What Is True Automotive Safety—and Does Anyone Really Care?

You can't buy vehicular safety, but you can invest in it.

Alex Roy/AAA

Who objects to safety? No one. But all this safety talk about self-driving cars got me thinking. What is safety? And does anyone really care? You certainly can't trust Department of Transportation boss Elaine Chao. She doesn't know the SAE Automation Levels, and actually stated that self-driving cars are on the road right now. How about the self-driving lobby? Please. $80 billion-plus has been invested in self-driving so far, but they won't make a real dent in road deaths for decades. Mobility experts? Where were they before self-driving became a thing? Nowhere, because before 2015 "safety" didn't get you a TED Talk and a consulting gig.

How about car companies? They talk safety, but it's all schizophrenic. Except for Volvo, the history of car marketing is one of marketing things that make you less safe: bigger wheels, lower-profile tires, more power. You want laughs? Check out this photoshopped ad depicting the new, all-wheel drive Dodge Challenger:

Alex Roy/Twitter

Unless this thing is delivered with snow tires, they should include a shovel and a casket. Was it too dangerous to shoot the car in actual snow? Or just too expensive?

It's not just FCA. Every manufacturer with a performance badge is guilty of the same, but it gets worse. GM has put $2B+ into their Cruise Automation self-driving division while their best-of-breed semi-automated SuperCruise languishes within Cadillac. And let's not forget GM marketplace, an in-car "commerce platform for on-demand reservations and purchases of goods and services," because nothing is safer than moving functionalities drivers shouldn't be using on their phone, to the car's dashboard.

News flash: according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, it may take 30 years for the auto industry to achieve 95 percent adoption of new safety tech. Why? Because selling performance, or even the cosmetics of performance, is both more profitable and easier than safety, at any price. 

How about car rental companies?

Aaron Robinson/Facebook

Here's a joke for you: What's the difference between traditional car rental and sharing platforms like Turo? The people who own the cars on Turo actually care if their cars come back.

What about drivers? Some care about safety, but obviously not enough to keep Skip Barber Driving School from going bankrupt. Passengers? Nope. If passengers cared at all about safety, we'd demand restaurant-style grades in every hailing app and on every cab window.

Hardly anyone really cares about safety, even if they say they do. Safety is an excuse, a lie. No one is safe as long as people think safety something you can buy.

"Safety" Does Not Equal Safe
"Safe" is a state that only occurs when one is 100 percent immune from harm, which is impossible, so let's just take that right out of the discussion.

What about "safety"? "Safety" doesn't actually mean anything. The word "safety" is a perfect example of the failure of language. When popular definitions of safety define it as the "state of being safe," they are perpetuating this failure. "Safety" is just a feeling somewhere between optimism and resignation, crawling along a continuum with the impossibility of "safe" at one end, and a shallow pool full of crocodiles on the other.

Safety is a word behind which companies hide when they want to sell us something we could have by other means, if only we had better judgment. It's the sense of peace we literally buy into when we don't want to invest time in actually being safer. It's the equilibrium between real and perceived risk, at the intersection of the lies told to us and the lies we tell ourselves.

Once in motion, no vehicle currently on the road is 100 percent safe.

Therefore, there can be no such thing as a "safe" car. There is only X and anything safer, and X is always evolving. To wit: the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has always been a benchmark for safety. The one guy wearing a seatbelt in the hi-speed crash that killed Princess Diana? He's still alive. That was safety. But the 1 percent aren't hunting for deals on a 1997 S-Class, because compared to a new one, a '97 is a $3,000 casket on wheels.

(Not coincidentally, that's also the average price of a new casket.)

Safety short of 100 percent will therefore always be a moving target, and the safest method of getting from A to B is only "safe" as the best choice you make.

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The Folly of Perception
The number one lie told about safety is that you can buy it. Unless and until Level 5 self-driving cars are ubiquitous, that's just not possible. You can buy "safer," but the term is worthless to those killed in a safer car. Those who survive accidents in "safer" cars invariably credit the car's design for saving their lives. The families of those who die blame 1) the other driver, if there was one, or 2) fate, a straw man always ready to take the fall.

"The driver lost control," police reports often say, but few look to the root cause of car crashes. By definition, accidents rarely happen, because accidents are unforeseen and unavoidable events. An "accident" is no more than the crash a driver lacked the skill to avoid.

I love it when people ask me what the safest car is. No matter what I say, they all want trucks. Maybe not real trucks. but anything that looks beefy with a high seating position.

"I like to sit high," they say, "so I can see what's going on."

I like to see what's going on too, except when it's a fiery death I can't avoid. There's nothing less safe than an SUV whose weight dictates stopping distances far longer than a station wagon or sedan, and whose handling prohibits steering around a crash.

But that would require learning skills. Why did Skip Barber Driving School go bankrupt? Because given the choice between investing time and money in acquiring skills, or merely spending money on a "safer" vehicle, people choose the vehicle.

Money is spent. Time is invested. Money out mitigates mistakes; time in helps you avoid them.

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Rocket Science, Safety & YOU

People have been driving cars for over one hundred years, and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that the overwhelming majority of drivers have survived. How much R&D has been devoted to why? Not so much. Virtually every new technology developed since the Model T is designed to 1) save people who are bad drivers, or 2) help mediocre drivers think they're great drivers.

If you're reading this, chances are you're a good driver, or at least aspire to be. You can wait for self-driving cars, but you'll be waiting a long time. They're going to come in dribs and drabs over decades, so unless you want to live your life in the prison of wherever they do work, you need a driver license. That means you're at the mercy of everyone else who has one, and who may have chosen a "safe" SUV over skill.

Don't be a victim, no matter what you drive.

There is only one way to be truly safer, and that is to understand how machines work, wherever and whenever we need them. Technology is only as good as our understanding of it. For now, no car is safer than the human being behind the wheel. In the future, no self-driving car will ever be safer than the minimum viable AI necessary to get to market. The only difference is who chose the level of intelligence and skill applied to using a machine.

Make the choice to be a better, safer driver, now, and you may even live to see machines do it better. Maybe. Or you can continue to buy the best car makers can do, and leave your safety to strangers, and fate.

Not me.

Alex Roy — Founder of the Human Driving Association, Editor-at-Large at The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver — has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.