Growing up in an era defined by seat-of-the-pants racing geniuses such as Jim Clark and Mario Andretti, I was skeptical when digital driving aids started arriving on the scene. How could computer-controlled brakes and stability-control systems hope to match the wizardry of these driving heroes?
Easily, as it turns out. Today's cars have changed the game. Digital safety systems built into late-model machines are now so good you should think about trading in your old car.
I started to realize just how far safety systems have come in 2009, when I drove two cars back-to-back – a new Mercedes E-350 and the 2002 Honda Accord I keep as a winter beater. The Mercedes had a full suite of digital safety aids, including blind-spot detection, pre-emptive braking and an advanced stability control system. The Honda's safety systems were limited to airbags (which were later recalled due to defective actuators) and ABS brakes.
In its day, the Honda had been a worthy machine. But that time had passed. At a winter-driving test track, the old Honda's vulnerabilities became glaringly obvious. Because it had no stability control system, I had to stay on my toes. And its braking distance on ice was stunningly bad – the old Honda took about about three times as far to stop as the Mercedes and other late-model machines.
The reason was obvious. The Mercedes had late-model anti-lock brakes, which sample wheel speed hundreds of times per second and control the brakes with pinpoint accuracy. The old Honda had a stone-age ABS system that pulsed the brakes in long intervals, which killed any hope of a short stop.
The value of modern safety systems is born out by research that shows dramatic reductions in both crash rates and injuries. A 2004 study by Farmer's Insurance concluded that that electronic stability control (ESC) systems had reduced fatal crashes by 56 per cent. Ten years later, Daniel Blower of the University of Michigan produced a fine-grained study that examined the impact of sophisticated digital systems that included blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, pre-emptive braking and ESC. He concluded that these systems had reduced single-vehicle fatal crashes by 56 per cent and fatal roll-over crashes by 87 per cent.
That's not surprising. In the early 1980s, I watched a fatal crash happen right in front of me on the highway near Windsor, N.S. Two elderly women were ahead of me, driving an old-school American sedan. The driver had her head turned and was in conversation with the woman in the passenger seat. The sedan drifted to the right, and touched the gravel shoulder.
The driver's head jerked up and she pulled the wheel sharply to the left in a panic manoeuvre. The sedan slewed sideways, crossed both lanes, then shot back to the right as the driver overcorrected again. Now there was no way out – the sedan flew over the right-side embankment and hit the rocks below. The women didn't make it.
Say what you like about distraction and driver skill. Modern technology would have saved the lives of these two women. A lane-departure warning system would have alerted the driver to the fact that she was drifting off the road. If she had over-corrected with the steering wheel, the ESC system would have applied differential braking to straighten the car. And if the car did go off the embankment, the airbags would have deployed, giving the women one last shot at survival.
ESC systems began to appear in the automotive market in the mid-1990s. Although some scoffed, the systems rapidly proved their worth. Starting in 2011, ESC became mandatory on every new car. ESC has proven particularly effective in SUVs, which are prone to rollover due to their high centre of gravity, but it benefits every car – even low-slung machines.
ESC is only part of the technology that makes a modern car safer. Their digital aids make crashes less likely. Their structures are better at absorbing the energy of a crash, and their mechanical design eliminates the hazards that were once part and parcel of driving – gone are the days when a car's solid-shaft steering column impaled you like a giant entomologist's pin.
Which brings us to the subject of classic cars. They're death traps compared with what's on the market now. Test-driving cars such as a 1963 VW Beetle and a 1965 Mustang reminded me of how far we've come. The Mustang didn't have three-point seatbelts – in 1965, lap belts were considered good enough. The Beetle's rear-mounted engine and swing-axles made it prone to weight-jacking and over-steer (which are worse than they sound). And in a crash, the Beetle would offer all the protection of a sardine can.
Although I'm still willing to drive classic cars, I operate them like a motorcycle, assuming that I have zero protection. And although my 2002 Accord is still on the road, I'm thinking about trading it for something with a full suite of safety enhancements.
Maybe it's time we all got a new car.
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