How do you rate the progress of vehicle safety?

August 1, 2012 | By Richard Prince


Recently I told my wife Pam we were going to drive 200 miles in our 1976 Bill Blass Lincoln to my high school reunion. She, being of a safety conscious mind, asked, “Is it safe?” She was thinking that her car (which is the one she’d rather take) has all these safety features and this older Lincoln is totally unsafe in case of a wreck.

I told her that in 1964 my high school buddy Mike and I drove a stock Model A 350 miles to have our senior class pictures taken. Our parents had a list of rules for us, all regarding our safety. We both had worked years on restoring his 1930 Model A. We thought the “A” was a beauty and roadworthy. The trip was an uneventful, enjoyable experience and we got home quite safe.

So, here’s my question: If you could give weight to safety and put it in a graph form with safety being the “Y” axis and the “X” axis being years since autos have graced our roads. How would this graph look? Brakes, tires, safety glass, steering, seat belts, air bags, etc. would all have a different weight I’m sure. The mechanical brakes of the “A” versus the ABS 4-wheel disc system on the Lincoln alone would put its dot much higher on this graph than the “A”.

Then consider a modern Taurus (Pam’s ride) and see if that dot is proportionately higher than the Lincoln. By comparing a 1930 Model A to a 1976 Lincoln to a 2012 Taurus you would have cars that are about 40 years apart in age. Would the graph be a linear one? I doubt it. I think there are some quantum leaps but none as dramatic as you might see in the first 40 years of this example.

My quest is to prove to Pam we will be much safer in the Lincoln than Mike and I were on our most excellent adventure circa 1964.


Actually defining the “safety” of any given vehicle is an incredibly complex and to some extent subjective exercise. Bear in mind that a more comprehensive and expansive conception of a vehicle’s safety would include not only the obvious—braking and steering systems, tires, and specific safety devices such as airbags—but also lots and lots of tangential things that many don’t immediately associate with safety.

For example, most think of steering wheel-mounted radio controls as a convenience or luxury feature without considering how they enhance safety by eliminating the need for the driver to take his eyes off the road every time he wants to adjust the radio station or volume. And how about all those things that go into making new cars much quieter on the inside than were old cars—improved sound insulation, better build quality, quieter tires, quieter engines and drive train components, better air sealing, and so on? A quieter ride means less driver fatigue and a more alert driver is a safer one. Consider the added safety a satellite navigation system offers. If we get lost less frequently we end up driving fewer miles and fewer miles driven means fewer accidents. And the list goes on and on.

When you consider all the variables that impact a car’s safety I would say that the advances from 1976 through 2012 are as great if not greater than the advances seen from 1930 through 1976. While you can list many important advances invented and adopted between 1930 and 1976 I think there are far more that were invented, implemented, and significantly improved between ’76 and the present. You mention 4-wheel disc ABS brakes on your 1976 Lincoln and while these were quantum leaps better than the rather awful brakes found on a 1930 Model A, the braking system on a 2012 Lincoln makes the one on your ’76 look downright antique.

Early ABS systems typically had a single purpose—to keep the rear wheels from locking up under hard braking as chassis weight shifted from rear to front and the rear tires got light and thus their coefficient of friction diminished. Today’s ABS systems typically very precisely control pressure to each wheel’s caliper, and integrate with other chassis, engine and drive train controls to help ensure that the driver maintains control in even the most demanding circumstances.

Plotting the increase in automotive safety over the past 90 or so years on a graph would surely not yield a linear progression but rather an exponential progression, with an increasingly steep upward trajectory from the dawn of the automobile age through the present day.

As far as proving to Pam that you and she would be much safer in your 1976 Lincoln than you and your buddy were in that Model A Ford, that should be self-evident. The real question you must wrestle with is whether you’re safer in the ’76 Lincoln or the 2012 Taurus. Aside from the additional mass the Lincoln offers, which does add a margin of safety in some circumstances, the Taurus is considerably better in all other ways I can think of.