I’m mesmerized by this video, watching it over and over again while contemplating this current debate over health care reform.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – the organization that conducts crash tests and issues safety ratings of cars – recently smashed together a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a gorgeous, mint-condition 1959 Chevy Bel Air.
Nothing is particularly remarkable about the Malibu or the Bel Air. Each represents the typical car of the era.
The collision between the old and the new starkly demonstrates the improvements in automotive safety design and fabrication that have evolved over the last 50 years.
Watching the slow-motion physics is startling. The front of the Bel Air crumples, thrusting the engine into the passenger compartment. You can see the front bench seat lift and separate from the frame. The driver’s door pops open, the windshield flies out. The driver bounces around the passenger compartment like a lottery ball in a Pick Four draw, striking the steering wheel in the head and chest.
By comparison, the passenger compartment of the Malibu – featuring restraints, air bags and modern design and manufacture – remains comparatively intact. The driver’s forward momentum is cushioned by the air bag deploying from the steering wheel.
The key to appreciating the significance of the video is this: The auto industry fought tooth and nail against all of those safety innovations.
The Bel Air was designed purely by the industry, while the Malibu has all the safety features that have been mandated by law ever since. You could label one car “Free Market” and the other “Government Regulation.”
Automotive safety began to gather steam in the U.S. in the early 1960s. In this respect, the country was well behind developments that had already occurred in Europe and elsewhere. Seat belts weren’t required on new cars until mandated in a law passed by Congress in 1966, which also created the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The auto industry didn’t want seat belts to be mandatory. Pardon me for summarizing decades of history, but there is a substantial body of literature for anybody interested in studying the background of the auto industry’s attitude and activities regarding safety.
Auto companies preferred to pack their cars with power steering, power brakes, power windows, more powerful engines. They argued that seat belts were an additional expense that consumers didn’t want. Seat belts were cumbersome and uncomfortable.
Stories circulated – today we’d call it a meme – that seat belts would kill you by interfering with your ability to escape a car in case of a fire or submersion.
The auto industry lobbied intensely against mandatory air bags (they’ll kill you!) and three-point restraints (the shoulder strap will break your neck or decapitate you!). Some even argued against mandatory child safety seats, since they put an additional burden on those least able to afford them.
The auto industry fought to kill legislation in Congress, water down standards, and delay implementation for years. They said the government has no business getting involved in automotive design, which should be left to car company engineers who, after all, know what’s best for consumers. They opposed the very idea of auto safety and crash testing.
Today, of course, we accept all these things as givens – air bags, passenger restraints, energy-absorbing designs, crumple zones. We don’t even think about it. We all know it’s built in.
When you get behind the wheel of a car today, you have some assurance that if an idiot plows into you the steering wheel won’t smash into your face and your toddler become a ballistic projectile.
Who do you have to thank for that? The U.S. auto industry? They could have done it on their own, but didn’t. The Swedish car company Saab introduced seat belts as a standard feature in 1958.
Left on their own, the U.S. auto companies would likely have delayed introducing safety innovations for many years. There is more money to be made in air conditioning and radios. Absent the law, if introduced at all safety features would been an option available only to people who could afford them.
Safety was not a big selling point. Only in recent years have car companies begun touting the safety of their products and showing crash footage in commercials. It’s hard to imagine a 1970s-era commercial for a Cadillac or Mustang in which the car is smashed to pieces. In general, it isn’t considered a good idea to associate your product with injury and death, which is why car companies would rather not talk about it.
According to IIHS, the driver of the Bel Air would have been killed instantly. The driver of the Malibu would have survived with an injured knee.
So when you’re thinking about health care reform and wondering who is looking out for your interests and those of your family, or you hear somebody say that government regulation never does any good, ask yourself this: Which car would you rather drive?