Driving Car in Heavy Rain

On the afternoon of Tiger Woods’ recent rollover crash, I received a text from a dear friend, who was upset by a USA Today article that raised the question, “Was Tiger Woods’ SUV safe?”

Woods was injured when his 2021 Genesis GV80 SUV hit a center divider, a curb, and a tree. He was driving on a stretch of road in Los Angeles County known for its curves and steep grades. 

Sally wanted to know when does the driver’s behavior and the road conditions overrule any amount of safety a car can provide. 

In other words, why are people asking if there’s more that Genesis could do?

From all accounts, Woods was operating his vehicle with excessive speed on a hazardous roadway. Some would call this reckless. 

Whether or not Woods is sited, such offenses are nothing new. Since the beginning of automobiles, some drivers have behaved poorly. 

In 1932, Reader’s Digest published one of their most widely read editorials titled, “And Sudden Death” by J. C. Furnas. The author and the magazine widely distributed the article because deaths on U.S. roadways were climbing, but those grim statistics were not changing behavior.

Furnas interviewed state troopers with first-hand experience of arriving to the scene of an accident. The editorial described broken bones, blood and mangled bodies. Here is just a sampling:

“If ghosts were put to useful purpose, every bad stretch of road in the United States would greet the on-coming motorist with groans and screams and the educational spectacle of 10 or a dozen corpses, all sizes, sexes and ages, lying horribly still on the bloody grass.” 

The author was clearly trying to show drivers the ultimate (and possibly inevitable) consequences of their actions. But the editorial also made another important point: carmakers did not design the cars of that time to protect occupants in a crash. 

Dashboards then were made of wood and metal. Every surface or angle become a projectile – causing harm and disfigurement. A crash was like going over, “Niagara Falls in a steel barrel full of railroad spikes.” 

In fact, many folks in those days thought it was better to be ejected from the vehicle than to be tossed about inside the vehicle. 

Car design has come a long way since then. The seatbelt, airbags and stronger roof built into Woods’ SUV probably saved his life. But these safety devices only came about after an effort to change people’s attitudes.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, epidemiologists suggested that Americans had to change the way we viewed crashes. First, we had to accept the fact that crashes happen. 

Once this basic premise was in place, then communities came together to (1) prevent crashes and (2) reduce crash-related injuries and deaths. Professionals from law enforcement, road design and maintenance, driver education, emergency medical care and, yes, vehicle design all had important roles to play. 

President Johnson formed the Department of Transportation in the mid-1960s and appointed the public health specialist Dr. William Haddon to lead what is today’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Haddon’s job was to reduce deaths and injuries on our roadways. 

About the same time, Ralph Nader published his book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Nader criticized carmakers for prioritizing car sales and styling above people’s safety. 

These events helped lead to the nation’s first regulation of the automobile. Within three years, the government issued the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards mandating padded dashboards, improved door locks, seatbelts, and collapsible steering wheel columns. 

Airbags only became standard in 1998. Roof strengths were upgraded in 2012.

Back to my friend Sally’s question. Yes, one could speculate that without the Genesis’ safety devices, Woods likely would have died. By today’s standards, the Genesis appears relatively safe. 

Car design has come a long way since the 1930s. That is thanks to the work of many individuals, in our government, universities, communities, test laboratories and industries, who joined forces to lower the risks of injury and death on our roadways.

We salute the emergency medical team who tended to Mr. Woods and hope that he makes a full recovery. 

But as drivers, we can treat this as a teaching moment. We need to remember to pay attention and not push the limits of our cars’ safety systems. 

Norma Hubele is professor emeritus of Arizona State University and the creator of TheAutoProfessor.com, a website that helps families make safer car choices. She is working on a book, “Car Safety: Where the Numbers Help and Where They Don’t.”

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