McCahill Sounds Off On Safety (Jul, 1956)

Ok, now I’m starting to think that Tom McCahill just had a fetish about imagining Chinese men in uncomfortable situations.

By the way, if you want to see just how much safer modern cars are than cars of this era, check out this video put out by the insurance institute on its 50th birthday. It’s a collision between a 1959 Chevy Bel Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu. Guess who wins.

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McCahill Sounds Off On Safety

Uncle Tom blasts so-called “safety features” and suggests ten ways makers can cut traffic deaths.

By Tom McCahill

IN THE automobile business right now the topic of safety is as hot as a naked Chinaman in a barrel of tabasco. With various professors fronting for them and spouting statistics by the yard, carmakers in newly-tailored angel suits have set out almost en masse to halt highway slaughter.

Now this is a noble undertaking, the good Lord knows, and I am all in favor of anything that will save even one life on the road. But the trouble is, the safety campaign so far has not shown much evidence of being overloaded with realistic thinking. Maybe there are too many ivory tower thinkers doing the skullwork—and by my definition, based on plenty of close-range observation, a “safety expert” often means just a guy from out of town with a new gimmick.

But at risk of being tarred and feathered by my own definition, I guess I have as much right as the next guy to sound off on this safety kick, having spent more than 50,000 hours behind the wheel of hundreds of automobiles, many of them while working as a test-driver. So here goes.

Let’s start off with the manufacturer since he has swung into high gear screaming about safety features. My beef is that these “safety features” tend to lull the public into a false sense of security. And meanwhile the manufacturers are failing to do a lot of things which they could do and ought to do if they really want to cut down accidents and save lives. For instance, in the new car Owner’s Manual the manufacturer should emphasize, with pictures and easy-to-understand words, that this car —just like every other car—will have far slower pickup as weight is added in the form of passengers or luggage. We pointed out this simple but important fact on these pages almost ten years ago —but here goes again.

Take the biggest cars we have, with the biggest engines. Their 30-60 mph time can fall off anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent when two or three extra passengers are in the car. Unless you point this out to the owner he may have no way of knowing that the car he drives alone, five days a week on business, will become a death trap when he tries to pass a line of cars on a narrow highway on the weekend, when the weight of his wife and two in-laws has been added to the car’s load. With smaller cars this danger is even more acute. In my opinion many a serious accident has occurred because an ignorant driver did not realize that his car lost an amazing amount of its passing ability when he loaded it with additional weight. The safety boys ought to point this out, in type THIS BIG, and the Owner’s Manual is a good place to do it.

Another place where the manufacturers fall down on the job is in their recommended tire pressures. The maker of one huge car I tested recently still recommends 24 pounds of air all around, though this low pressure will make the car extremely bobbly and tough to control in an emergency at high speed. All stock car race drivers carry at least 50 pounds of air when racing these same cars. The manufacturer recommends 24 pounds because he wants his car to have the softest ride on the block. The Owner’s Manual should recommend two pressures: one for high-speed cruising, the other for short slow runs. In my years of testing I can recall a number of situations where most likely I’d have been killed at such low pressures but I squeaked by because I always carry at least 32 pounds, which gives me more bite and control.

Here we run into another school of thought which is extremely inaccurate: the hard-as-a-rock suspension philosophy. I’ve read dozens of articles indicating that all we need to make American cars safe is to give them rock-firm suspension similar to that of a Grand Prix Ferrari. Let me point out to the advocates of this school that in most cases suspension on American cars is too soft but that flint-hard competition suspension can be very dangerous too.

The suspension on many American cars has been improved immeasurably in the- last few years (since McCahill started beating the drums—Editor), and in some cars it is pretty close to perfect for our kind of roads. It may come as a shock to some of my readers to learn that over a rough course which includes dips and ruts, such as the Daytona Beach-and-road course, many standard American cars could murder some of the harder-sprung sports cars. In fact, most of those sports cars would be off the road in’ droves after hitting those obstacles while the American cars kept right on going. Mercedes has the right idea. The 300, for instance, is not sprung like a rock; its suspension is a nice compromise between an ice cube and melting ice cream.

