21 Steps To A Safer Car

Governments, not dollars, should set safety standards, says this consultant engineer, in a point-by-point analysis of what the ground rules should be. Maclean’s asked the Ford Motor Company to reply to his suggestions, with revealing results. The comments in italic type are those of the Ford expert

JOHN R. HAYES April 1 1971

21 Steps To A Safer Car

Governments, not dollars, should set safety standards, says this consultant engineer, in a point-by-point analysis of what the ground rules should be. Maclean’s asked the Ford Motor Company to reply to his suggestions, with revealing results. The comments in italic type are those of the Ford expert

JOHN R. HAYES April 1 1971
As A CONSULTANT ENGINEER I have investigated many hundreds of serious auto accidents for insurance or law firms. My impartial findings assist in the settlement of insurance claims and court cases. With equal impartiality, I have decided that many people lay dead or maimed and thousands of cars are wrecked simply because motor manufacturers are in business to make money, not safe cars.

That’s not their fault; it is society's. In our free-enterprise, consumer economy the people's interests are best served by private concerns competing with one another for a share of the marketplace. It would be absurd to expect one auto maker to go it alone and fly in the face of public taste by marketing a “safe” car. He’d simply go out of business. Remember, 1956 is the year Detroit still talks of as “the year Ford sold safety and the rest of us sold cars."

Ralph Nader prodded the U.S. government into imposing more safety controls on manufacturers — but they just don’t go far enough. In my experience, some of them don’t even make much sense. In Canada, there are practically no safety regulations for car design. And yet the only way the automobile can be made safer is for governments to impose the same requirements on all manufacturers, so that all must design their products by the same rules.

We agree that rules should be the same. We don’t agree that Canada lacks regulation. Canada’s vehicle safety rules are extensive. In addition, North American auto makers have built identical cars for the U.S. and Canadian markets, with all U.S.required safety features, for several years.

Heresy? Well, remember the automobile is the only means of transportation not totally hedged about with design regulations. Planes, ships, trains — all are subject to stringent government control in design, structure and manufacture. Because the car is “personal” transport and even a multi-car accident lacks the dramatic death toll of a jumbo-jet crash or a train wreck, the same stringent regulations are not applied to automobiles. This is absurd. Everyone knows the total death rate on the roads is higher than in any war yet fought.

Passenger impact protection is not provided in ships, trains or general aviation aircraft, and only in a limited way in commercial transport aircraft. In fact, we believe the rules applied to automobiles are now more stringent than for any of the other transportation modes.

There are three causes of auto accidents. The driver. The vehicle. And the road. The driver is at fault in 90% of accidents so that, even as roads improve and cars become more reliable, the likelihood of a massive reduction in the accident rate is unlikely. But cars can be so designed that they help reduce the number of accidents, and the accidents that do happen will be less likely to cause injury or death.

Experts believe that improved roads — i.e., divided highways with barriers in between, elimination of “conflict” intersections, etc. — and improved drivers are likely to pay the greatest dividends.

Such cars would cost very little more to make than today’s vehicles.

What’s more, operating costs would be reduced because fewer accidents would mean cheaper insurance and a reduction in repair bills.

Operating costs might be lower, but not original costs. For example, antiskid brakes cost between $225 and $275 for two-wheel systems, $400 to $500 for four-wheel systems.

What follows is a summation of the major lessons I’ve learned from examining, as an engineer, the battered relics — human as well as automotive — of many hundreds of crashes. If incorporated into a single vehicle along with other current safety requirements, these 21 changes would make that vehicle much closer to the ultimate “safe” car.


It is completely unwarranted that un necessary death and suffering should occur just to satisfy the whims of vehicle designers, who worship the square-cornered car. The high-speed, head-on collision in which part of one square-fronted car hits part of the square front of another car usually results in components being forced back into the passenger compartment. If cars had rounded corners fitted with bumpers that actually work instead of just looking pretty, the colliding cars would tend to glance off one another, as billiard balls do. Such rounded corners would reduce injuries from another common type of collision — in which the front of one car hits the side of another at an angle. Today’s cars have relatively weak sides. When the square corner of another car hits them, it easily penetrates the passenger compartment. Rounded corners would reduce the risk of penetration. Round-cornered vehicles would also be more stable in crosswinds and offer less wind drag, thus improving gas mileage. And the benefits of round corner in a rear-end collision are obvious.

