Safety Features

Apr 14, 2014

Our car was recalled by the manufacturer recently. It wasn’t one of those controversial recalls you’ve been reading about, but just a small repair to the braking system. The car is not that old but, like its owner, it has reached the stage where occasional visits to the repair shop are necessary.

The part that had to be replaced was a piece of brake hose, although it turned out that mine was in perfect condition. Now the worst thing that can happen if your brake hose leaks is that you lose stopping power, which is certainly alarming and could be fatal. But in this case the chance was very small, and in any case drivers of my generation are accustomed to brake failure, although not exactly happy about it. In the days when brakes were operated by cables, those cables sometimes corroded and snapped. The early hydraulic brakes were not much better. Driving was full of surprises.

Cars built before the 1960s, and often kept on the road for a long time, were more of a challenge than modern cars: steering could fail, lights went out unexpectedly, engines cut out all the time, fires were quite common, and of course there were those brakes. These vehicles encouraged prudent driving. For example in the case of one British car I drove regularly, made in 1934 and already ancient when I had it, it was necessary to plan stopping well in advance, and scan the roadside for something soft, like a hedge, in case the brakes failed completely.

Modern cars are very much easier, less like death traps and more like mobile couches. This has come about through technological progress and legal regulation. There are, as far as I can discover, almost a thousand government regulations covering vehicle safety. Air bags, lights, safety belt, crush protection, and of course the all-important brakes are legislated in enormous detail, and about seven hundred thousand lawyers are poised to pounce on any mechanical failure that might have caused an accident.

All this creates what feels like a very secure driving experience – although bear in mind that driving is still by far the most dangerous thing we do. But I can’t help thinking that it reduces our level of alertness and therefore our ability to respond to the unexpected. A three thousand pound metal box on wheels traveling at fifty miles an hour and guided by one lackadaisical hand on the wheel by someone talking on the phone is not actually a very secure place. We expect one hundred per-cent protection from every danger, and that may be dangerous in itself. It makes caution or even common sense seem unnecessary, and sometimes I wonder whether it would be wiser in some cases to recall the drivers rather than the cars.

There are so many cars on our crowded roads, and so many distracted drivers, that it may not be a good idea to make us feel so cozy and safe, to suggest (even subliminally) that nothing bad can happen in this lovely shiny vehicle. It can! Just take a look at the wrecks piled up behind any body shop. Now, as in the earliest days of motoring, the main safety feature is the driver – awake, alert, watching the road, and ready for anything.

Copyright: David Bouchier