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Are classic cars safe? I am interested to know the differences between modern vehicles and vehicles of old from the 1960s.

  • In the event of an accident, how does a classic vehicle compare to a modern machine?
  • Are safety features on new vehicles really a life saver?
  • Can anything be done to improve the safety of classic vehicles?
  • Are classics safe enough to be used as a daily driver?
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    Of course, compared to a motorcycle... – Guy Schalnat Apr 26 '16 at 19:01
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    @GuySchalnat depends on who you ask. – Hᴇʀʙɪᴇ Apr 26 '16 at 19:36
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    Simplest answer might be from the List of motor vehicle deaths in U.S. by year. In particular, look at how the 'Fatalities per 100 million VMT' column trends in the 1960s and then to the latest number from 2014. – user2338816 Apr 27 '16 at 7:37
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    Surely the question is why do people believe modern cars are "safe" when people die in them every day? I think that any car is safe if used correctly and not crashed. No two crashes are the same and no car is truly safe. – Steve Matthews Apr 27 '16 at 8:25
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    @SteveMatthews "I think that any car is safe if used correctly and not crashed" This is a very dangerous thing to think. You can use your own car as correctly as you want but you have zero control over any other vehicle on the road, or of any other object that might come into the road. Even if you're at home watching TV with the car parked in the garage, you be killed by somebody driving a truck into your house. – David Richerby Apr 29 '16 at 0:31

14 Answers 14

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+50

Physical safety

Modern cars are amazingly more safe than classic cars. Guys that are into classic cars frequently throw around phrases like "They don't make them like they used to!" or "This is built like a tank with real American Steel!", but when you look at a classic car in an accident, the results are pretty obvious.

In 2009 this crash test was done between a 1959 Chevy Bel Air and a 2009 Chevy Malibu.

Click for video

Aftermath of crash Source: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/sr/statusreport/article/44/9/2

The aftermath of the crash shows how the modern "crumple zones" almost completely protect the driver's area in the 2009 whereas the 1959 driver would certainly be badly crushed.

In addition to crumple zones built into the frame, there are other thoughtful features like collapsible steering columns and as a high tech option the car will call and report the accident to emergency responders for you.

From the comments (thanks tallpaul): here is another video of a 1980 Volvo and a 2000 Renault. Not classic per se but it does show a marked difference in technology even in that 20 year span.

Anti-lock Braking Systems

Modern cars also come with ABS which reduces stopping distances while maintaining a level of steering control. The difference between the car sliding to an uncontrolled stop and quickly slowing down while being able to steer around obstacles or even to just stay on the road is huge.

Restraint Systems

Cars from the 60s and earlier don't even have a 3-point seatbelt (shoulder belts), but modern cars are required to have them, and many also have seatbelt tensioning systems that tighten the belt and hold you in the seat in an emergency.

In addition to better belts modern cars also have several airbags to cushion the occupants in an accident.

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    I've read controversy on that crash test that there was no motor in the Bel Air. – Jonathan Musso Apr 26 '16 at 14:08
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    @JonathanMusso, that's interesting - I'd like to read more about that. In my haste it looks like I only answered your first question and maybe half of the second one. Leaves room for more answers! – JPhi1618 Apr 26 '16 at 14:17
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    I can't speak to older cars, but having recently been hit in the front right quarter panel at ~45 mph in my '06 Infiniti G35 6sp sedan (RIP :'c), it is amazing to see how well the car absorbed the damage and protected myself and my girlfriend. Side curtain and seat airbags probably saved her life, and we both walked away with minor bruising and soreness, despite there being so much force at impact that the lower control arm was sheared in half (granted control arms are not designed to see quite that much side-loading). – MooseLucifer Apr 26 '16 at 14:44
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    @JonathanMusso, jalopnik.com/5364071/… – Roger Lipscombe Apr 26 '16 at 16:16
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    @JPhi1618 The animated gif really helps to pull the udders. – DucatiKiller Apr 26 '16 at 20:34
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No, they are not safe

Safety standards dating back to before now were not as stringent as they are now.

The further in time you go back the less safe they become.

