Featured: Toyota Fined $1.2B–Are Classic Cars Actually Safer?

Toyota Fined $1.2B–Are Classic Cars Actually Safer?

Avatar By Johni Parker
March 25, 2014
15 comments

Photography by Otis Blank, Josh Clason, and Andrew Schneider for Petrolicious

It’s important to keep car safety in perspective. I remember when seat belts weren’t standard in the back seats of cars and airbags were an optional extra. Fuel still had lead added and impact safety was measured by hood length in yards. I also remember my Grandpa’s ‘95 Volvo 850 that had a S.I.P.S. sticker in the back window (Side Impact Protection System) and as a kid thinking, “I suppose you could get hit from the side, what a good idea.”

I also remember some people I knew at college losing their lives in car accidents, to which I now reckon that had they been driving a modern car they’d probably have survived.

The fact is that cars nowadays are built safety up. Safety first is something taken literally by all volume manufacturers, and one could easily argue that is why the cars of today feel so sedated by comparison.

I drive older cars, so I suppose I take my chances every time I go out for a drive. However, I also acknowledge that driving skill is a car’s ultimate safety feature and an awareness of what to do in adverse conditions. I also always carry a first aid kit and have a fire extinguisher mounted under my seat; safety doesn’t always mean going head on with another car. I also always make sure that my tyre pressures are good, at least once a week. I guess you could say that’s excessive, but I like to know I’m being as diligent as I can, and perhaps we’d all benefit from a bit more personal responsibility.

With older cars you are more in control, my VW Golf Mk2 has no power assist steering and very little in the way of electronics, so you could argue that there’s a much lower risk of any electrical failure, which is always a potential culprit for danger.

Also the visibility in older cars is always significantly better with much thinner A- and B-pillars; it’s amazing how obstructive they typically are on more modern cars, due to their necessary thickness for impact integrity. I also think you have to take into consideration that older cars are significantly lighter, which undeniably means less mass, meaning less force in event of an impact. Anyhow, driving is singlehandedly the most dangerous thing most of us do on a daily basis, and considering all the variables, it’s a small wonder there aren’t more accidents.

Just this month, Toyota was fined $1.2 Billion for concealing safety defects, and while this is doubtlessly a crime, it’s important to acknowledge that they have also led the world in pioneering many safety advances.

Perhaps I’m alone on this, but I find a level of comfort when a car company initiates a recall. It’s an admission that they got it wrong and are willing put it right, something we all know that no car company wants to do. When you consider the tens of thousands of individual components in a car, probability strongly suggests that at least a few parts will be prone to failure, through oversight of design or inconsistency in material, regardless of manufacturer.

In the cult movie Fight Club, the lead character narrating, played by Edward Norton, famously explains his job to a woman seated next to him on a plane:

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

Lady on plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?

Narrator: You wouldn’t believe.

Lady on plane: Which car company do you work for?

Narrator: A major one.

It’s that ambiguous last line that steals the scene and makes you wonder, but not only that, sigh in the knowledge that, when a problem is reported, a formula much like this doubtlessly exists.

Modern distractions are however a relatively new phenomenon that has created a spike in driver-at-fault incidents, seen all over the world. We’ve all seen someone driving erratically and thought to ourselves, “I bet they’re on their phone,” only to overtake them midway through conversation whilst also eating a sandwich. Not only that, pedestrians engrossed in their smart phones now seem to have lost the age-old art in crossing a road properly.

In reflection of all this, the way for better safety on the road is never going to be a single route approach, it takes a level of personal responsibility, corporate responsibility, good highway management, driver training and a level of all round good common sense, employed by all.

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Stephan P
Stephan P

Modern cars are safer but we are in a transition between actually having to know how to drive the car and soon having the car drive itself. The transition period is dangerous because drivers rely not on skill but on traction control, ABS etc.
The Toyota fine is a witch hunt. Where is the outrage at GM?

Rod S
Rod S

Safety is a lot about road feel. I drive “performance oriented” modern cars that, despite “sport” suspensions, lack the feel of my old AW11 MR2. Now that’s not to say that I would rather be in my AW11 in a crash, but I definitely am more aware of my surroundings given the MR2’s lack of power steering, excellent visibility and lack of sound deadening. So are old cars safer than new cars? Definitely not. But they force you to become a better driver.

