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Your life in engineers’ Hands

By - Michael Mwai | May 26th 2013 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Michael Mwai

Imagine a situation where you have done everything possible to avoid a car crash without success.

Many people, despite my warning last week, are still driving their Toyota Vitz, Platz and Fun Cargo at more than 60kph on our highways. We learned that most tests are carried out at 64kph, meaning any speed beyond this does not guarantee your safety, whether your vehicle earned two or five stars in the crash test.

I travelled to Kericho in a Toyota Voxy last weekend, and was worried sick. First, it was a hired vehicle with a service record as clean as an escaped convict’s. It was, therefore, necessary to be cautious, but since we were running late, my friend, Allan, was generous on the throttle. I avoided watching as the speedo edged beyond 100kph and focused on the picturesque landscapes.

Bad shape

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On the way back, I was behind the wheel, and it was worse than being a passenger as this vehicle was in very bad shape.

Once safely back home, I checked the Voxy’s safety record and one video shocked me to the core. Occupants in the second row are likely to be injured in the case of a crash, especially an adult passenger behind the driver’s seat. How safe is your vehicle in a crash?

In the event of a crash, your survival comes down to the active safety features of your vehicle. These work in conjunction with the structural rigidity of your car.

In the split seconds before everything goes quiet, your survival rests in the hands of engineers: How well they did their job will determine what you see when you open your eyes.

If you are lucky, you will dust yourself and make a few calls with your legs trembling uncontrollably. If not so lucky, you will find yourself in an unfamiliar room with cheerful curtains — read hospital bed. In the worst case, you will be staring at heaven’s gates or hell’s flames.

Your vehicle, depending on the input, has been designed to avoid these unfortunate circumstances. At the very basic level, it has crumple zones designed to absorb the impact of the crash.

‘Absorb’ is different from ‘resist’. The notion that the harder the vehicle the safer it is, does not hold any water. Hard is good, but energy absorption is the secret to safety. How well a car absorbs the impact and deploys airbags to cushion you determines how safe it really is.

Airbags have been around since the 1980s and were made standard features in passenger cars in 1998. However, German Walter Linderer and American John Hedrik submitted basic patent applications as early as 1951. But it was not until US President Lyndon Johnson insisted that unsafe vehicles are a real concern that work on the airbag began in earnest.

Allen Breed invented a ‘sensor and safety system’ in 1968, the world’s first electromechanical automotive airbag system. In 1971, Ford built an experimental airbag and in 1973 GM introduced them in their Chevrolet, but only government use.

The debate on the safety of this new technology raged for years, with people saying it was more of a risk than a saviour.

What can you expect from your air bag today? Mercedes took an early lead in this area and continue as innovators and pioneers. Volvo, known for their focus on safety, have a range of safety technologies, and GM continue to lead in crash safety.

The recent introduction of front centre airbag in some models, including the Chevrolet Cruze, are indicative of how competitive the automotive industry has become. This airbag deploys from the inner side of the driver’s seat to prevent head injury from your front passenger if the car is hit from the side, or rolls.

Mercedes have introduced rear seatbelt bags in the 2014 S Class. These are inflatable seatbelt straps that reduce the risk of injury to passengers in the back during a head-on collision by lessening the strain on the ribcage.

Volvo, on the other hand, are so confident of their passenger safety standards, that they are focusing on pedestrians. This, month they introduced a pedestrian airbag. The U-shaped bag deploys between the windscreen and the bonnet and is the first external air bag in a vehicle.

This technology should be made mandatory in Africa, and Kenya specifically, as we have a higher incidence of jay walking, including pedestrians staggering across highways from their watering holes. This feature, while very noble, is not cheap, at an estimated $3,000 (about Sh250,000) as an optional extra.

Faulty airbags

While airbags are responsible for saving thousands of lives, last month more than three million vehicles built between 2000 and 2004, were recalled for faulty airbags. Japanese safety regulators received reports that these faulty bags manufactured by Takata Corp and used by many manufacturers, including Toyota, Honda, General Motors, BMW and Nissan, could explode, expelling shrapnel and injuring passengers.

If the inflator ruptures when the airbag goes off, it can result in “metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the passenger seat occupant or other occupants.”

I sense an air of safety already.

Toyota Vitz Lyndon Johnson Africa BMW Chevrolet
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