cities have put in place measures that have been helping to reduce the number of accidents, from using cameras and sophisticated algorithms to analyse traffic and adjust traffic lights accordingly to smooth out congestion, to installing sensor pads by pedestrian crossings that double as traffic light buttons if people cross when the light isn’t green for them.

Making cars as safe for pedestrians as for their occupants is clearly a complex issue that will require the participation of many actors but technologies are at hand to remedy the current situation.

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