Politics & Policy

Rear-End Realities

We'd all win if automakers shifted their focus a little more toward safety.

Being a car buff, my technology antennae go up each year when automobile manufacturers roll out their latest contributions, most of which are built to “improve” the transportation experience. Recently, the foci seem to be on hybrid vehicles, crossover vehicles, muscle cars, and concept cars. Unfortunately, not too much has been said about safety.

It wasn’t so long ago that Volvo was big on the value-added component of car safety. Since Ford took the automaker over, however, the marketing emphasis seems to have shifted more to cosmetics. With safety seemingly being downplayed, I can only foresee problems — of the litigious sort.

Thousands more people die in automobile accidents each year than are, say, accidentally shot. Can the class-action crowd that persecutes gun companies — accusing them of fostering shootings that result in injury or death — be that far away from suing automobile companies for making similarly dangerous weapons? Unfortunately, statistics provide fertile ground for such litigation, which in the end will only hit consumers in the wallet. There is incentive enough to fix this problem.

Don’t get me wrong — there has been plenty of progress on the car-safety front. For example, some luxury cars, with 8, 10, or 12 airbags each, include the use of distance sensors to minimize the chance that the casual driver might run into something near or behind the car that can’t be seen. If you have the dough, you can even upgrade to a model with a rear-view camera. Then there’s the semi-co-pilot, built into the cruise control, that slows your car when you get too close to the one in front of you. How far away is an “auto” pilot? Technology is making a difference.

Still, drivers are already footing big auto-insurance bills due to the rising incidence of accident claims. So I find it strange that the auto companies are not focusing their efforts where they would do the most good: on saving lives (and money).

One powerful example of this disconnect is the industry’s response to the rear-end collision. Thousands of people die in automobile accidents each year, but millions if not billions of dollars are spent on hospital bills for people who are injured in rear-end collisions. We all pick up this tab through rising insurance premiums. Here in South Carolina, rear-end accidents are a daily occurrence on our local Route 278, where too much speed and too many quick stops create one, two, or three such entanglements successively.

What can auto companies do to mitigate such accidents and lower our overall auto-insurance costs? A friend recently pointed out that warning time is the critical variable in avoiding a rear-end collision. In some cases only a fraction-of-a-second warning could make all the difference. Simple calculations of speed and distance tell the story.

Driving manuals recommend that you stay one car length behind the vehicle in front of you for every 10 miles per hour of speed. On California freeways, the normal 70 to 80 mile per hour speeders should be seven-to-eight cars behind the vehicle in front. (I’m not even going to address the distances needed by those mammoth tractor trailers.) The reason for this distance is the trailing driver’s reaction time. If a car is traveling 60 miles per hour, that is one mile per minute or 88 feet per second. But if a driver could react a quarter of a second faster, he could stop 22 feet shorter than he otherwise would have without the warning.

The ability to stop in a shorter distance would certainly eliminate a lot of rear-end collisions, and such ability would increase if a driver were given an early warning to brake. In a 2000 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a mere 20 percent reduction in rear-end collisions, across all types, would equate to approximately 300,000 fewer passenger-vehicle rear-end collisions per year with an associated savings of approximately $3.6 billion. In addition, this would prevent approximately 400 deaths and 190,000 injuries. Since I can find no update on this research, I’ll assume that the numbers for 2005 are substantially higher. But even though the government seems interested in resolving this problem, as numerous studies show, so far there hasn’t been any progress on the showroom floor.

My friend also told me that the installation of a simple device could tell a trailing driver that a leading driver is in the process of taking his foot off the gas pedal and putting it on the brake. A warning signal before brakes are actually applied could give enough of a warning signal to avoid a rear-end collision. A more sophisticated device, such as a light that would change from green to amber to red in quick succession, could also offer a measure of a car’s acceleration or deceleration, and thus provide even more warning. For automakers and drivers, the benefits of such improvements seem to far outweigh the costs.

A few years ago an after-market installation of a red warning light placed high in the rear window gained acceptance in the marketplace to a point where it became mandated by the Department of Transportation. The recognition that an additional, well-placed light would improve safety suggests that a simple modification of that light could also provide a non-technology solution to a very serious cause of automobile accidents.

Politicians should spend some time asking the auto companies why they don’t spend a little more money and time on safety ideas like a decelerator light rather than a fortune on modifications with little safety value — such as higher horsepower, which would seem to increase the chances of a rear-end collision. Even better, American automobile manufacturers can just do it on their own, showing they care more about safety than the competition or the government. The insurance companies have a stake in this, too. How about an incentive award for drivers with vehicles that are built to reduce the incidence of rear-end collisions?

The benefits of any arrangement that would reduce the probability of rear-end collisions would accrue to the automakers, the insurance companies, and the driving public. The only losers would be the lawyers and their class action lawsuits, and when they lose the ride is always a lot smoother for the rest of us.

– Thomas E. Nugent is executive vice president and chief investment officer of PlanMember Advisors, Inc., and principal of Victoria Capital Management, Inc.

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