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Your Classic Car is a Deathtrap, or Why Newer Cars are Safer

Something I’ve learned over the last several years of looking into crashes is that there are a number of persistent myths floating around the real and online world related to car safety, and one of the most persistent ones is that old cars–and I mean really old, like vintage old cars–were safer than new ones. According to the myth, old cars had steel and things like that, while new cars have airbags and crumple and just aren’t as safe. In fact, some people go as far as to say that the reason new cars have airbags, crumple zones, and plastic parts is because they aren’t as safe.

It sounds good. The problem is that it just isn’t true.

The truth is that new cars are safer than they’ve ever been in the history of the automobile. Classic cars do crumple, and tend to crumple the passenger compartments into the passengers, which is incompatible with life. When they don’t crumple, they tend to transfer much of the force of the collision through the body and into the passenger compartment, where they turn the occupants into shock absorbers with life-ending results.

This video from the IIHS shows a moderate overlap frontal crash test between a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu and a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air at 40 mph. Both are typical examples of midsized cars from now and way back when, respectively. Notice the lack of seat belt use in the Bel Air? It’s because those weren’t required in the United States until the late 1960s.

Play through the whole crash in slow motion. Note how the Malibu driver simply bounes into the airbag, well restrained, before resuming position. He or she would have survived that collision, and likely done so without significant injury. In comparison, the Bel Air driver would have died multiple times over. Note some of the intangibles, such as how the Bel Air driver contacted the steering wheel (instant brain damage, if not outright death) before bouncing into the roof (more brain damage and a broken neck, if not death).

Old cars are deathtraps. New cars are much safer. Friends don’t let friends drive classic cars.

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