Stephen
Stephen

I own a modern classic 1991 Mazda Miata and I always feel as though I am more connected to the road and have a heightened sense of what is going on around me in that car compared to when I drive my wife’s 2013 Rogue. There is little road noise in the Rogue, huge a/b/c pillars, a small back window, Bluetooth which allows me to talk handsfree, a nice stereo system with Ipod connectivity, and a heads up display that changes constantly like a little 2D movie! I believe all of these items add to the distracted driver in me… Read more »

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram

Having previously owned a 91 Miata, I know exactly what you mean! I’ve said several times to friends and colleagues that in many ways I feel safer driving smaller cars than I do larger ones, as you have more space to use on the road, better visibility, and more agility.

As for the general topic of the post though, ultimately you’re safer in a newer car. And I’ve certainly had “incidents” in newer cars that make me glad of systems like ABS and stability control, neither of which my Miata had.

James Döe
James Döe

Along the same lines I drive an S2000. While it has some modern safety features it lacks most modern distractions much like the Miata. All of the controls are in reach of the driver and most can be reached by your fingers while still grasping the wheel. Even the radio is tucked away behind a door which I rarely if ever open due to more convenient dash controls. The only thing overly modern (though less so these days) is the digital gauge cluster which many purists dislike but is infinitely quicker to read at a glance. Most cars really don’t… Read more »

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson

As a young person, I turn 20 this year, I get poked at by my friends for my driving style. I tend to drive “like and old person” as they say. Personally as a guy who likes cars I am a firm supporter of driving properly – whether that be driving the speed limit, passing in the [i]left[/i] lane — not the right — and even just driving with both hands on the wheel. I think the biggest problem we have here in the states is our drivers ed program. A more comprehensive program that focused on teaching pupils how… Read more »

Jessie Cahill
Jessie Cahill

I agree strongly. It should not even be permissible that an individual doesn’t “know how to drive a stick” or can’t parallel park.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson

I took drivers ed in Raleigh, NC and wasn’t taught to parallel park. When I asked my instructor why I wouldn’t be taught how to do so he told me that it was taken out of the curriculum because most kids weren’t good enough drivers to perform the task… Fortunately my father was as shocked at that revelation as myself and promptly taught me how to do so. I also wish drivers ed was taught in a car with three pedals. I am ashamed to say that I am terrible at driving stick. Because my parents didn’t want to buy… Read more »

JB21
JB21

Since we as a collective no longer teach people to driver properly (road manners, ethics, accountability, dare I say, conscience), might as well make the cars safer by getting rid of human factor.

Alan Mitchell
Alan Mitchell

Agreed on A and B pillar width. My Taurus has bridge abutment level pillars.

Volvo used to tout that their pillars were no wider than the span between the driver’s eyes!

Future Doc
Future Doc

I have to disagree. There is one big advantage for modern cars and that is safety. Yes, many are trying to remove the variable that causes the most harm: the “bad driver” and car enthusiasts lament that concept. That statistics show this as well with VMT increasing (save for recent years) and highway deaths also decreasing. Cars are safer and even the highways are becoming better. The MR2 is a prime example of a pedestrian “cheese-grater” with the pop-up lights. Still, the biggest problem is the driver. It is not the “car” makes drivers text, call, eat, read and do… Read more »

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

I agree with this. Even though there are more people out on the road and even though there are more “distractions”, fatal accidents are decreasing in most, if not all, parts of the western world. Take one of the growing economies as a comparison. Cars on the road are rapidly increasing in places like China and India etc. and they still have “old” cars to a quite large extent. Even some of their new cars are “old” when talking about safety features, electronic aids etc. However, that surely doesn’t mean that the roads over there are “safer”. Granted, a big… Read more »

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

My thought exactly on both comments.

Future Doc
Future Doc

Agree Andreas. Those who care about driving and their vehicle will likely care more about their driving style and make a concentrated effort to be a “better driver”. However, we might have some other variables as well leading to “classic” drivers being better. They tend to be older, more risk adverse, and more experienced. When I say older, I am not saying only “retired” individuals but fewer 16-20 year olds and younger drivers who rely on a single vehicle. I know, I was a “25+ year old Datsun Z” driver in college so they do exist, but I was one… Read more »

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

Yes, that certainly is another factor to take into account. Even though I myself am in the “dangerous” category of drivers and would like to think that I am slightly more involved and possibly “better” than average, the statistics are very clear on the subject. Drivers between 18-24 (you get your license at 18 in Europe) are involved in more accidents and some of my friends are real life testaments to this. Especially now with the ridiculously stupid habit of texting with your smartphone while driving.

Also, as you said, are the fun roads unfortunately also the most dangerous ones generally.