Safety has been driven by governments and as regulations have become more stringent over time car manufacturers have had the responsibility to conform to the compliance stack of the time. Whether it was driven by regulation or legislative action.

A 'classic' car from the 50's won't have.

  • break away motor mounts

  • break away stearing column

  • air bags from front impact to passenger curtain

  • seat belt impact tensioners

  • reinforced side bars in the doors

  • anti-lock brakes

As well, proactive crash prevention measures and technologies have been developed to create awareness into a critical situation before it becomes a disaster.

  • tire pressure monitoring

  • blind spot detection

  • adaptive cruise control

  • Lane-departure warning/wake-you-up safety

  • Emergency brake assist/collision mitigation

  • Rearview camera's

All of these technologies as well as many not listed have contributed to higher survival rates in accidents over time.

Conclusion

Modern cars are more safe. Classic cars are less safe than modern cars. Be safe.

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    I have an issue with the wording at the top of this answer, since it's not really clear and prompts me to ask a slew of clarifying questions. When you say classic cars are not safe, what does that mean? Are they death traps and I'm guaranteed to meet a grim and gruesome end? If classic cars are "unsafe", then what model years are considered "safe"? – Ellesedil Apr 26 '16 at 21:46
  • "break away steering column" you mean collapsible steering column. – Moab Apr 26 '16 at 22:25
  • @Ellesedil he said that they are less safe the farther back in time you go, it is a continuum. What you call Not Safe is a judgment call, after all, people got around in the past. Why didn't they just buy the 2016 car in 1960? Hmm... Our cars are "unsafe" compared with whatever will be around in 50, 200, 5000 years... Go to a museum, look at cars from every decade. Decide which ones you would put your family in. Done. If you drive long enough, you will eventually get in an accident. Just like a hard drive "crash", it is inevitable. I have been in two accidents which totalled or nearly did. – user15009 Apr 28 '16 at 22:03
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    @nocomprende: I understand all that and I'm not questioning that. What I am objecting to is the wording in the very first statement which summarizes his answer: "No, they are not safe". It could use revising in order to be more objective because it simply leads to a bunch of other highly subjective questions. – Ellesedil Apr 28 '16 at 22:12
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    Of all the arguments you could give, you went with the electronic gadgets that don't do nearly as much as the complete shift in how-to-build. They went from 'as rigid as possible' to 'collapse in the right places to dampen the impact and keep vital places intact'. And that's just one of the paradigms in car building that modernized. – Mast Apr 29 '16 at 17:11
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You've already seen the safety comparisons.

With that being said, classic cars are for fun. If you're looking for safety, a classic car isn't for you. If you're looking to have fun, go for it.

Like most things in life, there's a balance that you have to evaluate. No one can answer that for you. You have to do it for yourself.

Are you willing to take the gamble because you really love the car? If so, go for it. But if you value safety over having a fun daily driver, go with a new car. You have to decide where your priorities lie. Personally, I drive a 2006 Nissan Frontier, mainly because I can't afford a '65 Ford Falcon.

At almost 40 years old, I still ride motorcycles and want a classic car. That's where my heart lies. No one can tell you where your heart lies. That's up to you.

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    The most sensible answer so far. – Moab Apr 26 '16 at 22:26
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    Assuming money is no object (which it always is) it might be as well to avoid using the classic as a daily rush-hour drive for safety reasons as well as wear-and-tear, and to save it for special occasions. Fewer miles on quieter roads should equal much less chance of an accident. – Chris H Apr 27 '16 at 8:12
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Classic cars are significantly less safe than modern cars. In a classic car, it is both harder to avoid a crash and more likely that you will sustain serious or fatal injuries in the event of a crash. It's the former point I'd like to emphasize in this answer.

First, a classic car will not have features like ABS, traction control, or stability control. This means that it is significantly more difficult to maintain control of the vehicle under adverse conditions, making a crash much more likely to happen. Even if you're an experienced and very safe driver, conditions beyond your control, like a deer running across the road with limited visibility or an out-of-control vehicle veering into your path, can force you to make evasive maneuvers that are much more difficult to succeed on without these safety features.

