The Hope of Seatbelts

written by Kat Bair
4 · 18 · 23

In 2009, the Institute for Highway Safety staged a now-viral video where they crashed a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The point of the video, once it can be heard over the anguish of classic car enthusiasts, is that the very same accident that would have caused instant death in a 1959 car now would result in only minor injuries. 

The improvements have continued in the years since, with AI crash prevention and back-up cameras becoming relatively commonplace in new cars. The result is a striking and largely unappreciated fact: cars are a lot safer than they used to be. Like, a LOT safer. 

Despite a 371% increase in the amount of miles driven in the last 75 years, there has been a 78% decrease in motor vehicle fatalities. Every time you get behind the wheel of a car you are ten times less likely to die than when cars became a common part of American life.* 

So why isn’t this heralded as one of the great life-saving breakthroughs of our time? Why isn’t car safety thought of the way we think about medical breakthroughs?

Because it wasn’t a single breakthrough. There was no single invention, person, or company that made cars safer, but a variety of manufacturers working every year to make their cars a little bit safer, engaging with the problem from every possible angle. 

Cars aren’t just safer because they have airbags or seatbelts, but because they have airbags and seatbelts, and front ends that collapse, and rigid passenger compartments, and headrests, and the list goes on. They are safer because engineers, educators, designers, physicists, and tycoons of industry all worked together, not on some moonshot project, but just on improving their product year over year. 

This kind of improvement doesn’t make the news, it’s not headlines, it’s mundane, and it’s improvements in fractions of percentages. But over time, those percentages add up to a world that is fundamentally safer than it was before. 

My first job out of college was working for an anti-trafficking organization. One of the stats the organization frequently quoted was that there were 29 million people in the world in slavery. The office that handled the highest volume of cases worked on bonded labor slavery in southern India and they, in their biggest years, could get about 8,000 people out of slavery in a year. Not nothing, for sure, but at that pace, if no new people were enslaved, the slavery problem in that country alone would be solved in…. several hundred years. It was discouraging. The problem was so large that even the large organization I worked for, doing all they could was barely making a dent. 

The same is true for people who work to combat homelessness, or poverty, or climate change. The same might be true for you, as you work to take on issues in your community. A single community garden seems like it can make very little difference on hunger, that’s true. A single pop-up clinic can’t noticeably reduce the rate of disease in your city. 

But a single campaign telling people to wear seatbelts didn’t do much either. And yet here we are, in cars that crash at 70 miles an hour only to have the passengers emerge with nothing but a little whiplash. 

So when you feel discouraged that you can’t solve the problems youre passionate about, know that no, you probably wont solve them this year, and you probably wont solve them alone, but sometimes, with consistent effort, with all the approaches that smart dedicated people can come up with, things really can change for the better. 

And next time you get in your car, I hope you remember every little seatbelt click is an answered prayer and the result of a lifetime of work from someone who can remind you that things really can change for the better.

*This information is all pulled from Chapter 7 of Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Stephen Johnson

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Kat Bair

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