Unfortunately, the laws of physics invalidate this proposal. When two 4,000-pound vehicles strike at any speed, the energy must he largely absorbed by metal deformation. Rounding the corners would not help. Most new North American cars incorporate side impact bars that do, in fact, help deflect glancing impacts. But the problem with impacts closer to the perpendicular is that there is insufficient space at the sides to provide “controlled collapse” of the metal to absorb energy. And if the sides are too rigid, the energy is simply transferred to the occupants.


As soon as a driver lifts his foot from the gas pedal a yellow light should come on at the rear of the car. When he applies the brakes, this would be replaced by conventional stop lights. This system would forewarn following drivers that the car ahead was about to slow down or stop.

An old, old idea which has been thoroughly researched and invalidated. What happens in traffic is that there are so many foot lifts that following motorists soon decide the light is “crying wolf,” and ignore it.


Headrests usually obstruct the driver’s vision when he turns to look out the rear or side windows. And besides, they don't do anything to prevent whiplash injuries caused by side impacts. However, if headrests were redesigned to be totally effective, the driver’s rear vision would be completely obscured. But if the periscope type of rearview mirror were installed, such headrests would be practical.

Since whiplash is caused by neckflexing where the torso is restrained, it is hard to imagine much incidence of “side whiplash.” More important, we’ve found in research that drivers like to sit all over the place. I’m a door-leaner myself.


Most rearview mirrors are inadequate. They provide a restricted field of vision to the rear, and obscure part of the windshield. On some vehicles the rearview mirror is located just where it hides stop signs and other road markers. Current design trends toward lower roof lines and smaller rear windows worsen this situation. So do “fastback” cars, whose rear windows are at an angle that refracts light — often obscuring the driver's view completely — and also reflects light into the eyes of following motorists. Then the styling trend of a wide metal panel between rear and side windows increases the size of the dangerous “blind spot” at the rear corners of the car. One possible solution would be a rearview periscope instead of a mirror. It could be set at the top of the windshield directly in front of the driver, and project above the roof. A wide-angle mirror would provide 45degree vision on either side of the vehicle.

Ford has experimented with periscopes and found three still unresolvable problems: 7. The mirror sets vibrate and get dirty, making vision worse, not better. 2. Telescope like positioning of the eye is required, which is totally unsuited to driver movements. 3. The inside viewer must be fixed, and this presents a head impact problem.


Stopping distances are calculated on a driver's reflex action in recognizing a danger; lifting the foot from the gas pedal; moving it across to the brake, then depressing the brake pedal. The average driver takes one half to three quarters of a second to do all this, which means that at 60 mph the car travels between 44 and 66 feet during this reaction time. If the conventional pedal controls in a car were redesigned so that braking required only one foot movement, not three, the reaction time would be only one quarter to one third of a second, reducing the stopping distance by between 22 and 37 feet. One possible pedal layout to achieve this would have the gas pedal at right angles to and slightly higher than its present position. It would be operated by sideways pressure of the foot. The brake pedal would be where the gas pedal was — and therefore right under the sole of the driver’s shoe. To stop, he’d simply press down instead of sideways with his foot.

There are conflicting opinions among engineers; some say the brake and accelerator pedals should be even so that the driver can merely slide his foot over, but others hold this could lead to jamming the wrong pedal.


Hydraulic braking systems, which are pretty well universal now, have the drawback that you may not discover a fault (a leak of the hydraulic fluid, for instance) until you have to brake hard and fast. Such braking usually occurs just prior to a situation in which a collision is possible, which is no time to find you have faulty brakes. Gradual loss of fluid from the braking system is probably the major cause of brake failure. Very few auto makers install an alarm system in the fluid reservoir to trigger a dashboard warning light when the level gets to the danger point. This system should be universal. There should also be a built-in means by which the entire system can be tested at pressures in excess of those exerted by the driver’s foot, so that faults can be discovered at the service station and not on the road.

