I'm still getting letters over an opinion piece I wrote in the Toronto Star about how old cars are a lot of fun, but they're nowhere near as safe as the cars built today. The newspaper illustrated my story with pictures from a crash test performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in which it banged up a 1959 Bel Air against a 2009 Malibu to show how far cars had come in the 50 years the IIHS had been around. (You can see the video here.)
What surprised me was how many readers said the test "wasn't fair," because the cars didn't hit precisely head-on. The reality is that the standard is what's known as the "frontal offset," where the cars hit with each vehicle's front quarter at the middle of the other vehicle's hood. It's done this way because this is how most so-called "head-on" collisions occur. The cars don't hit each other directly face-to-face. Rather, one driver veers across the line where he's hit by oncoming traffic, often by drivers who are swerving to avoid him, making the possibility of a straight-on hit even less likely.
The Bel Air's driver probably wouldn't have fared much better in a direct head-on that these readers might have considered to be more in the car's favor anyway. In old cars, it's the "secondary collision" that was often responsible for death or serious injury. Since these cars didn't crumple up, crash force was sent straight into the cabin, where the driver was crushed by or crashed into the interior panels. New cars "disintegrate," as one reader put it, because they're supposed to do that. By crumpling up, they help prevent crash energy from reaching and deforming the cabin.
Fewer people are killed on U.S. roads these days, and it certainly isn't because we're all much better drivers. It's primarily because cars are doing a better job of protecting us.
None of that will probably get through to most of these readers, of course; you stand a better chance standing between a bear and her cubs than you do when you criticize old cars. Hey, I love old cars. I've played with them for almost 30 years now, and as you can see by clicking on the link to the right, I still own a couple. I'm also realistic about how time marches on. A 2009 car is vastly superior, safety-wise, to a 1959. And in 2029, we'll look back and say my goodness, look how far we've come in twenty years.