My car is so safe I couldn’t possibly die — right?


By Al Vinikour  

I remember when I was a kid my family owned junkyards in Indiana. Before toll roads and interstate highways the major thoroughfare through northern Indiana was U.S. 30, the famed “Lincoln Highway.” It was a four-lane road that spanned the country. Consequently, it too-often was a “highway of death.”

Several times weekly my Dad would be called out for emergency road wrecker service to assist in what mostly were fatal crashes. By the age of 10 I’d seen more highway death than most people would see in a lifetime of combat. The thing I recall the most was the usual hole in the windshield where the driver and/or passenger was launched into the next life. Sometimes they stayed in the car…but their head was found somewhere else in the immediately vicinity of the crash. Needless to say this clearly means that seat belts weren’t used (nor available, either).

As the years went by seat belts — and seat belt use — became the law of the land. Fatalities decreased exponentially. Then an engineer at Volvo designed the three-point shoulder/lap belt and cars became safer. Yearly a new crop of safety items would emerge — like disc brakes, more use of high-strength aluminum and steel, airbags, safety canopies, anti-skid devices, rollover warning computers, etc.

You get the picture. You can’t have too many safety items in a car. Well…truth-be-told…you can! Not that any one of them should be sacrificed because their function is to work in harmony to save lives…but because the flipside of safety is complacency, and it seems the safer the vehicle the more attention-lapsed the driver is.

For instance, you live in Grand Forks, N.D. You’ve just experienced a 113-inch blizzard and even though the roads have been plowed they’re still kind of glazy-looking…and the temperature is minus 193 degrees. Not to worry, eh? You have all-season tires, all-wheel drive, electronic stability control, nine airbags at various places, anti-lock brakes and about eleventy-five other safety features that are standard in your vehicle. So…with all that safety…what’s the sense of poking along? 

Your vehicle epitomizes safety. The speed limit is 65 and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to drive 65 is there? Of course not!!! Next thing you know — or should I say that last thing you’ll know — your vehicle starts to skid on black ice. You’re confused because you have so damned much safety equipment on your vehicle it should be able take a 90-degree turn at 105 and stick like glue to your own lane no matter what your speed.

Along comes the town blacksmith, Shecky Vazin, and he also has a car loaded with safety items. His driving and philosophy are mirroring yours. Eventually there is a meeting of the minds. That is, Shecky’s head is squashed into yours and gray matter is combined to make one idiot instead of two. The only thing that can be said is that you were held nice and snug in your safety harness when Shecky’s Buick came through the windshield.

The point is, I don’t want someone to have their guard lowered because they feel they have such a high degree of safety in their vehicle that no power on earth save an M1A2 Abrams Tank is going to T-bone them…and it’s not too easy to be blindsided by a tank no matter what the local terrain is. You’ve heard the expression “taking your eye off the ball?” If someone’s driving is determined by the extent of his standard safety equipment an accident could be so severe that a ball is liable to be the largest human body part the Crash Investigation Team will find.

Safety technology is there to save your life and hopefully make you a more confident driver at the same time. Too many people are using a device-laden vehicle as an auto-pilot that enables them to spend more time on the cell phone with their friends, paying closer attention to the beat you can dance to from the latest iPod hip-hop song you’re listening to on your 39-speaker, 65,250-watt stereo system and generally using drive-time as a time of reflection.

The built-in safety of a vehicle works both ways — to protect the driver of the vehicle itself and to minimize injury to the struck party in a crash. God help the schmuck whose inattention to driving conditions results in the deaths of my own loved ones. If the crash doesn’t kill the driver…I will. I guarantee you that no airbag will deploy when I take a sledge hammer to his head. Remember the life you save could be yours.