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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... Apr 26 '16 at 19:01
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    @GuySchalnat depends on who you ask. 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. 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. 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. Apr 29 '16 at 0:31

15 Answers 15

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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. 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). Apr 26 '16 at 14:44
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    @JonathanMusso, jalopnik.com/5364071/… Apr 26 '16 at 16:16
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    @JPhi1618 The animated gif really helps to pull the udders. 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! 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". 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). 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. 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. 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.

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  • 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. 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/… 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. 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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  • FYI: ABS was not standard in all vehicles in 2000. May 1 '16 at 12:02
  • You're right. that's poor phrasing. 65% of cars sold had ABS in 2000. (crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/811182) Jul 17 '16 at 12:38
  • A few more areas where safety has decreased: Front wheel ABS (without ESC) increasing the likelihood of a dangerous roll over crash in trucks and SUVs, as locking up the front wheels can no longer be done to force the vehicle to go straight to regain control. The IIHS's 40MPH crash tests with too much emphasis on preventing minor injuries, at the expense of possibly worse performance at higher speeds. Seat belt load limiters that allow belted front seat occupants to move more forward and contact intruding parts of the vehicle in higher speed crashes. Oct 4 at 18:00
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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!

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  • 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.

-1

Modern cars are safer, but not as much as the the auto industry would have you believe, nor as much as an average person who sees crash tests on TV that look good believes. The average person doesn't analyze the crash test dummy data nor considers how much real world conditions vary from a laboratory crash test.

Much of the safety increase comes from increased side impact crash protection, and the better small overlap or angled front end / side impact crash protection offered by a unibody. Front end or head on crash protection leaves much to be desired.

Much of the data available concerning vehicle safety statistics is created for the insurance industry and government use for an entire population, and therefore can be highly misleading to an individual who wants buy a safe vehicle and operate it in a safe manner. A great example of this is bundling vehicle fatality statistics of belted occupants with unrestrained occupants. A safety concerned individual is going to use a seat belt and doesn't need to see statistics and injury reduction advice that is targeted at unrestrained occupants.

The chart that shows vehicle fatalities going from around 5 deaths per 100,000,000 miles traveled in the 1970s to 1.11 today is misleading. Most of that reduction is due to increased seat belt use and the creation of the interstate highway system. Much of the remaining decrease in fatalities that is due to increased vehicle safety has been offset by the higher average speeds that people drive at today on highways. So a belted person driving on a 2 lane highway today isn't really much safer than it was in the 1970s.

The list of fatalities per vehicle make and model is also made for insurance companies and useless for someone choosing a safe vehicle. Fuel efficient cars are rated as more dangerous partially because they are driven more, but the statistic doesn't take this in to account. Also, a Corvette is not 10 times as dangerous as the average car. This is driver behavior. The 4 wheel drive version of the F-150 is not twice as dangerous as the 2 wheel drive version. The 4 wheel drive version attracts a certain demographic.

Vehicle safety priority goes something like this, from most important to least important:

  1. Whether or not 3 point seat belts are worn. Half of vehicle fatalities in the US are caused by the 10% of occupants who are unbelted [1].
  2. The driver or driving habits, especially speeding or driving too fast for conditions.
  3. The types of roads where the vehicle is driven, such as city, rural highway, or physically divided highways.
  4. Finally, the size and safety rating of the vehicle.

4rd place can be put in 3nd place or even 2nd place for importance depending on how the vehicle is used. For instance, if the vehicle is used primarily in city traffic where accidents are often moderate or mild but can be impossible to to avoid, then this would belong as #3 or even #2. For primarily highway use, where a fatality is often unavoidable no matter if it is a classic car or a modern car, then this belongs in 4th place.

Here are some reasons why modern cars are not as safe as it would appear:

  1. Many vehicles (except Volvos) are still designed to look good on crash tests and allow people to walk away from mild accidents, and not to do well in more severe real world crashes which have a lot more variables. Optimizing for crash tests can have a detrimental effect on other types of crashes.
  2. The NHTSA is still doing the full overlap 35 MPH crash tests that they did in the 70s. This was good at the time for testing seat belt effectiveness and for small injuries, but it is worthless for testing survive-ability in real world fatal crashes in belted occupants.
  3. The IIHS has been doing the 40 MPH 40% overlap crash in to a deformable barrier tests for over 2 decades now. This has really helped address the short coming of the 35MPH NHTSA crash test, where vehicle makers could make a vehicle with a soft front end to help reduce injuries and gain 5 NHTSA stars. But the IIHS has put a lot of emphasis on preventing small injuries or non life threatening injuries, and not on survive-ability in more severe crashes. Also they only test one occupant and no rear seat occupants. Designing for the 40 MPH IIHS test can have a detrimental effect on other types of crashes. The IIHS also uses a deformable barrier that acts as a crumple zone that doesn't exist in a real world crash. This makes an equivalent crash in to a solid barrier to be a bit less than 40 MPH. The lighter the vehicle, the more effect the deformable barrier has.
  4. The IIHS crash tests are done without the engine running, so testing if the vehicle will catch on fire after the crash is not done.
  5. Crash tests are generally not done above 40 MPH. Volvo is an exception to this. Simply making the car pass the 40 MPH crash test and not considering steering wheel movement or the effect of seat belt load limiters at higher speed crashes seems to have occurred. Crashing a vehicle that has a Good rating on the 40 MPH 40% overlap crash test at 50 or 55MPH can easily change the crash from a walk away one to a fatal one.
  6. Crash tests often don't put dummies in the passenger seats of cars. If they did, it would likely show that in driver side overlap crash tests that the passengers are better protected in older cars than newer ones. This would become a bigger issue if higher speed tests were done, as newer stronger cars may expose everyone to a fatal crash pulse, but an older car would let the driver die but allow everyone else survive. This is the situation, where lives of all the passengers are taken in to account instead of just the driver, is where older cars, especially good 90s unibody cars, are safer than modern cars.
  7. To reduce injuries in the more rigid front end structures that modern cars have, seat belt load limiters have been added. These let the seat belt out to reduce the force applied to a person in a crash by the seat belt. The problem is that this has been optimized for the 40 MPH crash test and what happens at higher speeds isn't made public. Secondly, there is only one setting available per vehicle. A young tall healthy man needs a much higher seat belt load limit than a small frail elderly person. If you fit the 1st category, this device could very well cost you your life in a more severe head on crash.
  8. The airbags in modern cars tend to be softer and smaller than the old 1st generation ones from the 90s. Although you can be killed by a more powerful older airbag if it deploys in a fender bender if your body is right next to it when it shouldn't be, if you are in a more severe head on crash you'll wish you had it.
  9. The increase in safety of modern cars with more rigid front end structures that are in high speed head on crashes at over 40 MPH is partially do to the anticipation that the modern vehicle will be in a head on crash with an older vehicle with a softer front crash structure that serves as the crumple zone, at the expense of killing the person in the other car. If two modern cars with rigid front ends hit each other at 50MPH it could easily be a fatality for both.
  10. The old versus new crash tests that demonstrate how much better the safety in a modern car is are usually dishonest. They often use an older car that is several hundred pounds lighter than the modern car being tested in their head on crash. This is a very unfair comparison. They don't even test head on crashes between modern vehicles of the same safety generation with that much weight difference, probably due to how bad it would look for the lighter vehicle. I believe the disadvantage from G force exposure alone of being in a lighter vehicle in a head on crash with a heavier vehicle is the square of the mass of the heavier vehicle divided by the lighter vehicle. The difference can be huge. Please correct me if I am wrong.
  11. The popularity of taller SUV type vehicles has caused a huge increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities, due to getting hit up higher where the injuries become life threatening. It's also worse for a traditional lower vehicle that gets broad sided or read ended by a taller SUV.
  12. Vehicles are not tested for rear end crash safety. Some seats do not remain upright in a severe rear end crash and the occupant's head is allowed to make contact with the rear end intruding structure. Hatch backs are extremely dangerous for rear seated passengers. A 30 MPH rear ending by a truck or SUV is likely fatal for the rear passengers. The smaller rear ends resulting from the trend to have more compact cars has reduced rear end crash safety compared to traditional large American cars. The idea that it is safer to sit in the back likely doesn't take in to account compact hatch back vehicles.
  13. The presence of front wheel ABS (without ESC) has made it so that locking up the brakes can no longer be used as a method of forcing a vehicle to go straight and regaining control. Although this reduces the likelihood of hitting another vehicle by being able to swerve out of the way, in trucks and SUVs this can increase the likelihood of a dangerous roll over accident.
  14. There is a fundamental limit on survive-ability in front end crashes that is caused by the distance between the front bumper and the front seats. The increase in popularity in compact cars has had a detrimental effect on safety. Not only are the cars harder to work on, but there is little room up front to smash in and reduce the crash pulse. Look at how the Kia Rio that weighs around 2600 pounds and has a short hood has about double the fatality rate per mile compared to the average 3200 pound car. They crashed a Kia Rio in an old versus new test and the seat belt load limiters extended the seat belt much farther than I am comfortable with. In a higher speed crash things would get bad for the Kia really soon. It's not hard to find images on the Internet showing fatal crashes where there is minimal intrusion in to the passenger compartment.

An example these things caused the faulty rear seat belts that shear off in high speed crashes in certain Honda CRVs to go out undetected until some fatal crashes happened.