Second, as others have mentioned, modern vehicles are designed to absorb and divert crash forces away from occupants; classic cars are typically not designed to do this and will transfer much more of the impact to the driver and passengers. @JPhi1618's answer demonstrates this well so I will leave it at that.

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    + 1 for not claiming that ABS always results in shorter stopping distance. – mao47 Apr 29 '16 at 12:47
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You're asking two different questions - are they safe, and are they as safe as a modern car.

For the second question - No. An older car without all the modern safety features will not protect you, your passengers, or pedestrians as well as a modern car will in the event of a crash - You don't have airbags, crumple zones, ABS, NCAP ratings and so on.

For the first though, it really depends on what you mean by safe - If you're driving a classic car, you won't generally be driving as fast, and you'll be more in tune with your surroundings - you have fewer driver aids, forcing you to concentrate more than the 'average' driver. This hopefully makes you less likely to cause an accident - but of course doesn't insulate you from other people! Whether that makes it safe to drive a classic as your daily driver depends on many factors - I would never do so in a heavy city commute, but would happily do so if I were just pottering around country lanes.

Of course, other opinions may vary!

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    No, just no. "Forced to concentrate more" is just another way of saying "less margin for error," and you should always remember that to err is human. You'll still have all the same distractions present on the road; you just are a lot more likely to end up dead or in the ER if you make a mistake. If anything, driver aids reduce distraction: the more a machine does for you, the less you have to take your attention off of the essential task of keeping your car where it should be and not hitting anything else in order to do that other thing manually! – Mason Wheeler Apr 26 '16 at 15:35
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    Mason - too many driver aids make you less alert and more likely to have slower reaction times. Nick is correct here. Various bodies such as the RAC and IAM in the UK support the position Nick has outlined. – Rory Alsop Apr 26 '16 at 19:05
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    "Various bodies ... support the position..." And so do insurance companies. Premiums for classic cars are WAY smaller than for modern ones. You want to insure a modern car that's as much fun to drive as a classic Porsche 911 for about £100 (say $150) a year? Good luck trying to find a deal. For the Porsche, no problem! – alephzero Apr 26 '16 at 20:55
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    @alephzero: Most "classic cars" aren't actually worth very much and very easy to fix (assuming that parts exist). Which car do you think is worth more: a 1975 Corvette or a 2015 Corvette? Hint: the price disparity between the two models is tens of thousands of dollars. The '75 would need to be in pristine condition to even come close, and it'd still fall short to the price of a used 2015 by ~20k. The value of the car and ease of repair has a way larger impact on how much it costs to insure than any equipment the car might contain. – Ellesedil Apr 26 '16 at 21:35
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    @alephzero, a side effect of modern safety design is that it takes a lot less crash to leave the car a total loss. A 25mph head-on in a modern car might do $20k in damage and leave the driver uninjured, while the same crash in a classic might do $1k in damage and months of medical treatment. If you want to compare insurance costs, compare the liability component, which is essentially a measure of how likely you are to damage someone else's property, and thus (for similar cars) a measure of how likely you are to crash. – Mark Apr 26 '16 at 21:54
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Given the assertion that most car accidents occur at speeds of 12MPH or less, most classic cars should be considered safe. Your odds of surviving a crash at parking-lot speeds are very good. However, your chances of walking away with only some bruises are much lower than with a modern car. In even a walking-speed collision, a classic car is going to transfer much of the impact energy to you, due to the rigid frame and body construction. Couple that with a simple lap belt and full metal dashboards and you can see where morbid comments like "just replace the radiator and hose off the dash and sell it again" came from.

