An American viewpoint on designing for safety

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This article, reprinted from the “Detroit News,” is of especial interest to us, because the American car, in the eyes of the British enthusiast, has not seemed comparable with sports-type cars in the matter of style and safety. Written by Dean A. Fales, whose interest in British vintage sports cars is well known – he owns “30/98” Vauxhall and Renault “45 ” cars – it presents many of our ideals to U.S.A. motorists. – Ed.

The loss in man-hours and money caused by accidents, fires, sickness and crime is appalling. All can be reduced by intelligent action and a tremendous saving can be made to further national efficiency and economy.

The automobile-highway safety record has been and is a cause for shame. Police and insurance statistics indicate that 15 per cent. of the drivers should be barred from operating motor vehicles due to their incompetence, unfitness and lack of responsibility.

Eighty-five per cent. of the drivers are responsible and law-abiding and try to do what is right. In spite of their good intentions many are involved in accidents, a study of which indicates that the drivers should be better acquainted both with their own and their cars’ limitations. The high rate of accidents in which new cars are involved in their first days of use shows that the new cars have different characteristics from those the owners have previously driven.

A review of motor-cars and their performance characteristics suggests that recent style developments have increasingly handicapped the drivers.

The early development of the automobile was along mechanical and utility lines. From about 1928 to 1930 the automobile reached a peak of usefulness as a mechanical servant. Cars of that period were reliable and could be driven over existing roads in all but the severest weather under complete control.

The driver sat in an alert position, he was not hampered by blind spots, and from his high position could see the front end of his vehicle and guide it with assurance and precision in crowded traffic. He looked through a large and nearly vertical wind-shield which was protected by an outside visor. Defrosting was a simple matter, and wind-shield wipers could clear a large area of the windshield. The rear window being nearly vertical also did not collect dirt and snow and become opaque. The high seating position placed the driver above the intense glare of oncoming headlights, and wind-shield reflections from ornate instrument panels and glare from the sun and lights was not offensive.

The car of that period had its weight between its axles, giving good traction and being easily manoeuvred by its fast steering. Its braking distribution was such that it could be retarded and steered on slippery roads.

Its compact size made it easy to park and its high ground clearance and lack of overhanging ends enabled it to negotiate bad roads and ramps.

From 1930 on style became increasingly important as a sales stimulant, and in some instances style dictated mechanical changes. In this country style has been developed along one line only, that of the sports car whose lines express speed. That is the reason that all cars look alike. The goal has been to make a big and gaudy package for the money, make it low and make it look fast.

Tremendous strides have been made in mechanical improvements and in value given.

On modern high-speed roads and in good weather the late model car offers an excellent means of speedy transportation. Its seating position and vision is adequate, its weight and braking distribution and slow steering are suitable for high-speed operation.

In the densely populated north-eastern section of the country, where conditions make speed limits of 50 m.p.h. and less necessary, the late model super-performance vehicles are not only unsuitable, but also unsafe, if handled by other than skilled operators.

The driver of to-day’s car sits low in the vehicle and often in a semi-reclining position. His traffic vision is hampered by a long and wide engine hood, by blind spots and by reflections. The steeply sloping and unprotected wind-shield becomes dirty quickly and is difficult to defrost. The steeply inclined rear windows are blanked out in the mildest of snow storms. The steeply sloping wind-shields and rear windows make a highly efficient solar heating system, causing discomfort in hot and sunny weather. The steeply inclined windows frequently cause double vision and confusing reflections abound.

The stylish Vee wind-shields are a handicap to vision. In looking at a passing object, as the line of sight passes from one pane of the Vee through the other, the eyes refocus. After a time the driver unconsciously moves his head to see as much as he can through the pane in front of him, and as he becomes tired he finally sees what he can without bothering to move his head. In rain and at night in city driving, lights can be reflected in such a way that the righthand pane of the Vee becomes a blind spot. Wind-shield wipers clear but a small area of the steeply inclined Vee windshields.

The wearer of bifocal glasses is at a great disadvantage in traffic. In order to see the street and objects close in front of his car from his low seating position and over the long and wide engine hood, he raises his head and stretches his neck, which throws his line of vision through his reading lenses.

Light-coloured steering wheels with lavish chrome trim tire the eyes, and light-coloured elaborately trimmed instrument panels add further complications.

