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Survival Car

Paul Collins, one of those writers whose name always arouses my interest in a table of contents, revisits the seminal days of car safety with an appreciation of Liberty Mutual and Cornell University’s open-source “Survival Car” in the latest New Scientist.

Edward Dye, director of Cornell’s crash injury project, noted that the design philosophy behind the car was the same as that for packaging any delicate object for shipping: “Use a strong packing case, fasten lid securely, pack tightly, and remove hard objects from the padding.” A conventional if sleek-looking saloon, the Survival Car sported a decidedly futuristic interior. Bucket “capsule seats” were firmly mounted to withstand a force of more than 2 tonnes, each featuring an integral head rest and roll bar and, of course, seat belts. The driver sat in the middle, with the passengers behind. Gone was the spear-like steering column and out went the lethal radio and heater knobs. In their place was an extraordinary hydraulic rudder control – a floor-mounted housing between the driver’s knees, with two stubby handles projecting out from the sides – and a padded dash with rounded and recessed knobs.

This proved a bit too radical — and expensive as it wasn’t a standard production car — so the team went back and overhauled a 1960 Chevrolet Bel-Air with inexpensive safety features.

American car firms were still not interested. A safe vehicle like the Survival Car was “completely unrealistic”, proclaimed John Gordon, president of General Motors. “This company is run by salesmen not engineers,” an engineer at Ford observed later. “The priority is styling, not safety.”

What happened next has become all too familiar. Spurning the opportunity presented to them, American car makers watched as others forged ahead. The first car on American roads to embody the Survival Car ideal was not from Detroit but from Solihull in the English midlands. It was the Rover P6 2000 of 1963, whose seat belts, thick padding, safer steering wheel and crumple zones moved consumer campaigner Ralph Nader to declare it “probably the safest car now available for general sale”.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 24th, 2009 at 8:15 am and is filed under Cars. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Survival Car”

  1. Brian Weis Says:

    It would be interesting to see if there is a relationship between making a car safer and the general public driving less safe as a result. Maybe once people had seat belts they were less cautious in making specific decisions while driving. Like you mentioned before, often taking away safety features (Lines, Signage, Pedestrian control) in the setup of an intersection or road, causes drivers to drive more cautiously and often times “better”.

  2. Jack Says:

    At one of our local blogs on urban design, comments regarding driving 40-45 on 20 mph neighborhoods and school zones is considered OK as cars can be driven comfortably, with confidence and at higher speeds as they come with seat belts, stronger engines, stronger brakes and air bags for passengers’ safety. Too bad God failed to equip pedestrians and cyclists with the same safety features.

  3. chrismealy Says:

    I don’t know if it’s true, but a lot of econ 101 books use the example of improved car safety leading to worse pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
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May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
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June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
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June 27, 2009
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July 13, 2009
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Fondo de Prevención Vial
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Royal Automobile Club
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Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
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April 17, 2012
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Centennial Plaza, Sydney
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April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
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January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

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Australian Road Summit
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New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

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September 26, 2013
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