“I find it difficult to believe that the seat belt can afford the driver any great amount of protection over and above that which is available to him through the medium of the safety-type steering wheel if he has his hands on the wheel and grips the rim sufficiently tight to take advantage of its energy absorption properties and also takes advantage of the shock-absorbing action which can be achieved by correct positioning of the feet and legs.”
- General Motors vehicle safety engineer Howard Gandelot, 1954
Howard Gandelot’s sentiments reflect a charming old common sense approach to vehicle safety. His perspective on driving safety was much like my own once was, forged before seatbelts and airbags were mandated. Safety was the driver’s and the passenger’s personal responsibility.
More than half a century ago my mother worked for Howard Gandelot, head of General Motors’ safety office in Detroit. It was after World War II and she only worked there briefly but it marked the high water mark of her corporate life before she embarked on marriage with my father, just returned from the Pacific theater, and raising a family.
My mother’s family came north to Detroit earlier in the previous century to find jobs in the auto industry. My father’s father was a factory worker on the assembly line, possibly at one of Ford’s facilities. I’m not sure.
All of this came to mind while visiting my 88-year-old mother this week. I knew she had worked at GM briefly in the 1940’s, but I hadn’t connected the fact that she worked in the safety office.
We generally don’t think about car companies having safety offices in the first half of the 20th century. But they did. In fact, the Gandelot quote (above) came eight years after my mother left GM.
Auto safety is on my mind, due to the latest headlines:
- Highway fatalities decline - 2013 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview (DOT HS 812 101), After an increase in motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2012, fatalities on U.S. roadways in 2013 resumed the decline that had started seven years prior. Despite the decline in fatalities, 32,719 people died in crashes on roadways during 2013, down from 33,782 in 2012. The number of people injured decreased in 2013 as well, falling from 2.4 to 2.3 million. – NHTSA.gov - http://tinyurl.com/mpjykzt
- U.S. recalls top 60M for first time - http://tinyurl.com/k9mjqgm - Bloomberg
- “Growing list of safe cars belies fears in record recalls” – “The insurance industry’s list of cars and trucks that do the best job of keeping owners alive in a crash jumped 82 percent this year against a backdrop of U.S. recalls of older models that were killing their passengers.” – Autonews.com
Automotive safety permeates all of our lives. As I drove my mother to a doctor’s appointment this week she offered me a steady stream of safe driving tips. Well she might, since her driving record is better than mine!
Howard Gandelot is an interesting character to ponder in this context. He was a safety engineer before these positions were fully exposed to class action lawsuits and significant government oversight. His common sense perspective on vehicle safety contrasts with today’s sensor- and algorithm-based analytics and big data approach.
We have come a long way from Howard Gandelot’s time, or have we?
Highway fatalities fell to the second lowest level ever last year and vehicle recalls – at more than 60M, according to a Bloomberg investigation – doubled the previous record. What are we to make of this good news, bad news proposition. The recalls were driven in large part by the GM ignition switch failure (now believed to be implicated in 42 deaths, and counting) and the Takata airbag recall – impacting nearly every car maker..
As sophisticated as we think we have become in enhancing vehicle safety, the Takata recall shows that we are still operating in the realm of trying to save lives mechanically – ie. with an airbag deployment – rather than intelligently with sophisticated analytics. Metaphorically, we are like the apes throwing bones at the monolith at the start of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” We are still only working with primitive tools.
We have the know-how and the data to rapidly advance our understanding of the causes of airbag deploying crashes, but the data, the tools, those bones being thrown by the apes, are not being put into the proper hands for analytical purposes. A colleague of mine, Chris Schreiner, co-authored a study while at GM, that correlated airbag deployments with the use of OnStar personal minutes.
The study found relatively fewer airbag deployments when OnStar users were using personal minutes than when they were driving without using personal minutes. The point is, this is precisely the kind of research the industry and government should be collaborating on.
Honda was penalized earlier this year for insufficient reporting of airbag deployment crashes. It seems odd that car companies are responsible for reporting these crashes when public authorities such as police and emergency medical responders are normally involved and capable of collecting relevant data.
Auto collisions are traumatic events and ought to be treated as such. They occur on public roadways and, as public events, the observed outcome ought to be collected – including, possibly, on-board or even off-board data relevant to the crash.
Industry critics frequently complain that it is impossible to obtain real-world crashworthiness data on cars – but this information is available if we choose to collect, analyze and disseminate it. The past year saw NHTSA’s safercar.gov Website gain wider attention for its collection of individual vehicle recall and complaint information – but more must be done.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety continues to send mixed messages about vehicle safety. Following the report of a record year for recalls of cars to fix life-threatening vehicle problems, IIHS reports a substantial increase in the number of cars found to be safe for protecting vehicle occupants. But what if those systems fail?
IIHS has taken the place of Howard Gandelot in fatuously reassuring the general public that cars are safe, all is well and we have nothing to worry about. IIHS’s work should not be mistaken for consumer advocacy.
Annual highway fatalities may have declined in 2013, but the U.S. still slaughters enough people on the roads every year to rank the country as #4 in the world – with all of the societal and personal cost that that implies.
Since Howard Gandelot’s time we have discovered the life-saving qualities of the airbag. But with the Takata recall even airbags are failing us.
A more reasonable position will be to put big data to work immediately in the service of saving lives. Now is the time to start gathering accident data directly – rather than indirectly through auto makers – to identify potential flaws and failures in real-time.
- We have the technology to identify risky driving behavior both in real-time and retroactively.
- We have the ability to alert drivers entering dangerous turns (in real time) that they are on a fatal trajectory.
- We have the technical ability to alert drivers approaching intersections that another driver is approaching the intersection in a manner that will cause him or her to violate the red light.
We have the ability, retroactively, to understand what caused an accident that triggered an airbag deployment. Or, maybe, we can use the available data to determine that the airbag should not have deployed at all or should have and failed to.
The bottom line: We have left the Howard Gandelot age of “common sense” safety and entered the age of “big data” safety. It is time to take off the blind fold, stop throwing the bones at the monolith and embrace the opportunity that big data analytics presents to prevent accidents from occurring or recurring. This is the new common sense.