Volvo’s new safety drive
The Swedes say no one should die in a car crash, writes NEIL McDONALD
ON THE surface Volvo’s mission statement to build cars that do not crash sounds like a Hollywood fantasy. It ranks up there with former prime minister Bob Hawke’s 1987 statement that by 1990 no Australian child would live in poverty.
But the safe Swede is not playing politics. It really believes that by 2020 no one should be killed or injured in a car with a Volvo badge and is taking measures to ensure its vehicles comply.
It’s a visionary declaration, but one company safety strategy boss Jan Ivarsson believes is attainable.
‘‘We don’t accept that people lose their lives in plane accidents, so why should we regard car accidents as inevitable?’’ he says.
The World Health Organisation says about 1.2 million people are killed and 50 million wounded in traffic accidents every year.
By 2020 deaths from road accidents are set to rise to 8.4 million.
Delve further and the WHO statistics are revealing.
Road crashes rank ninth among the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for 2.8 per cent of all global deaths and disability.
And 50 per cent of all road fatalities involve people aged 15-44.
The figures are similar in Australia, where under 30 year-olds are over-represented in fatality statistics and 22,000 people are seriously injured each year.
Though applauding the merits of the Volvo initiative, Sydney road safety advocate John Cadogan is wary that some technologies could ‘‘dumb down’’ the skill of driving.
‘‘And we don’t educate drivers about what the real risks are, either. There are heaps of distracting devices in cars and there is also that pesky concept that if you buy a safe car, you can drive a little more dangerously,’’ he says.
‘‘Psychologists call it risk homeostasis: that everyone’s prepared to accept a certain amount of risk.’’
He says some owners of really safe cars could be prepared to take more liberties ‘‘because you erroneously assume the car will protect you’’.
Cadogan, who has a website called crashprevention.com.au, says there are easily identifiable areas of road safety concern, but few drivers worry about them.
‘‘In Australia 50 per cent of all road trauma occurs at intersections . . . and it’s driver error. People think that the driver error that leads to all this trauma is the guy who ploughs through a red light.
‘‘But it’s also an error on the part of the driver who notionally has the right of way because they don’t check that everyone else is complying with the road rules.’’ ARMAKERS may be inventing ways of preventing and avoiding accidents and injury, but it still comes down to the driver, he says.
‘‘The biggest thing holding road safety back is drivers not giving a toss about driving,’’ he says.
‘‘They don’t think there is a much of a benefit to be derived from being good at driving.
‘‘Drivers don’t take the act of driving seriously because they don’t respect or have much appreciation for how hard it can bite you.’’
Another issue peculiar to Australia is the average age of our motoring fleet is more than 10 years.
‘‘That means the average Australia is more than a decade out on safety technology,’’ he says.
‘‘Today’s cutting-edge advances won’t really get into the hands of the average driver until 2018. If Volvo
Cin 2020 produces a car that you can’t die in, the average Australia won’t be driving it until 2030 and a bit.
‘‘Many Australians are only just getting airbags and anti-skid brakes in their cars.’’
Cadogan says there is no question road safety will improve dramatically if the age of the national fleet is lowered.
‘‘And our most vulnerable drivers, our young drivers, are driving the oldest, crappiest and least safe cars, and they’re the ones more predisposed to crashing and injuring themselves.’’
Volvo’s Ivarsson says continuous research and enhancement of safety in and around cars is essential for achieving a safer driver environment and a collision-free future. ‘‘In this aim we invite cooperation with authorities and the automotive industry,’’ he says.
The Volvo Cars Traffic Accident Research Team has investigated traffic accidents since 1970.
It is not alone in such research. Several other carmakers, including Holden in conjunction with the Monash University Accident Research Centre, have done similar research.
Volvo’s accident database contains information about more than 36,000 accidents involving its cars.
By using knowledge from real traffic situations, it has learned how to design cars that offer greater safety in a crash. Volvo also investigates driver behaviour to learn more about what can lead to hazardous situations. Even if the technology to design a collision-free environment is not yet in place, Volvo’s safety experts know what they want to achieve.
Among them are intelligent cars that monitor drowsiness or distraction and also warn drivers when they are too close to other cars and automatically brake if needed.
The lower impact speed leads to less crash energy, which in turn increases the performance of the car’s protective safety systems such as seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones.
Within a few years Volvo also plans to have safety technologies that detect and auto-brake for pedestrians and even steer away from oncoming cars.
However, it recognises a collision-free future cannot be obtained without drivers, governments and the owners of road infrastructures contributing to safe traffic. T THIS point, though, Cadogan says carmakers have done more than drivers and governments to improve safety.
Ivarsson says co-operation between road traffic authorities and the car industry is vital.
But as Cadogan points out, the person behind the wheel is the one mitigating factor in all of this.
‘‘In an ideal world we would all be good drivers. ‘‘But we don’t live in an ideal world,’’ Cadogan says.
Safety first: the Volvo XC60 with city safety gear and (left) head of safety development Jan Ivarsson.
Car that thinks for itself: Volvo tests its advanced driver aids to develop a foolproof car, hoping one day to cut the road toll to a bare minimum.