Safety catches


My cheap and cheerful Renault Clio, as I know too well, is not very safe. So on the odd occasions that I do actually get behind the wheel, I tend to walk the car, rather than drive it. But one would expect a £26,000 Chrysler Voyager, with airbags, anti-lock braking system and other wonders of safety technology, to be - well, safe. So we should be surprised to learn that, in scientific tests carried out under the European new car assessment programme and published last week, the Prime Minister's favourite people carrier was shown to give rather poor protection in road accidents. It's amusing to learn that even the Prime Minister can be an incompetent consumer; but the results do raise a number of interesting questions.

To begin with: why would anyone, in this best of all possible times, manufacture a car that scores zero out of 100 in controlled safety experiments? The tests showed that in a 40mph head-on crash, the Voyager did grave damage to its own and the driver's body, and that passengers and children needed prayers to escape serious injury. Similarly, in a 30mph side-on crash, intruding bodywork could play havoc with the driver's body. Chrysler's response to these results was to say that they do not represent the real hazards faced by drivers of their multi-purpose vehicles. Head-on impacts comprise only 1 per cent of all the collisions in road accidents. Chrysler also appealed to the Voyager's excellent safety record in "real world" driving conditions and pointed to Swedish and American insurance industry studies, which had found the Voyager to be the safest vehicle on the road.

So, apart from the fact that money can't buy safety, what are we to believe? How can a scientific test give a misleading picture of safety? What is safety on the road anyway? And whose safety are we talking about? Chrysler's point is that a high-speed head-on crash is not typical of the experience of driving cars. The protection of people in the car after such an impact is not the same thing as the prevention of harm to them under typical driving conditions. But what are typical driving conditions?

Let me be a bit obvious: high-speed head-on collisions, even in cars that are given high safety marks in tests, are hazardous to life and limb. The safety devices that crowd our cars, and turn drivers and passengers into immobile bodies, serve two functions. They mitigate the harm for those who have already been put in harm's way. And they create an illusion of safety in the minds of imbeciles who drive performance cars, encouraging them to drive fast and take risks. So, while this safety equipment is important, it is not as important in the lessening of risks as is reducing speed. There are plenty of accident studies and statistics showing the lethal effects of speed.

The only way to make cars totally safe is to actually make them unsafe. If cars had dodgy brakes, thin bodies, perhaps even a sort of spike in the steering column a la Voyager post-crash, people would be forced to drive carefully, and head-on collisions at 40mph would be rare indeed. This suggestion is not as daft as it sounds. It comes from John Adams, professor of geography at University College London. The more a vehicle is made safe, argues Adams, the more drivers tend to take those extra little chances, which on aggregate bring the accident statistics back to where they were. In his remarkable book Risk (UCL Press, 1995), Adams showed how seat belts and helmets had precisely this effect; after the initial novelty had worn off, the statistics returned to where they had been before. Not surprisingly, this made him something of an Antichrist figure to the safety industry. But he was vindicated when insurers stopped giving reduced premiums for vehicles equipped with advanced braking systems.

Now let's do something really old Labour. Let's think about "transport-poor" folks who can't afford a car, are unable to drive or, like me, just hate the damn things. You know the kind of people most motorists think of as a nuisance, who cause congestion by their insistence on using roads and have the annoying tendency to be badly injured when hit. I mean, of course, pedestrians, cyclists and children walking to school. How does all this cocooning of drivers improve their safety? It doesn't. Even travelling at 20mph, a car can do serious damage to a child. Numerous studies have shown that lots of poor children are killed by affluent commuting motorists, safe in gadget-rich cars, driving through their inner-city neighbourhoods. Of course, every time it happens it is an accident, doubtless regretted by all concerned. And no one with an intelligent head on their shoulders would advocate equipping children with airbags or big steel shells. For their safety, all they can do is to look sharp and be as visible as their size and the circumstances permit.

This is more than a nasty paradox. There is a well-known phenomenon of peak-period traffic congestion being increased by masses of worried parents who ferry their children to school because of fears for their safety as vulnerable pedestrians in peak-period traffic congestion. Could safety be ensured if every school parent had a Chrysler Voyager, improved to withstand head-on collisions at speed? I doubt it. But this focus on all the gizmos of car safety only diverts us from focusing on the real problems of safety on the roads. In new Britain, the transport-poor, like all the other sorts of poor, have to go to the back of the queue, while the problems of the transport-rich get all the attention.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?