How safe is your car?

How safe is your car?
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Other than fastening a seatbelt, I hardly think about safety issues when driving. I certainly wasn't concerned last month while racing to the Seattle airport in my full-sized rental car. Rare Northwest sun sparkled as I merged into a lane behind a pickup. Before I knew it, something heavy and metallic was flying at my head. I still don't know if it was a wrench or a pipe or what. My hands reflexively rose to protect my face as I braced for the inevitable. Miraculously, whatever it was bounced loudly off of my windshield, inches from my head, leaving a sober mark to be discussed with the rental agent ten minutes later. As soon as the shock subsided, I honked repeatedly at the offending truck. They never stopped.

There is much debate today about the environmental harm done by large vehicles like SUVs. Some of the smallest cars ever to roll down a paved road have gotten everyone talking about efficiency and functionality. Minis are maxi when compared to Smarts or the new Tata. These light vehicles get amazing gas mileage and fit into parking spots previously reserved for strollers and segways. They are cheap and kind to the planet. For sure, those are great things particularly if you don't dwell much on safety issues. However, accidents are like 100 year floods or economic recessions. They happen more often than you think. My sister was nearly killed while driving a Mini on a city street. She was going less than 20 miles per hour as was the pickup that hit her. It isn't until something is flying towards your head at 60 miles per hour that you remember that some things are even more important than fuel economy.

Just for the record, I am all for fuel-efficiency and environmental protection. I approve of hybrids, electric vehicles, running a car on recycled hair gel - whatever. I am just not sure that the solution is to move to tiny cars. And while it is important to apply our best thinking to making vehicles that won't harm the environment, I just don't want us to pretend that small cars are as safe as larger cars because I am not convinced they are. I insist my wife and children be strapped in tightly in larger vehicles that can withstand an impact. I encourage my friends to do the same.

I was thinking through all these issues last week as I drove in from the airport at the tail end of yet another business trip. The Seattle incident a month ago was not in my mind as I merged onto the highway. I didn't realize it but, like the 100- year flood that supposedly never comes, I was about to find myself in danger again. A blue Honda Accord pulled into the lane in front of me and before I knew it an entire bumper was cart-wheeling up off of the highway at me. It smashed into the grill of my car (yes an SUV), punctured my heavy steel hood, slammed into my windshield and dented the roof before blowing past me. Miraculously again it did not come through the windshield and I was unharmed. In shock, I leaned on the horn. They never stopped.

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