Door latches have been given the full treatment, publicity-wise, during the last year. It is a well-known fact that a large percentage of fatalities in highway crashes has resulted from doors popping open and spewing the driver and passengers out on the pavement. Door latches have been improved—but only slightly. The manufacturers must know this. Doors equipped with the latest safety locks are still flying open on impact and NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) still demands that the doors of all competing cars must be bolted and strapped shut before racing.

A couple of hunting companions of mine, riding in the latest model of an expensive car that has been featuring safety door locks regularly on television, were smacked broadside in New York City traffic by another car that ran through a red light. Both doors of my friends’ car flew open and both men were hurled to the pavement, one requiring a dozen stitches in his forehead and the other spending some weeks in the hospital with shattered ribs. If that car’s “safety” door locks had held, as advertised, it is doubtful if either man would have been scratched.

In the opinion of NASCAR president Bill France and myself there is only one way to make a real safety door lock. It must be designed like a bank vault bolt, with the locking end sliding into a groove in a steel girder which is part of a roll bar enveloping the entire body. Ideally there should be one of these Mosler-type bolts at both top and bottom, thus keeping the door firmly closed under nearly any impact. Detroit knows how to make such a lock. It would be expensive but it is the only solution to the problem of keeping doors from flying open. No “safety lock” I have seen so far will do this right now.

And here is another real safety feature which the manufacturers could and should provide to cut down unnecessary deaths on the highway: a steel roll bar. In the event of a roll-over the steel top on the latest style four-door hardtop provides no more protection for the passengers than a well-starched bedsheet. Roll bars are the answer. They can be concealed but they should be there. In the crash photos illustrating this article you will note that the drivers of both cars survived these 100-mile-an-hour roll-overs only because the doors were bolted together and because each car had a roll bar built into the roof.

Manufacturers have done a good job recently plugging safety belts (which we have been plugging on these pages for about ten years) but how about an educational program to get the buyers to use them? It should be pointed out that safety belts alone are not enough to prevent skulls from being fractured, faces from being gouged and a number of other unpleasantries. The ideal safety belt is not just a waist belt but a shoulder harness as well. This type of strap keeps the driver from parting his head in the middle on the rear-view mirror.

However, even a well-mounted waist belt is a tremendous advantage providing the driver knows how to use it correctly. The primary function of a good waist belt is to anchor the driver’s or passenger’s tailbone to the seat. This is no insurance that in the event of a sudden stop or crack-up his head won’t snap forward and conk any hardware in the way of his jack-knifing torso. But the Owner’s Manual can teach the driver how to “head for the cellar,” using the belt for a pivot before the roof falls in. The Manual should stress that the belt is a brace but not the overall answer to surviving a crash.

Here are a few more free-for-the-grabbing tips to manufacturers on how to keep their customers alive: Manufacturers should equip all cars with a mercury switch that will turn off the juice automatically when the car goes over, to prevent fire. Another area screaming for improvement is the current battering ram bumpers that have all the cush- ioned give of an anvil. Years ago we made cars with spring bumpers and some with hydraulic shocks that cut down impact violence considerably. And why were these given up? Because they cost a few extra bucks. But I have a hunch the average driver would gladly pay for bumpers that absorb some of the collision shock and help keep his teeth and tonsils separate.

And while I’m on this safety kick let me repeat the plea I’ve made so many times in the past—that manufacturers give more thought to improving out-of-round tires. Every “safety authority” in the business knows as well as I do that those lopsided doughnuts being sold today as “tires” can become extremely dangerous at high speeds when they develop gyroscopic action and can actually throw a car out of control. Manufacturers should tell the customers in plain words about wheel balancing and demand—repeat: demand!—the tire companies sell him perfectly round rubber for his wheels.

