Safety features on autos have come a long way since 1922 when famed driver Barney Oldfield reportedly rigged up a parachute harness to be used as a seatbelt on an Indianapolis 500 race car.
Today, it’s common for vehicles to carry devices that automatically steer you back into the middle of your lane should you drift too much, or signal when someone is coming up on your blind side. They’ll correct your steering, stop your car a foot behind the guy in front of you, and deploy no end of air bags should you get struck.
Volvo, the Swedish automaker, has a project it calls Vision 2020 whereby it intends that no one driving one of its new cars in the year will be killed or even seriously injured. Now that’s a vow for safe driving. I’m all for safety. But for the sake of curiosity, the money-minding wonk in me wondered; what’s the price for all these safety gadgets?
That turns out to be a question without a precise answer. The government doesn’t keep any such current statistics. Nor does the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While automakers know the answers, for competitive reasons they keep the data under wraps.
Still, we can look at some historical records to get an idea of what certain safety features cost when introduced. Then we can extrapolate to present day dollars.
Basic safety features, such as those seat belts, or rear view mirror or safety-glass windshields, have been around for a long, long time. Starting in the 1960s, though, serious thought was given by regulators about raising safety and emissions standards. Some of this was prompted consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 1965 indictment against the auto industry’s questionable safety record with his book, Unsafe At Any Speed.
A 2004 study conducted by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis estimated that in 1967 Detroit spent a measly $11 per vehicle on safety measures. Federal law mandated installation of seat belts in 1968 model year cars and between then and 2001 regulatory mandates ballooned, causing one-fifth to one-third of the total price increase of autos. The Institute further said that as much as one-fifth of the entire value of a car was tied to regulations.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was not nearly as generous, as it pegged the cost of safety equipment on a 2002 vehicle at $839, or 4 percent of the value. It ignored some stuff, such as windshields or padded dashboards. But it broke down the cost of many individual safety features; head restraints cost $31, safety belts cost $124, air bags added $397, and roof crush resistance was a bargain at just $3.47.
This study needs to be updated to reflect today’s costs. And it needs to take into account the vast improvements in auto safety.
Scan the sticker on a new car lot today and you’ll see that most of safety features are just rolled into the price as standard equipment. A 2016 model Mazda 6, for instance, listed no charge for items such as Anti-lock brakes (ABS), air bags, tire pressure and blind spot monitors, and what it called “smart city brake support.” This places a laser sensor in the windshield that detects the risk of a collision at speeds up to almost 20 mph and applies brakes if need be.
Whether it’s standard equipment or an add-on, these features have made for some incredibly safer highways. In 2014, 32,675 people died in traffic accidents. That’s the lowest number since 1949, when total miles driven were just one-seventh as much. If automakers such as Volvo can hold to their pledge we’ll see even better results.
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