As a reader you might be sick of hearing about it; my distaste for the vision available in new vehicles. I continue to feel strong about this topic. It's recently rehashed with my new career as a professional driving instructor.
You'll notice I barely move my hands, feet or body around, but my eyes and head is moving constantly! Driving is all about vision, I use my eyes to make safe driving decisions."
This is a quote from actual lessons with students. These young, fresh, road scholars sponge up information, excited for the opportunity to have the responsibility of driving on their own. It wasn't shocking when I began teaching that students even with only 20 minutes experience, would express complaints of vision out of our 2014 Honda Civic. Nearly every student remarks about their inability to see around the A pillars supporting the front windshield when scanning and making turns. You have to understand how important of a complaint this is. For the majority of the group I teach, these young adults have never operated an automobile before in their lives. Like a child pointing out the elephant in the room, we're all thinking it, even if we're not saying it: WE CAN'T SEE WHERE WE ARE GOING.
This is dangerous, especially if you consider my quote above. Driving is 95% eye work. Observing hazards and adjusting our path of travel to accompany and/or avoid these hazards. I'm curious; dear design and engineering departments, on the list of design priorities, why is drivers vision not the most important factor? My interpretation of said list is as so:
2. Visual appeal,
3. Survival rate of a crash,
4. Ergonomics of the average market user,
5. Visibility of driver.
A bit backwards, if you consider all decisions of a driver are almost solely defined by their visual observations. Actually, this list is fucking insane from a true concern of safety.
Consumers can accredit a large amount of the blame on them selves. Surviving a crash is an important consideration when purchasing a car. I too as a manufacturer of a product wish to make something my customers actually want. So many customers want a car that is designed well to protect it's occupants. That's a fair requirement, to a point. The remaining fault of the current state of automotive design can be placed on the manufacturers, who have enough research and development to tell the customers "You're wrong." Survival is not the entirety of safety when driving. Cars now-a-days are reminiscent of those padded barrels, designed for surviving the plunge over Niagara Falls. These barrels offered a great survival rate, and no responsibility of the direction or speed of travel, much like new cars.
Waist lines continue to rise, even since I began complaining about them. The new trend is to taper the waist line of the car higher in the back, an unlevel slant. The requirements for survival of a crash have steadily become more stringent year after year. Department of Transport (DOT) is looking out for you, the consumer. :) Nice guys. These changes force manufacturers to change their products. Roll over protection is more important than ever, especially with this huge influx of easily tipped SUV's. This has affected the waist line of vehicles more than ever before. The major cause of the tapered, unlevel waist line, is to increase roll over strength. this is also the reason that the A pillars, the sections of metal surrounding the windshield, stretch further forward, creeping way up the hood! Safer in a roll over, greater rate of survival.
Is survival the entirety of safety? I don't think it is. As a society we learn over time, make mistakes and correct them. It's normal and a usual form of learning! It's a pleasant thing. :) I think it's time we learned that surviving the crash, is secondary to avoiding it to begin with. Maybe manufacturers are embracing this ideal with use of electronics and other devices. A step with the right intention, but wrong direction. It's important to me, specifically, that drivers are able to feel and take the responsibility of their safety.
Environmentalists continue to complain about the resources it takes to assemble a new car. New cars are behemoths compared to those of old! The number of devices to avoid and survive the crash, not only remove responsibility from the driver, but add a great deal of weight and complexity to the vehicles. Weight directly equals resources. The more weight the vehicle carries, the greater volume of resources needed to construct it. This environmental offset is extreme, as you must consider the number of vehicles and time needed to collect, create and move said resources as well. Like many of the problems we talk about in this article, it too is self deprecating. Weight and environmentalism have another tie; fuel economy. Fuel is consumed to create power to move the weight of the car. New engines might be far superior in terms of fuel efficiency compared to those of the engines of the 1980's. However, the actual consumption numbers overall are worse. The vehicles weight nearly twice as much. A 20% improvement of the engine is negated, by the 100% increase in weight. Tools for survival cost more than just their purchase price, they come with a much heftier maintenance fee.
This argument of weight isn't over either. Let's get back onto safety. If we're talking about about increasing the weight of the vehicle to survive the crash, maybe we should consider avoiding it first. Let's consult high school physics; an object in motion tends to stay in motion. We've all tried to hit a basket ball with a badminton racket. Unlike the shuttle cock we're supposed to hit, the basketball carries a greater weight, it takes a much greater force to disrupt the larger objects path of motion. The same applies to our automobile! A heavier car is harder to stop, harder to turn. Bigger brakes, and ultimately wider tires will solve this issue. However, they raise their own issues. In the dry, wider tires have greater friction on the road, good for braking and turning, not so good for that precious fuel economy so sought after. More expensive to replace, and more likely to wear faster, heavier cars need servicing more: greater strain on the vehicle and it's tires. Let's dial back to the physics lesson though. If it is harder to stop and tougher to turn, does that mean we are more likely to crash if something occupies our path? Yes. We need a greater distance, an even better observation of the road in front of us to prepare for said resistance. We have the opposite; worse vision.
With this train of logic, we're left with the self deprecating problem that, the more we prepare for the crash, the less likely we are to see it early, therefore the less time we have to change our path through it. Our car is heavier, so we need more distance to stop and a greater amount of traction to turn. What does all this mean? We are more likely to crash. Simply put, the chances of getting into a collision are greater! We've reduced our vision and our ability to avoid it and worst of all, reduced drivers sense of responsibility. I can't imagine the statistics and how they multiply themselves. Sure our frequency of survival has increased, but I can guarantee our likelihood of being in a crash has increased even more.