I see I just used the term “safety authority.” I recently had a long conversation with one of this tribe—a guy who has been widely quoted and televised as the greatest thing in safety since the invention of the diaper pin. During our talk I discovered this specialist in safe driving rarely does much driving himself, carefully avoids driving in heavy city traffic, never drives over 45 mph and averages less than 5,000 miles per year—just the guy to tell you how to handle today’s jet-propelled rigs on a six-lane turnpike where you’d be accused of creeping at anything less than 70 mph.

In all fairness, he was a first-rate statistician who could quote such fascinating facts as what percentage of highway accidents are caused by bearded men sneezing unexpectedly. Most of his information was based on analysis of police reports and he knew how many accidents involved drivers jumping stop signs, drivers intoxicated, drivers on the wrong side of the road, deaths caused by doors popping open, drivers scalped by sun visors, etc.

I guess all this is important but it is only part of the highway safety picture. When I asked this same character what he’d do if his car went into a slide at 45 mph or started to loop off a gravel road at 70 mph, he didn’t have a thing to offer. All he could suggest was that the driver was going too fast. This is great advice for a guy sideslipping off an icy corner, heading for an oak tree and wondering if maybe he skipped a page in the Owner’s Manual.

What I’m getting at is this: if manufacturers are sincere in their safety efforts— and I think they are—they should hire safety consultants who really know what it’s all about. Sure, university researchers and statisticians are important. But how about calling on the wisdom and know-how of men who drive, men who might not know a slide rule from a popsicle but can tell you what to do when the right front blows at 60 mph or when some gassed-to-the-eyeballs nudnick cuts you off on a rain-slicked turnpike.

A paid safety council of such men as Bill France, Lee Petty, Fonty Flock, Red Vogt and Bill Stroppe, all of whom know about crashes and how to live through them, would do more good than ten regiments of high-domed theorists who never lived through worse accidents than hitting their thumb with a tack hammer.

A council of race men could really make cars safe. Every manufacturer who has cars competing in the stock car circuits today had to hire outside race men to make his cars do their best and stay together while they were doing it. Race men like those named above can tell manufacturers exactly what’s wrong with their crates, how they can be improved and what can be added for more safety on today’s highspeed highways.

In summing up, here are ten sure-fire tips for any car-maker really interested in safety. 1. Tell your customers about the drop in acceleration time when the car is heavily loaded. 2. Give him two recommended tire pressures, for slow driving and for fast cruising. 3. Try for in-between suspension, not too soft, not too hard. 4. Install double door latches designed like bank vault bolts. 5. Install roll bars. 6. Give how-to-use instructions on safety belts in the Owner’s Manual and try to educate the customers into using shoulder harnesses. 7. Install mercury switches to prevent fire after a roll-over. 8. Design bumpers with some spring in them to help absorb shock. 9. Provide true-round tires and demand that tire companies sell true-round replacements. And finally, 10, set up a paid Safety Council of experienced race men to advise on new safety gimmicks and to rewrite the Owner’s Manual so that Elmer Snodgrass of Goosegrease, Idaho, can do more than take his hands off the wheel and cry “Mercy!” when his car goes into a spin.

Material and ideas published on these pages have been robbed, plundered and stolen many times in the past. Here is an open invitation to anyone interested to help himself to all or any part of the tips given above. It’s all up for grabs.

And if car manufacturers are looking for a slogan to spark their safety campaign, they could do a lot worse than borrow that old one from Frank Buck: “Bring ’em back alive!” •

  1. Toronto says: January 24, 20129:09 am

    “[A]s hot as a naked Chinaman in a barrel of tabasco.”

    Now that’s an expression you don’t hear much.

  2. Charlene says: January 24, 20125:55 pm

    And thank God for small miracles.

  3. Hirudinea says: January 24, 20126:09 pm

    Sounds like somthing you’ed see in a bar in Thailand.

  4. Toronto says: January 24, 201211:12 pm

    Okay, I’ve got it. It’ll be like a Cesaer, only Asian.

