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Last updated on: 4th of April 2014 at 4:44 pm (EST)

CAR CULTURE



How to Survive in a Car-Worship Culture

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How would you perceive the relative safety of vehicle A vs. B ?
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While their appearances are similar their fatality rates are not!
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      Many of us have experienced it! Our pulse races watching the TV commercial, when the simultaneous stimulation of our senses grabs our attention as the attractive and apparently successful person behind the wheel of this incredible, glistening machine smiles from the pilot seat. Our culture reveres the automobile, and the advertising industry has successfully cultivated our desire for a vehicle that will thrill and excite us, while projecting an image that “this is me”.  We display our vehicle like a badge of our success, delicately balancing our image with care to avoid appearing pretentious. We compliment people on how they look in their vehicle and of course, we want to look our best. 
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     These emotions are so powerful that they often overcome our survival instinct that should be safeguarding us and causing us to rationally consider that the purpose of our vehicle is to move us from point A to B, as safely as possible, and to avoid unnecessary risk-taking. Yet, each year in this country there are over 30,000 traffic related deaths, or 82 per day. Traffic fatalities are the cause of death for one-in-seventy Americans. Although there are numerous public and private campaigns to promote accident avoidance, these campaigns are directed toward human behavior, not the machine. Our society appears to accept the consequential injuries and death resulting from crashes as though they are inevitable. During a press conference in March ’04, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta summed it up, saying: “If 117 people die a day in aviation crashes, we wouldn’t have a plane in the sky…., yet …since it occurs 1 or 2 at a time we accept it”.

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     As you will learn from this website, many of those same vehicles that excite us are also unlikely to provide us with adequate protection in an accident. Even more insidious though, is that many vehicles portrayed by their manufacturers to be “safe” or are claimed to be vehicles do a poor job of protecting the occupants. 


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     These observations are hardly new. Over fifty years ago, Vance Packard wrote about the powerful market forces in our culture in his best selling book The Hidden Persuaders.[1] He wrote: “Perhaps the most spectacularly successful image building has been done by the automobile industry. The automobile has become far more than a mere means of conveyance. The automobile tells us who we are and what we think we want to be…. It is a portable symbol of our personality and our position… the clearest way we have of telling people of our exact position. [In buying a car] you are saying in a sense, “I am looking for the car that expresses who I am.” Since Vance Packard wrote these words, little has changed in our attitudes towards the social value of the automobile. What has changed dramatically is the knowledge available as to what causes people to die in traffic accidents. 


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     Throughout the history of the automobile there existed a subconscious, public attitude that automobile accidents, and the consequential death and suffering from these accidents, were caused by human (driver) error. Very rarely were they blamed on poor engineering design. One of the first successful challenges to this perception occurred in 1951, when the U.S. Air Force made a simple statistical comparison which revealed it was losing more men – dead and injured – in automobile accidents than in combat in Korea. This lead to the funding of a study at Cornell University and marked the beginning of the scientific gathering and analysis of traffic accident data, including vehicular damage, the nature and extent of injuries, and the vehicle’s features or components that were believed to have caused the injuries.


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     By compiling these statistics for the first time, an image began to come into focus that many of the obvious features in our automobiles were killing thousands of people every year. These included sharp protrusions, highly reflective windshield wiper assemblies and lack of rearview mirrors. Even with overwhelming scientific data available, the path to design improvements and reform in thinking by the public, Congress and the automobile manufacturers has been very slow.


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     By the mid 60’s the vehicle design reform effort began to gain some momentum. Ralph Nader’s book "Unsafe at Any Speed"[2] was published in 1965 and presented an excellent case as to how simple design changes by the manufacturers could dramatically reduce the consequences of accidents when they occur. He quoted a leading crash researcher and biophysicist of that era, Dr. Carl Clark of the Martin Co.: “Instead of the 40 mph barrier collision survival being a ‘spectacular accomplishment’, it should be a routine requirement of proper car and restraint design”. Mr. Nader predicted that only through regulation (by law) will our society succeed in changing the revered automobile, thereby forcing incorporation of engineering improvements, so obviously needed. He also argued that the consumer’s vigilance should be a critical part of the process. 


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     During the 1960s, the scientific approach began to change the design of automobiles, in part because of two laws:

 o      Authorization for the federal government to set vehicle safety standards

 o      Providing a national highway safety program -- which created the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP)

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     NCAP was formed in order to provide federal oversight, on an ongoing basis, of the automobiles being sold in this country. As part of this oversight, beginning in 1978, NCAP began crash-testing vehicles in a laboratory to determine the injuries that could be expected. As a result, manufacturers could utilize this feedback in their design process to create increasingly safer cars.


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     Now, fast forwarding through the past half-centruy, we see many visible signs of these laws: front seat lap belts (mandated by federal law as standard equipment in 1964 model year vehicles), shoulder belts (1968), front seat airbags (1988), and electronic stability control (2012). Today, all vehicles have rearview mirrors, non-reflecting windshield wiper assemblies, and minimal protrusions which could injure occupants. The other significant change that has occurred is less visible. It is the easy availability of life-saving data that documents the results of crashing a vehicle before you do.

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     One consequence of living in a car worship culture is that you are constantly deluged with advertisements portraying vehicles as fun to drive and that you need not be concerned with safety. The ads promote the attitude that you only need to differentiate your choice of vehicle based on appearance, style, color, price, etc. To protect your life, and the lives of those you transport in your vehicle, you need to become pro-active and seek out the life-saving data. Don’t expect the advertisements to tell you “This vehicle is fast and fun to drive, received 5-star crash test ratings, and has 3x the risk of rollover vs. the average vehicle”.
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     The ultimate decision for selecting a safe car rests with each consumer through empowerment by the resources now available.

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1 - Hidden Persuaders, David McKay, publisher, 1957  

2 - Unsafe at Any Speed, Simon & Schuster, publisher, 1965

3 - see IIHS 's website www.HighwaySafety.com

WWW.compushade.com


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Every effort has been made to be accurate and objective, however all information is subject to errors and omissions.

Informed For Life  is a Connecticut nonprofit organization
http://www.informedforlife.org

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