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Airbag Syndrome

Automotive safety has come a long way in the last 15 years or so.  Once upon a time, the only safety features in your


typical family car were seatbelts and the brake… and maybe the horn.  Back then seat belts were not always found in the rear seats, especially in older cars when I was a child.  Today, though, you’ve got the works.  In any new car worth its salt, you’ve got head rests to protect against whiplash, antisubmarining features in the seatbelts, three point-seat belts all round, crumple zones, pyrotechnic pretensioned seatbelts, airbags here, airbags there and airbags everywhere, including by the driver’s knee.  And that’s just the passive safety features. In the active department, there’s ABS brakes, dynamic stability control (or whatever the stability package is called – the name varies from marque to marque), hill start control, traction control, brake assist and on and on.  Really safe modern cars also tackle the human factors side of things, with cars that can sense that you’re getting into a pickle and start getting ready for a crash or apply the brakes automatically, or warn you if it detects you’re getting sleepy (a few of the most recent Mercedes
numbers do this) or senses things coming in from the side or…  They’re thinking up new things all the time.  And good on the designers for doing so and trying to make cars safer to drive.

But there’s a downside to all this: something I’ll have to call Airbag Syndrome.

Airbag Syndrome is what happens when a driver and/or the passengers neglect a few absolute basics – sometimes defying the law to do so – because their car has got a particular safety feature which they believe will keep them safe.  You’ve probably seen the sort of thing I mean:

  • Not bothering with seatbelts (so restrictive) because the car has airbags;
  • Approaching corners and intersections way too fast because the braking and cornering assistance will take care of things;
  • Not bothering to actually look behind you or ensure that the driveway is clear or skateboards, cats, random toys and small children because the car has a reversing camera (some of these things are too low down to be picked up by the camera);
  • Spending ages fiddling with all the gadgets on the car or texting etc. with eyes off the road, knowing that warnings will appear and emergency braking can be applied if needed;
  • Other things – give us your examples in the comments.

Airbag Syndrome can be defined as a misunderstanding of what safety features, active and passive, are for.  They are not supposed to replace the driver’s noggin but to enhance it.  Even if we own the safest of safest cars with the highest possible ANCAP ratings, we shouldn’t let this lull us into a false sense of invulnerability.  No matter how good a safety system is, we shouldn’t take them for granted or let the car do our thinking for us. After all, as anyone who’s owned a car for any length of time has found out, things do go wrong and malfunction at odd moments.

No way am I knocking safety features in cars.  But they should never replace basic common sense or good driving habits.