In an unrelated issue that happens to also be a Honda CR-V, and likely reflects the rest of the auto industry as well, here is an example of a CR-V that has a Good rating at 40 MPH in a 40% overlap crash test, but at 50 MPH it turns in a crash with serious or fatal injuries. It looks like the seat belt load limiter allowed the test dummy to move forward in to the intruding structure and steering wheel where its neck and head made hard contact with the bottom of the upward and rearward moving steering wheel. Take a look at the 1996 Toyota Camry crash test with its huge airbag and then look at the small airbag in the 2010 CR-V and how the dummy's neck goes right through the edge in to the steering wheel. See the 40 MPH and the 50 / 55 MPH fatal Honda CR-V crash tests here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWwGFDynOHo

The TV show 5th Gear did a 60 MPH moderate overlap crash test between an old real wheel drive Volvo and another heavier real wheel drive car. They said that there would be no survivors, which is absolutely true for the drivers. But that is only part of the story. The rest of the people in the cars would have a greater chance of survival than they would in a modern stronger car due to the softer structure. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-_oOYzNcAw

Only 10 MPH can make a big difference. In the 1970s a 30 MPH crash in a car with seat belts would be survivable, but 40 MPH could be fatal. Today 40 MPH is survivable with minor injuries thanks to the IIHS, but 50 MPH is likely fatal. During this time the average speed driven on two lane highways has gone up by about 10 MPH too. So we're back where we started.

If you drive a 90s car that has an acceptable rating on the IIHS 40% overlap test, and you have your seat adjusted all the way back away from the steering wheel, and it has an airbag, and if it has one, a seat belt load limiter that isn't too weak for you (most 90s cars don't have load limiters anyway), you may not be that much worse off in a head on crash than someone who is driving a late model car, as long as they are the same weight. If you had a newer car to match theirs, it just means that you would both die. If you're considering replacing your mid sized 90s car with a modern compact car, you could be less safe in the modern compact car. This is especially true if you have passengers in your car. In an overlap head on crash that is worse for the front seat occupant on the side that gets hit, the rest of your passengers will have a greater chance of survival due to the softer structure and likely larger distance between the front seats and bumper. No car has airbags in the rear sets, and the only way to make those passengers safer (aside from rear facing seats or 5 point seat belts) is with a longer and softer area in front.

Putting a rear facing child seat in the front in a vehicle without a passenger airbag might actually be safer if the vehicle is a hatch back. Rear passengers die so easily in those types of vehicles. The government may say to put children in the back, but if they care so much about our safety, then why are they still doing 35 MPH crash tests? Disable the airbag and sit up front! Don't ride in the back of a hatchback! Even in a regular car if that Jeep that is behind you rear ends you at full speed I hope nobody is sitting in the back.

On a two lane highway sometimes bigger is the only thing you can do. You might drive 55 MPH, but the vehicle in the other lane won't, and you're not going to drive 40 MPH to balance the situation. Take a look at this horror crash where being bigger at almost 6000 pounds is what saved the not at fault passenger: http://metroforensics.blogspot.com/2017/06/15-year-old-eric-neibaur-and-his-sister.html

So for a 1960s classic with all that being said, if the classic does not have seat belts, you should not drive it on a regular basis, and it should absolutely not be used as a daily driver in the city. Someone pulling out in front of you can be a fatal crash for you.

If it does have 3 point seat belts, then it can be used as a daily driver, but I don't recommend driving it in the city, as it will be significantly more dangerous in mild and moderate accidents which are often not your fault and unavoidable. This is mostly due to very weak side impact protection and very poor small overlap crash protection found on most old body and frame vehicles (well below what the IIHS calls poor for small overlap).

For others, if the classic is an 80s unibody or something like a Crown Victoria with a full perimeter frame then you'll be a lot better off than a 60s classic. You'll have at least some federally mandated reinforcement in the door for side impact protection.

Footnote: 1: This 10% of unrestrained occupants accounting for 50% of accidents fatalities statistic would mean that an unrestrained occupant is 5 times more likely to die per mile traveled. However, this does not take in to account that unrestrained drivers may also be more likely to engage in more risky driving behaviors, or could have different driving habits. So the actual figure could be less than 5.

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  • There's a lot of assertions in here.. not a lot of actual evidence. Also with my pedant hat on the linked story where you refer to the "not at fault driver" being "saved" is simply wrong. The not at fault driver died, it is their passenger who survived. Oct 5 at 12:07
  • @motosubatsu Thanks fix that regarding the Suburban crash. I think it is great that this little mistake is the only thing you could find wrong with my post. The fact of the matter is that in general no testing is done above 40 MPH and it's up to expert opinion to guess what will happen. Are you suggesting we just take the word of the auto makers that new cars are a lot safer without question until a professional test proves otherwise? Oct 5 at 14:35
  • It's far from the only thing wrong I could find with your post - as I said you make a great many assertions with out evidence. Oct 5 at 14:36
  • Would interfering with how seat belts work alter the safety of modern cars? see mechanics.stackexchange.com/q/85589/10976
    – Solar Mike
    Oct 5 at 14:43

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