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    Note that if crash occures at 12 MPH it doesn't mean that cars were travelling at 12 MPH. I was once in a car crash (and I wasn't a driver) but while the initial speed difference was probably closer to 40 MPH the accident happened at 5 MPH. Why? Because rear driver noticed the car and started breaking beforehand. In such circumstances the quality of breaking systems and other things which improved makes difference between "accident" and "no accident". At highier speeds, slower reaction time etc. it may be a difference between "lethal injury" and "injury". – Maciej Piechotka Apr 29 '16 at 0:17
  • (Beside I think I prefer to have a few bruses every year then that one time when I'll die). – Maciej Piechotka Apr 29 '16 at 0:18
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    Wait, what? "Safe" is not a precise term, but it doesn't seem right to completely ignore a whole class of bad stuff that can happen to you (injuries at >12mph) just because it's less than 50% of a larger class of bad stuff that can happen to you (all collision injuries). When we talk about how safe a vehicle is, among the things we're talking about are higher-speed collisions. The fact that parking-lot collisions (or, for that matter, banging your head on the doorframe getting out) are more common doesn't mean that's the only kind of accident that informs the "safety" of the car. – Steve Jessop Apr 29 '16 at 9:14
  • Now, if there were (for the sake of argument) only one or two higher-speed collisions per year in the US, then that would be a low enough rate that we'd say, "it really doesn't matter how your car performs in higher-speed collisions, road safety in practice is all about <12mph". But "less than 50% of injuries" is too high an upper bound to consider the scenario negligible. – Steve Jessop Apr 29 '16 at 9:16
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In the event of an accident, how does a classic vehicle compare to a modern machine?

Badly.

Are safety features on new vehicles really a life saver?

Yes.

Can anything be done to improve the safety of classic vehicles?

There are certainly safety improvements that can be made. You can fit better brakes and tyres. You can sometimes retrofit collapsible steering colums. You can fit better seat/restraint systems to better secure the occupants during a crash (it's geneally better in terms of peak decelleration experienced by your body during a crash to be tightly strapped in than to fly forward).

What you can't really do much about is the behaviour of the body/chassis during a crash with a hard object. Modern cars are designed so that the area in front of the people crumples while the area the people are enclosed in remains solid reducing the peak decelleration experienced by the occupants and making sure they don't get crushed by the collapsing car.

Racing style roll cages work for racers who are securely belted and helmeted but are not a great idea for road use.

Are classics safe enough to be used as a daily driver?

That really depends on your risk tolerance. People used to drive those cars all the time when they were new. Most of them survived but a significantly larger proportion than today got killed or seriously injured in accidents.

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    One way to make them safer is to remove the wire that connects the ignition coil to the distributor cap. It prevents kids from getting in accidents very effectively. Prevents theft. Reduces wear on the engine. I highly recommend this very simple change! You can also do something about the nut that holds the steering wheel. – user15009 Apr 28 '16 at 22:17
  • @nocomprende that is a good start but not enough. From time to time, kids playing hide and seek will get into the trunk of an older car. If they close the lid, there is no way out - unlike modern cars... very unsafe. I recommend either permanently shutting the trunk or completely removing the lid. – emory Apr 29 '16 at 18:56
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    @emory yes, there are so many dangers. Perhaps it is best to completely disassemble the car, or put it in a museum, safely behind velvet ropes or plexiglas. It will last much longer that way also. Every problem has a solution! – user15009 Apr 30 '16 at 14:37
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As others have said, you're asking different questions so I will address them separately.

Classic cars are safe to drive

Classic cars are simply older cars. They were driven successful by people of the time who didn't die in them and nothing has fundamentally altered the safety of the car since that time provided they have been properly maintained. If you drive a classic in the same way as you drive a modern car in daily use you still have a low lifetime chance of dying or injury. As always, you can decrease - but not eliminate - your risk by sensible, defensive, driving techniques.

Modern cars are much safer to drive

Consider this graph showing deaths per 100,000 people in the US (black line, right axis) and note the dramatic fall:

Deaths on the road

Then consider that this has come despite a large rise in the number of miles driven per person and the number of cars on the road. The major contributing factor to this is the many improvements to car safety: better brakes, crumple zones, air bags, anti-lock braking systems, lane warnings and so forth. So although classic cars are safe to drive, they are much less so than modern cars; it is - as always - up to you to assess the relative value that you put on the pleasure of driving a classic and the higher risk to your physical safety.