For several years, U.S. and Canadian cars have had brake warning lights as standard equipment.


All too often collisions occur because cars cannot be steered once all four wheels are locked. Antiskid brakes prevent the wheels from locking, even on ice. Therefore a driver can still steer his car while applying the brakes with full force. This one device alone could save many lives.

Ford introduced an antiskid brake option two years ago, and GM and Chrysler have since followed suit. The systems, while very good, are expensive, and sales have been disappointing.


Technology has given us self-adjusting brakes, which saves paying for periodic brake adjustments. Trouble is, no brake adjustments also means no one notices when the linings need renewing, and you can end up driving on paper-thin linings without knowing it. In a hard braking situation such thin linings can disintegrate, leaving you with an unbalanced and potentially dangerous brake system. The only solution here is to spend the money you’ve saved on periodic brake lining checks. But one common cause of brake failure could be prevented. Many people drive with their left foot resting lightly on the brake pedal. The brakes are thus lightly applied all the time; they overheat and the brake shoes distort, causing complete brake failure. The solution would be a light on the dash that would warn the driver that he was unknowingly applying the brakes.

Worn-out linings, in our experience, give ample warning through noise, pulling and excessive pedal travel.


In Canadian winters, sloping windshields and rear windows collect snow and ice. If both windows were canted inwards from the top you wouldn’t have to drive around with only a small hole in the snow to see through. (But this would probably cause havoc with the aerodynamics of car design.)

Car makers offer windshield wipers, defrosters and rear-window defoggers to clear the windows. Besides, in-sloping would hardly take care of the drifted or encrusted snow problem.


A great deal has been said and written about the advantages of a. dual braking system — much of it nonsense. This system has, in effect, two separate braking systems, one for the front wheels and one for the rear. But suppose it’s the front brakes that fail. A popular, and dangerous, myth is that, with rear wheels locked and front free to rotate, a car will continue to head in a straight line because of the drag of those locked rear wheels. In fact, if the vehicle is going fast enough, it will spin right around until it is traveling rear first. A man traveling at 60 mph suddenly faced with a car on his side of the road steers to the right and jams on the brakes. The front brakes fail; the rear brakes hold — and the car turns sideways. The oncoming car hits it broadside and crushes the passenger compartment. The driver would have had a better chance of survival if his brakes had failed entirely and he was involved in a head-on collision. The solution is to redesign the mechanical parking brake system so that it operates on the front wheels, not the rear ones. Even better (since parking brakes are redundant on modern transmissions, both automatic and manual), the system should be designed so that if the hydraulic system fails the brake pedal would travel farther and then operate the mechanical linkage system.

Mechanical service brakes were dropped at least 30 years ago because they were not as good as hydraulics. But the basic question is, what evidence is there for a redundant brake system beyond what is already offered?


Apart from the fact that many seat belts are so designed that the driver can’t reach the dashboard controls while using them, most car dashboards are located so that the driver’s hands on the wheel obscure the speedometer. Dashboards should be located higher, perhaps above the windshield, and be more accessible.

This would constitute a head-impact hazard. Also, how would they be serviced — through a hole in the roof?


All tire valves should be designed to give a visual indication when pressure drops below a specified safety level. And all tires should be made so that when they are worn to the point where they are dangerous, a colored underlay is exposed. Police should be empowered to charge a man driving with tires in this condition. This would solve two big problems: when tire pressures are too low vehicle handling deteriorates and worn tires are prone to aquaplaning, i.e. when you brake in the rain the tire is raised from the road surface by a wedge of water, which not only increases the stopping distance but can also result in complete loss of steering control.

Good idea. In fact, Ford and others have been trying to develop a reliable tire-pressure indicator for years.

Wear indicators in the rubber have been standard for years.