What are some other factors not considered?
-Snow and wet weather: Our physics lesson problem is multiplied when the traction of the surface of the road is reduced. Cars take even longer to stop, not just because of the weight, but also the width of a tire. Much like a snow shoe, the bigger the surface area, the more likely we are to sit on top of the snow and water, like hydroplaning, rather than sink down to the bottom to find traction. Even in mud and dirt, lower weight requires less traction to propel it forwards!
-Size of the vehicles: On a narrow road, smaller cars are far less likely to collide with something else. The smaller vehicle takes up less space. This is safer not only for the driver, but also cyclists and pedestrians having more room to operate near the road. We often shuffle non-drivers away from the road, but it's impossible, pedestrians and cyclists too need to occupy the road. With less vehicle size, everyones safety increases, not just ours. This is another matter of avoiding a collision rather than surviving it! In the case of a fast reaction to an object occupying our path, a narrow car is also more likely to miss it, even if it's a matter of centimeters, it all counts when you're attempting an emergency maneuver. A few CM's less width, and a lower weight, can mean a HUGE difference in avoiding a crash. Less weight makes it easier to slow a vehicle and steer around something quickly, the smaller size increases the chances of no contact at all, dramatically!!!
-Windshield Angle: It seems all these things we discuss in this topic are self deprecating. Consider this; with the increase in weight, and the need to not only appeal to the now more strict requirements for roll over safety considering this greater weight, but also to maintain some sort of focus on fuel economy, the roof line, and specifically front windshield angle is dramatically affected. This stretched out, long, low angle front windshield is a sign of our current times in vehicle design. The self deprecation of this issue is that the bigger the windshield, the more weight. Glass is the heaviest material, besides fluids, in the construction of a vehicle. These new windshields become larger and larger. As they angle they must stretch in size to compensate for the viewable area in front of the car, this does not compensate for the viewing area slightly to the left or right of the car.
People who wear glasses will know, that their glasses work best when the lense is perpendicular to their line of sight. As the lense is angled closer to being parallel with their line of sight, the more the light passing through the glass is distorted before reaching the viewers eyes! Try this with sunglasses at home. This is happening with the drivers vision as well!! The more we angle the windshield, the more the information we're processing through it becomes distorted. Another dangerous problem.
There are other problems with this windshield angle as well. Dashes become increasingly longer, now cleaning the window inside the vehicle is significantly more difficult. Drivers are driving with dirtier windows than before! Additionally, the angle of the windshield and the larger dash area, results in a greater reflection of the dash on the windshield! The light coming through the window illuminates the large scale dash, which is expensive to manufacture in anything other than cheap glossy plastic. The lower angle of the window directs the reflection almost directly at the drivers eyes. Even more vision lost!!!!!
The worst and ultimately most dangerous problem to add to this compounding problem, is the A pillar of the windshield creeps further forwards to support the now much more angled windshield. This A pillar has to be even larger in new vehicles, as it's longer, so it needs to be thicker to be as strong for roll over protection. Even worse is automakers have begun placing more survival tools in our field of vision. Pillar airbags bulk the A pillar up larger. It's well known that left turns are the more dangerous of the two, these vision issues are a multiplier of this danger. Watch, in traffic, drivers, wobbling their heads left and right around their A pillar just to be able to spot their path on a regular left turn. This is extremely dangerous!!! Vision is the number one observational tool to AVOID A CRASH. Why is the importance of vision ignored??!?!?
-Vision isn't just out the front window: When teaching students how to drive in tight areas, with lots of parked cars and a high amount of foot traffic, we often use a technique called 'Ground checking'. This is the practice of looking under and also through other vehicles to see pedestrians who are nearby and moving. It's a great technique to make advanced decisions of safety, for our own, but also others. New cars are extremely difficult to see through, when parked. Their larger physical size, but also, much smaller visible window area, hides pedestrians much more than before!!! Looking through a vehicle is not just a little bit harder, but dramatically more difficult. This is seriously unsafe. Reversing needs to be considered as well. Cars are still equipped with a reverse gear, and every driver uses this gear daily when driving, mostly with parking. Here in North America we have this lazy habit of driving nose first into a parking space or driveway. This results in drivers having to back-into moving traffic of the parking lot, or worse, the road! These tapered, unlevel, and high waisted cars are nearly impossible to see out of in reverse. A small, unacceptable solution is reverse cameras, which for the most part only solve the problem of seeing how far behind us the hedge is. The vision is second hand information, first hand info is a much higher quality of information allowing us much better decisions. The usefulness of the reverse camera is best left to lining up trailers, rather than deciding the safety of everyone behind us.
What does this all mean? Nothing, it's just my observation as a car crazed nut. I hate the current psuedo-technological, faux-smart vehicles, focused heavily on disconnecting the driver from the car itself. Self driving vehicles are awesome, Partially human controlled vehicles are dangerous, it should be an obvious contrast. It's the drivers responsibility to avoid the crash before worrying about surviving it. Currently DOT standards do not have this focus offering the driver a better opportunity to be responsible, and it is extremely dangerous for our ever increasing number of road users. The vehicles continue to get larger, and harder to view out of. With the inevitable increase of traffic on the roads each year, it seems entirely logical to focus on avoiding collisions. If we avoid it, we've survived it. Please DOT, change your expectations of an automobile to a logical observation of real safety.
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