  • Does the graph show deaths per 100,000 people in crashes, or per 100,000 people who drive every day, or per 100,000 people in some whole state or country? Or per 100,000 in the entire world? Is it related to miles driven or hours spent in a vehicle at all? – Xen2050 Apr 27 '16 at 10:49
  • It's per 100,000 population in the US. It is not linked to mileage driven or hours spent in the vehicle. These graphs show more marked drops because, of course, in the timespan shown vehicle usage has also increased. – Jack Aidley Apr 27 '16 at 12:22
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    What's your source for that chart? Just wondering what exactly happened to cause the steeper drops around 1980-82, 1989-92, and 2006-2009. – Dan C Apr 27 '16 at 14:40
  • @DanC: I'm pretty sure the ca. 1990 drop is due to the introdction of seatbelt laws during that time: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Michael Borgwardt Apr 28 '16 at 14:08
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    @nocomprende: The issue of ensuring the car is in a fit condition to drive is a separate issue to whether it is safe to drive a car which is in fit condition. Obviously a poorly maintained vehicle can be dangerous. – Jack Aidley Apr 29 '16 at 9:38
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Safety in crashes (protecting you): Improvements are visible on a decadal scale and the tend to aggregate over time. (this is somewhat backed up by the plot with the dips discussed above)

2016: Cars commonly come with lane centering, adaptive cruise control, devices to keep the driver awake, and automatic stop features.

2010: Pretty much every car comes with ABS and ESC/Traction control. Cars have airbags all over the place and advanced collision cells and crumple zones

2000: ABS and Dual airbags are standard in many new cars. Middle passengers likely have a 3 point restraint. Child seat anchors. Passenger head restraints.

1990: Airbags become available. All cars have crumple zones.

1980: Fuel tanks have to be inside the car's frame.

1970: 3 Point seatbelts are starting to be commmon

1965: Unsafe at Any Speed Published (from here you can add things like "roofs that don't collapse when the car rolls)

Things that help the driver be safe

2016: Rear back up cameras are ubiquitous

2010: Rear warning systems common. SUVs built on car platforms handle well and resist rolling. ESC and traction control are ubiquitous.

2000: Passenger cars commonly come with 4 wheel disc brakes, wide tires, and abs: better handling and shorter stopping distance.

1990: Cars come with both driver and passenger side mirrors. Finding a car with rear wheel drive is rare: average new car has superior cold-weather road handling.

1980: Finding a car without power steering is rare.

1970: Cars commonly come with front disc brakes, stopping distance decreases dramatically.

There are a few areas where safety has decreased over time:

  1. The loss of visibility as belt lines have come up, A-pillars have thickened, and rear windows have shrunk and been crowded with passenger neck restraints. The driver's situational awareness in a modern car is far less.
  2. The advent of the 175 horsepower commuter car lets people get into trouble before they can react. (Easy fix: go light on the gas)
  3. The big tires tend do worse in the snowy weather than the skinny tires did in the 1980's and 1990s since they don't punch through to the ground. (Just buy chains)
  4. New cars have many controls and entertainment systems to fiddle with. (Eyes on the road!)
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Can anything be done to improve the safety of classic vehicles?

You can attach & use safety equipment like a racing seat & harness, helmet, even a roll cage: enter image description here

This article about Racing Safety Equipment has lots of info, including a warning about roll cages and helmets (especially when putting steel bars near your head):

An accident involving a roll cage and a driver without a helmet will never end well

This site (http://www.cuscousainc.com/products/roll-cage.html) sells roll cages (apparently pre-fabricated) for several models, including it looks like 5 passenger vehicles: enter image description here


Are classics safe enough to be used as a daily driver?

If you drive a short distance at low speeds on generally safe streets, and look both ways before crossing a street (even when you have a green light), then you're probably safe enough. Compared to a bicycle / motorbike, almost anything that puts a door between you and other vehicles is probably an improvement.

It may depend more on your idea of "safe enough." I've read that the European idea of a safe car is one that's fast and nimble enough to avoid an accident, while the American idea is to wrap yourself in as much steel & mass as possible, and let the laws of physics do their job.

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No car is safe! It can (and does) hurt and kill much more than anything most of us do frequently. Best safety equipment is the operator of the vehicle....NOTHING can replace an alert, smart, and knowledgeable driver! Anyone with knowledge of their vehicle and its limitations can be a safe and courteous fellow driver.