The weight distribution of the modem car with a high percentage forward contributes to riding comfort in a vertical plane and also limits quick turning in a horizontal plane. With so much weight forward the vehicle will not respond to steering on slippery roads, and on highly crowned roads the forward mass tends to pull the front of the car down into the ditch.

Slow steering, which has lightened driving effort, makes the quick correction of incipient skids practically impossible.

In recent years a greater and greater percentage of the total braking effort has been applied to the front wheels. This is excellent for high-speed operation on super highways, but bad for use on ordinary roads when surfaces are slippery. On wet ice the traction may be only 10 per cent. of what it is on a dry road. Under such conditions, when the brakes are even gently applied the front wheels tend to lock, while the rear wheels continue to rotate, then the vehicle goes where inertia and gravity want to take it, the driver has no steering control.

A vehicle whose front tyres squeal on corners and under brake applications on dry roads can be treacherous on slippery surfaces.

In shifting the vehicle weight forward the rear end is lightened, resulting in poorer traction for the driving wheels and further complicating driving in deep sand, snow, or mud and on slippery surfaces.

The overhanging ends of the modern car, combined with the limited driver vision, make parking a difficult manoeuvre.

The low ground clearance of the present car is a source of annoyance and trouble where existing ramps and bad roads have to be used.

In building cars low the added safety has been stressed, but lowness alone is not the only consideration. Many of our sleek, low and powerful cars cannot follow in the tracks of and keep up with the high interurban ‘buses on curves. A low car can give a driver a false sense of security and may lead him into corners at too high speeds. When centrifugal force takes over, the car is out of control, no matter how low it is.

Night driving in low cars in the beams of oncoming headlights is far more trying than when riding in the older high cars or in ‘buses or trucks.

To compare the rugged virtues of the car of 10 to 15 years ago with the sleek creation of to-day shows each to have outstanding points of merit.

In recent years an interesting comparison was possible in connection with weight distribution. The Ford “60,” with its lighter engine and lighter front end, was much handier on curves than the Ford “85,” with its heavier engine out front.

While more super highways will be built, most of the mileage in the thickly populated sections will be run up on existing types of roads.

The dense population that creates conditions that limit speeds also contains a high percentage of customers who might well be considered and catered to.

In planning for the future it might be well to explore the possible market for a type of passenger car that would supplement the present sports type that will continue in a more refined and developed form.

When economy becomes all important it will be interesting to wonder what the engineers and designers could have created if the same energy that was spent on the development of the super-performance cars had been expended on low-cost transportation.

Fatigue is the cause of most accidents where human judgment is concerned. Therefore the driver and his senses should receive the first consideration in planning a car of the future.

Without sight a driver could not function, and as sight is the most important sense in driving it should be most protected. Blind spots, glare, reflections and vision-distorting windows can and should be eliminated. Limits of areas of vision should be established with regard to traffic operation, parking and open road driving. More nearly optically perfect wind-shields should be made available at an extra cost to those who would gladly pay for them.

Certainly the car of to-day abuses the driver’s eyesight and great improvements can be made to reduce eye fatigue. A proper driving seat should be developed and its relation to the controls specified. Adjustable features of the driver’s seat should accommodate it to drivers of varying stature. The height of the driver’s eyes above the ground should be specified to place him above the intense headlight glare.

In our present cars too many small drivers peer through the steering wheel or over the lower edge of the wind-shield, and too many tall drivers have to drive in a cramped position. Many maladjustments of the human body and much digestive trouble have been caused by faulty seating positions.

Proper ventilation is essential. The recent pressure ventilating and heating systems have done much to reduce fatigue and eliminate the carbon monoxide menace. They should be improved to equal the standards set for schoolrooms.

Vibration has been effectively dealt with, in that riding comfort has been steadily improved and noise reduced. A further improvement can be made in connection with the nearly imperceptible high frequency hums and buzzes that cause fatigue.

In laying down standards and limits that would cause the driver and passengers the least fatigue, it might seem that the proposed vehicle to incorporate them would resemble the old-fashioned car. This need not be so. If industrial designers will put the same enthusiasm and ability into such a proposed vehicle as they have in the past put into the sports car, we can look for a new conception of a utility automobile whose lines would express character and dignity, whose performance would be adequate and whose operating costs would fit into our future scheme of living.