    The “Naked Chinaman”

    Tomato juice, a splash of fish sauce, a big shake of Tabasco, Vodka. Serve in a glass rimmed with powdered dried red peppers, with a slice of lime and a lemon grass swizzle.

    (A more Asian hot sauce would wreck the McCahill reference.)

  5. DrewE says: January 25, 20129:25 am

    Most of these ten suggestions have come to pass in the intervening half century. The obviously missing ones are #7 (roll-over switch) and possibly #10 (safety council). A roll-over kill switch might still be a decent idea, and not too costly to implement (though of course these days it wouldn’t be an actual mercury switch).

    #2 (dual tire pressure recommendations) hasn’t happened, but I get the feeling recommended tire pressures are at least generally sane and safe these days. Likewise, #8 (springy bumpers) haven’t come to pass exactly as described; bumpers are designed to absorb energy in a collision, but generally do so by self-destructing, so they can only do it once.

    #1 and #6 (owner’s manual additions) have gone to almost the other extreme; an astounding portion of my owner’s manual covers warnings and dangers and cautions about most every imaginable little thing, presumably so the manufacturer has something to point at should I sue them for getting into trouble doing something nonsensical.

  6. Nomen Nescio says: January 25, 20129:40 am

    these days it is with cars as with most everything else — putting something into the owner’s manual is a good way to ensure nobody will see it, ever and ever, amen. if a car maker wanted to ensure some technical detail about their products was widely publicized nowadays, they should make a crappy webcam video of it and stick it on youtube.

    and yeah, partly this is because the sort of stuff put into owner’s manuals these days is amazingly useless, boring, and silly. in the 1980’s, clock radios came with wiring diagrams in the appendix to their user’s manuals — my parents had such a one. today? half the little booklet is basically advertising, the other half is legalistic ass-covering, and none of it tells you anything you couldn’t trivially figure out for yourself.

  7. JMyint says: January 25, 20129:58 am

    DrewE, cars today do come with a kill switch of sorts. There is a fuel pump shutoff in case of collision.

  8. DrewE says: January 25, 201210:58 am

    @JMyint — I didn’t realize that, though it makes good sense after a bit of thought. The ECU has access to data indicating that something really bad has happened (such as would cause the airbags to deploy, say), and can at the very least kill the ignition and fuel injection, so it would just be a simple matter of programming.

    @Nomen — Very true–while the level of warnings has gone up, the level of useful information on how to use things has gone down, and often any repair or maintenance information has disappeared entirely.

  9. Orv says: January 25, 20123:06 pm

    @DrewE In a lot of cars it’s just an inertial switch — an impact over a certain threshold trips it and shuts off the fuel pump.

  10. Toronto says: January 25, 20123:14 pm

    A few years ago, I read there was a disparity between European and North American cars with power locks and airbags. North American cars would lock the doors after a crash, and European cars would unlock.

    I don’t know if that’s still true, but if it is I wonder if it’s configurable. Personally I’d prefer to let the EMTs in easily (though they seem to love hacking the roofs off cars to get people out these days.)

  11. Mike says: January 25, 20126:16 pm

    Nomen Nescio I hate tutorials on youtube. They are always so crappy quality video by someone who thinks they are an expert in the question and at making videos. They make a ten minute video when three lines of text would have done the job.

  12. Charlie says: January 27, 20127:46 am

    DrewE: I used to have 1999 BMW 328i and it had a roll over switch that would actually blow explosive bolts to disconnect battery (which was in the trunk) from the electrical system.

  13. Nomen Nescio says: January 27, 20127:53 am

    …is it just me, or does it seem like very ironic overkill to use explosive pyrotechnics to try and prevent a fire hazard?…

    (yes, i know explosive bolts are relatively very safe, just as is the pyrotechnic charge that fills an air bag with gas. even so.)

  14. Some Thoughts on Safety says: March 30, 20127:00 pm

    […] […]

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