Sunday, March 12, 2000

Air bags or not, high speeds kill

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You can go out and buy any number of cars that will let you better the local hyperspeed arrest record of 143 mph ... but even worse, you can easily achieve “hyperspeeds” (25 mph or more over the posted limit) in almost any modern car.

        Today's “economy cars” offer better handling and a better overall driving experience than even the hot stuff of yore.

        For some time now, the government has required car makers to produce vehicles with less impact on the environment, which entails both fewer emissions and greater fuel efficiency.

        For all their whining, the companies have responded admirably. At the same time, the globalization of the industry has forced the players to refine their products at a stunning pace, just to keep up. Even low-end cars are more solidly constructed than would have been possible a generation ago, and, thanks to the role aerodynamics plays in fuel economy, sleeker, too.

        The net effect is that even most modest cars today feel quite competent at speeds well beyond the benchmark 65-mph legal maximum. Air conditioning has abetted this trend by encouraging us to maintain a cocoonlike environment, which lessens our perception of speed.

        In purely mechanical terms, a car will tend to find its own groove. This tends to be the spot where the engine's output (as measured on the torque scale) is maximal.

        With today's smaller engines, that point can be at 4,000 to 5,000 engine revolutions per minute. With a typical overdrive transmission in top gear, that can translate to 100 mph or more, so there's a tendency — legal considerations aside — for the car to seek hyperspeeds and feel good doing it.

        Our interstate highway system makes the famed Autobahn look like a cart path. Many portions of it could be driven — by competent drivers in adequate machines — in relative safety at double the national limit. (The local record-holder they nailed at 143 on I-275 was pushing it a bit, given the sight lines on that stretch of road.)

        Competency, of course, is a major issue, given how perfunctory our driving tests are. But an even more important consideration in any discussion of speed limits was codified by the old apple guy, Isaac Newton. He determined that energy can be measured as the product of mass and velocity SQUARED.

        In simplistic terms, double the speed of a moving object and you quadruple its energy.

        In vehicular terms, if you hit something going 60, you are going to have to dissipate four times as much energy as you would at 30.

        You've perhaps seen videos of crash tests, such as those conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. I've witnessed those at close range, and it's really scary. Those are done at 35 mph, which sounds like a crawl. There wouldn't be much point to doing them at 70 — they'd never be able to separate the dummies from the twisted metal.

        Seat belts and air bags have made low-speed crashes more survivable, but Newtonian physics imposes an upper limit of its own, so we shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of invulnerability.

        Alan Vonderhaar is the Enquirer auto editor.


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