Smarter: 🚘 What If Your Car Didn’t Have Seat Belts?

Skeleton driver in car, X-ray Photo: NickVeasey/Getty Images

This week I’m looking into the grisly Final Destination-like outcomes you might face if you crashed in a car that was stripped of standard safety mechanisms. Also in this issue: Four essential tips on how to save money on your groceries, and should you go for an espresso or a coffee?


THE BIG STORY:

‘In the Hot Seat’

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when seat belts and airbags weren’t part of every car. Seat belts were invented relatively early—patented in 1885, actually—but their use became mandatory by federal law only in 1968. Airbags were invented in 1951 yet they weren’t mandatory until the 1999 model year.

It’s easy to take these features for granted. So I asked Emily A. Thomas, PhD, manager of auto safety, who oversees CR’s child-seat and rear-seat safety test programs, what would happen if you were in a car crash without basic car safety mechanisms to protect you? Here’s what she said.

Get Smarter

Seat belts
In a crash, seat belts are the first line of defense, Emily says. They prevent us from being ejected from the car during a wreck. Seat belts also “tie” us to the seat and limit our motion in a crash to prevent us from hitting the hard surfaces inside a car.

I’m going to state the *painfully* obvious here: You should always fasten your seat belts, no matter where you’re sitting in a car. Before you can roll your eyes and say, “Okay, whatever, mom,” here are some sobering stats: People who don’t wear seat belts are 30 times more likely to be thrown out of a vehicle during a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And over 75% of people who are ejected do not survive. 

Think that’s grim? It’s only going to get grimmer. Forty-seven percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2019 were not wearing seat belts. The seat belt usage rate in the U.S. was 90.4% last year for front-seat passengers, which means there still are a lot of people who don’t wear them. So groan or grumble at me however much you want for telling you something you already know, just make sure you have your seat belts fastened while you’re grumbling.

Laminated glass windshields
Laminated glass is made of layers of glass sandwiched together with a layer of plastic or polyvinyl butyral in between. In a car crash, it does not shatter. Regular glass, however, would break into smaller pieces or create sharp edges upon impact that would cut you badly, Emily says.

Collapsible steering columns
Compared to a single shaft, a collapsible steering column is designed to shorten like a telescope and absorb the crash energy in a collision. 

Without a collapsible steering column, you’re more likely to have head injuries, such as cuts or traumatic brain injury, skull or facial fractures, or injury to internal organs, according to Emily.

Crumple zones
They are designed to crumple and absorb the energy of an impact during a collision. The crumple zones allow for less kinetic energy to be transferred to you and help keep the occupant compartment from being crushed in a collision. Yes, please, to that.

Airbags
Airbags are designed to work in conjunction with seat belts but are not a replacement for them, Emily explains. They inflate and reduce the injuries you might have in a crash by limiting your motion.

Without airbags, you might hit hard surfaces such as the steering wheel, dash, windshield, windows, door sill, and pillars. Basically, none of the things you want to bang your head against in a crash. Airbags significantly cut injuries to your head, face, and thorax.

TL; DR: What would happen if your car didn’t have these safety features? Nothing pretty. I assure you that.

If you’re shopping for a new car and safety concerns are top on your mind, here’s our guide on everything related to car safety.


SIGHT FOR SORE EYES

Measuring front truck visibility

Photo Illustration: Consumer Reports Photo Illustration: Consumer Reports

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to road safety. Specifically, I mean the size of pickup trucks, which are becoming larger and larger and potentially contributing to an increase in road fatalities.

Because consumers are buying larger and heavier trucks than they did in the past, the average weight of new pickups sold in the U.S. increased 24% from 2000 to 2018. Many pickups exceed 4,000 pounds, and a full-sized truck with four-wheel drive can exceed 5,000 pounds. 

In addition to their additional weight, pickups pose more risks on the road than smaller vehicles because of their bigger blind spots and longer braking distances. Many pickups also lack key safety features, such as automatic emergency braking and blind spot warning, compared to cars and SUVs. 

Not that that has deterred people much. Consumers can’t seem to get enough of pickup trucks. The three best-selling vehicles in the U.S. in 2021 were trucks, and 1 in every 5 new vehicles sold was a pickup.


TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE

Homer Can't Sleep gif from The Simpsons

Source: Disney/"The Simpsons"/Giphy Source: Disney/"The Simpsons"/Giphy

Which one of these isn’t a hack to get better sleep? (The answer is at the end.)

A. Drinking alcohol before bed.

B. Decreasing the sodium in your diet. 

C. Using blue-light blocking glasses.


ASK AN EXPERT

Question:
“Food prices are going up so much these days. How can I save money on groceries?”

Answer:
Desperate times call for clever measures. Here are a few tactics to cut your spending on groceries, courtesy of a CR senior editor, Tobie Stanger, who has written extensively about groceries and always rigorously compares the unit prices of products in her own personal shopping.

❤️ Embrace alternative protein sources. Dried beans, peas, lentils, and eggs are relatively inexpensive compared to other proteins. 

🏪 Shop at low-cost grocers. Membership clubs like BJ’s and Costco often offer lower prices. Most grocery chains also have loyalty programs that offer special deals to members.

🛒 Make shopping apps your friend. You can find sales and coupons using a store’s app, while independent apps like Basket show real-time prices at different grocers so you can compare.

💰 Go for store brands. Store-brand foods and beverages can cost 20 to 25 percent less than name brands of similar products. That’s a lot! Especially if you’re buying in bulk.

You can read more about Tobie’s 19 ways to save money grocery shopping here.

If you have a question you want to ask an expert, reply to this email or email me. I’m all ears!


(CAN'T I JUST HAVE BOTH?)

Should you go for an espresso or a cup of coffee?

@consumerreports The FDA considers 400 milligrams (about two to four 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee) a safe amount of caffeine for healthy adults to consume daily. But if you want to cut down on your intake, a shot of espresso may be a better option. #coffeetok #coffeetiktok #coffee #espresso ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

SORRY TO BE THE BEARER OF BAD NEWS

When does tick season start? Now.


ANSWER: DON'T BE SALTY

The answer is A. Alcohol might help get you to sleep, but it will also decrease your rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a critical part of your sleep cycle, and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. 

The other two hacks are accurate. Regulating your exposure to blue light via blue light-blocking glasses can help improve sleep, and the same goes for reducing sodium in your diet.


Smarter Owl Icon

"Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night."



Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."