Changes to roadways and human behavior have the potential to save more lives than increased passive safety measures, but the difficulty in enacting them guarantees passive measures will continue to be the safety avenue of choice.
There's nothing quite like a crash test to get the blood flowing or thoughts racing as to the human damage that goes along with the mechanical carnage. GM's 15,000th crash test since official record keeping began in 1957 pitted a new Pontiac G6 against a moving barrier to simulate a LINCAP (Lateral Impact New Car Assessment Program) side impact. Fitted with side curtain and seat-mounted airbags, it passed with flying colors. "This is a great example of how far we've come with a concentration on making crashes more survivable by changing the design of the vehicle," says Bob Lange, executive director, Structure and Safety Integration at GM. "However, the greatest potential for safety improvements in the future will come from changes in human and environmental factors."
These factors include road design, licensing controls, and societal norms. GM's barrier design—adopted and modified by the state of New Jersey to become the concrete "New Jersey barrier" lining many major highways—combined with changes in seat belt legislation and drunk driving laws are recent examples of the changes Lange feels are necessary to further reduce traffic fatalities. They are also the hardest to mandate. "It will take changes in public policy, driven by support from voters to make these changes happen, "he says.
While society waits for this to happen, further improvements will be made to the vehicles themselves. One that won't be seen anytime soon, Lange predicts, is replacement of today's three-point seat belts with racing-style four-point belts. For one thing, four-point belts, regardless of design, are more complicated, require more interaction from the passengers, and increase the likelihood they will submarine under the belts in certain crash situations. "A four-point design changes the distribution of forces on the body," says Lange, "and pushes the passenger down and under the belt. Race drivers compensate by wearing a crotch belt, but I doubt this would fly with your average new car buyer."—CAS