With that stated, the advancements in newer cars are quite astounding. They have many technologies that will help protect the occupants. However, a loose 2x4 can slam through a modern windshield/window as effectively as it can in classics.

Also, with each item that a modern car will now 'do for you', most drivers become dependent upon the equipment and do not know what to do if a real road emergency arises. Anti-lock brakes are a great example. They are wonderful and will help in emergency braking. However, this gain has also almost eliminated the casual driver from having the experience on how to handle a skidding car! I have gotten myself out of several troubles by simply never getting my car into a bad situation in the first place!

However, I gladly put my family in a safer, newer vehicle every chance I get!

Know the risks...know the vehicle...be smart...happy motoring!

  • I had a 2x4 almost do that: it tumbled off a truck ahead, twisting through the air - I reflexively hurled my head and upper body toward the passenger seat - it struck end-on to the 3 inch wide edge of the windshield / pillar and shattered as the driver side window went "poof"! I pulled over and was glad that a) I had been paying attention b) it struck the pillar c) my window was closed in case it had missed the pillar instead and entered the car through the window. Live long enough and anything can happen. This was 25 years ago, and I close my windows above 30 mph. – user15009 Apr 28 '16 at 22:29
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in response to the original question: "are modern cars safer then classic cars"

(firefighter here) simple answer: Yes. A lot.

why?

  • The structure is much more stable and deforms pretty much less in an accident (for example, cutting the struts of an old car takes 2-3 secs, a modern BMW about 15 secs).
  • Airbags. A lot more, also on the side etc.
  • Belt-release system that doesn't block completely and therefore decelerates you slower.

From my own experience as a firefighter (in the road rescue squad), this seems to be the main differences. Accidents still happen and car crumbles, but there is a huge difference between old and new cars (as well as cheap and "expensive" ones).
This were only the "damage-reduction" systems. I have not mentioned all the automatic brake systems, ABS etc which help to prevent accidents

Just watch some videos of car-crash tests. You will see the difference;)
If you are after more detailed answers, please read the other answers or ask in the comment

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I have been involved in several aspects of the old car world since the early 70's. This subject has come up more and more in the last maybe, ten years and I have spent alot of time pondering it and my involvement in historic racing has given me additional perspective on the subject I think. The basic answer is no, older cars are not safe as newer stuff for a few really important reasons. 1st, older cars (pre 69 ) are full of sharp edges in the interior - a death trap in an accident if you are thrown around inside. The use, in period, of lap belts cause their own problems. the seat can fold forward in certain kinds of impacts and serious injuries - spinal or simply face into steering wheel can result. The installation of fixed or locking seat backs with shoulder harnesses can help but not easily engineered on most older cars. Braking distance can be significantly longer in old cars. here in LA where folks drive inches from the car in front doesn't help much. You might say "leave more room in front" ...I have done this and other drivers just nip into the big space that you have left for them. Another issue that I have noticed as a racer is that the curb weight of modern cars is in some cases 50% more than old ones (no, not Lincolns and Cadillacs but smaller sporty cars) a modern Mazda Miata weights more than a Ford Falcon. This changes your bargaining power in just about any collision if you are the person in the old car. Well, that's my short list!

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This is my experience with old classic cars. My father and I (he's passed on) rebuilt 9 old mopars, from a 1936 Chrysler to a 68 Roadrunner 383 Commando (as well as a 68 Satellite into a RR reproduction with a 440 and a 63 Dodge Polara Race car). No, Older cars are not as safe as newer ones and that has been well covered. However their are things you should do to make older cars safer if you want to drive them on the streets. First is the tires. Get rid of the old Radial Tires. Their Dangerous. If you have never driven with them they are very different than steel belted tires. Next you should do updates. The front end and brakes are the two biggest. The front end will help with keeping the car on the road (those old front ends were known for curvy country lane driving) and the brakes because you want to shorten the stopping distance. From their it's usually little things like shocks and better head lights. Remember, those parts were "cutting" edge in the 60's, we have better now. If you do these things, then yes that old car can be a daily driver.

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