On September 9, 2009, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety destroyed a perfectly good 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air. This wanton dispatching of a perfectly good 50-year-old Chevy dismayed lovers of vintage cars, but it did add a “Thank God” to the old saying, “They just don’t build them like they used to.”

Presumably as a part of celebrations marking its Golden Anniversary year, the IIHS set up a mano a mano matchup between a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and the hoary Bel Air. One round, no timeouts.

In one of those cold, unwelcoming crash-test buildings, the two cars and their dummy pilots smacked each other at a speed of 40 mph in the front-offset format. That meant that the Bel Air’s left headlight struck the Malibu in about the middle of its hood. The result was not encouraging to those who believe that ancient iron trumps 21st Century plastic.

If the Bel Air’s dummy driver didn’t “die” in the crash, it would be a simulated miracle. The driver of the Malibu, however, enjoyed the protection of an airbag and seat belts, and got through the encounter bruised but breathing.

Because I am old enough to have driven a 1959 Bel Air when it was new, the IIHS demonstration got me to thinking about just how far we’ve come in the safety area since the year before John F. Kennedy became President of the United States. In those 50 years, we have come to take a lot of now-common safety features for granted. Here are just a few of them.

Tires: Tired no longer regularly blow out or otherwise lose their air supply at the slightest provocation. We often overlook the considerable contributions the tire companies have made to safe vehicle operation.

Seat belts: These things have come from cumbersome urban legends (“My great-uncle’s barber knew a man who was trapped in a burning vehicle by his seat belt.”) to easy-to-use devices that only the criminally dense among us refuse to use.

Airbags: Taken together with seat belts, the airbag has kept no telling how many drivers in their seat after a crash instead of letting them rocket through the windshield. We now also have side and head-level airbags.

Crushable steering columns: Once upon a time it was possible to impale yourself on the steering column and suffer the discomfort that comes with shoving the horn button through your sternum. Not any more.

Antilock braking systems: These lifesavers are as ubiquitous as wheel covers nowadays and demonstrate on a daily basis what a good idea it is to have electronic wizardry keep all four of your car’s wheels turning at the same speed.

Crumple zones: You can see these at work if you watch Indy racing. Instead of using the driver to absorb impact, you use collapsing front ends and engine compartments. This theory can be traced to an old stunt man trick: jumping from the third floor onto a stack of cardboard boxes which collapse in order and diminish the kinetic energy our hero generated during his free fall.

Alcohol awareness impact: Not a feature, but a practice that deserves mention. The involvement of alcohol in vehicular accidents and deaths almost defies overstatement. The IIHS estimates that 40 percent of road fatalities involve alcohol. Bad enough, but down substantially from the 1970s when the figure was 70 percent. The National Institute of Health says that reductions in driving after drinking saved more than 150,000 lives between 1982 and 2001, which would be more than the combined total saved by increases in seat belt use, airbags, and motorcycle and bicycle helmets.

There are of course a bushel of other new safety features—electronic stability control, rear-vision cameras and directional headlights to name just three—and there are dozens more either here or on the way. But suppose we ask what have all these improvements done for us?

The answer is one hell of a lot. Using only a few of the relevant statistics, here’s the story in brief.

In 1959, 36,223 motorists missed their next meal. As a nation we drove 700.5 million miles, and that worked out to 5.2 fatalities per million miles traveled. Last year, with our population having grown from 179.3 million in 1969 to an estimated 300 million today, the year 2008 saw 37,261 highway deaths. U.S. motorists drove 2.9 billion miles last year and averaged 1.27 fatalities per million miles traveled.

In rough numbers, there were 120 million more of us, we drove four times as many miles, and we killed one-fifth as many people. That is beyond outstanding.     

But at what cost? In 1959, the average cost of a new car was $2,200 and the average worker made $5,010. In 2008, the average worker earned $40,532 but had to pay $27,958 for a new car. In other words, the buyer paid nearly 40 percent of a year’s take for an automobile in 1959 but had to pay 69 percent in 2008. That’s a stunning rise, and you can bet that a large part of that increase in car prices is due to the inclusion of safety equipment. Imagine how much money the bean counters could thrift (their word) out of a car if they removed all the safety devices added in the past 50 years.

The real question is: Is safety worth it? I think you have to say it is. Otherwise, using the historic yardsticks for fatalities per million miles traveled, you’d have to add about 150,000 motorists a year to the Grim Reaper’s tote board. I say spend the money.

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