The design and location of most horn buttons is absurd. The driver usually has to grope around to find the horn, particularly when turning and the horn ring or button is in a different location to the one it occupies when the wheel is in the straight ahead position. The horn ring that circles the entire wheel just inside the rim makes the most sense — and at night, when the horn is sounded, the headlights should flash automatically so that visual as well as audible warnings are given.

We’ve had all kinds of horn actuation, and none seems to suit everybody; invariably it is a “safety" hazard to the one who dislikes it.


Most newish cars have lights on the side of the front fenders, but they cannot be bright enough to be readily visible: if they were it would lead to confusion. The answer would be reflector strips all around the vehicle, plus reflector number plates. Electrical systems often fail in a crash and the lights go out. At night, there is the danger of an oncoming car piling into the crashed vehicles. Reflector devices would help prevent this happening.

U.S. and Canadian safety regulations already call for redundant lights and reflectors.


The headlights on most cars are not only located where they are most easily damaged, but also where they can most quickly become covered in road dirt. It would make better safety sense to have the headlights rise •up from the hood (as they do now in a few cars), and to have an automatic washing system. Often, front turn signals are placed just below the headlights, so they also can be easily obscured or at least their visibility diminished by dirt. Some are even placed behind the radiator grille, where they can't be wiped clean. Rear lights are often set inside bumpers or surrounded by chromium trim. As the car moves, a partial vacuum is created in such recessed areas and dust and dirt are sucked onto the light lenses. All this diminishes the effectiveness of the lights on your car.

Is this a real problem? Light intensity requirements already consider the question of film on lenses.


In heavy traffic, turn signals located low on the rear of the vehicle often cannot be readily seen by following drivers. They should be placed on the roof of the car at both front and back. They would also be out of the way of the road dirt.

We agree and have done considerable research. High-level lights were optional in some models, but a dismal sales flop, and conflicted with some state laws!


The darker a car is painted, the less chance other drivers and pedestrians have of seeing it. Truck fleet owners report significant reductions in accidents when their dark colored vehicles were repainted in light hues. Some bus companies report that driving with the headlights on by day also cuts their accident rate.

But what about the visibility of light cars in either snow or bright sun?


Designers should produce a seat belt that can be fastened with one hand — then more drivers would use them. Present ones are so complicated they often seem to be more bother than they’re worth.

Ford's 3-point Unilock system has been praised as the best in domestic cars. But there is no evidence that more people use them because of that.


In licensing drivers we do nothing to test their ability to concentrate or to react intelligently in an emergency, both vital factors in high-speed driving. In fact, many drivers react to an emergency with panic. Many serious accidents could be avoided if the “innocent” driver had taken suitable evasive action. Governments should set up schools to teach anyone who wants a license how to handle their vehicles in high-speed emergencies.


Reliable studies show that we could cut the accident rate by more than half simply by suspending the licenses of 10% of drivers — the ones you can prove are just “accidents looking for a place to happen.” If they had the guts to do this, our politicians could do something to stop the rising death toll.


The average person is simply incapable of driving any vehicle with 100% safety, and anyone with knowledge of modern technology knows that our present road and highway system has been obsolete for 10 years. Therefore, governments should already be planning an automatic transportation system. It is technically possible in urban areas to own a vehicle you climb into, dial a number to indicate your destination, then sit back and let your computers do the “driving” through the urban streets. When you arrive, simply dial P and your vehicle would disappear into the nearest parking facility. You get it back by dialing for it.

Much research has been done on automated systems, but a basic obstacle, so far, is how to make such a system safe!

Now all this is possible — and not impossibly expensive, considering the costs to individuals and society of the present inefficient transportation system. We know motor vehicles are the largest single cause of violent death, which is expensive to society and individuals. Remember, the cost of transportation doesn't end with the buying and running of a vehicle. It includes building ever proliferating roads and highways; policing; hospital facilities; repair facilities; complex stoplight and traffic sign systems, and so on. were possible to find out how much ail the facilities and services made necessary by automobile transportation actually cost, then I suspect the ultimate expense of an automated system would look like a bargain.