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Auto Design and Safety

Sleek Car vs. Safe Car

Automakers wrestle with design and safety features

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— Karl-Fredrik von Hausswolff/Gallery Stock

When Barry Maher, 62, was looking to replace his Ford Taurus, he decided to buy a Honda Accord for its reliability. But as he started tooling around the roads near his home in Corona, Calif., he found that it was much harder for him to see out the windows than with his 2001 Taurus. “My neck doesn’t swivel like it used to, and I need all the visibility I can get,” says Maher. Worse, the Accord’s domed hood makes it impossible for Maher to see where the front ends, so pulling into a parking space becomes a “guessing game,” he says—and it’s not a very fun one.

See also: Take an AARP Driver Safety course.

Auto designers have been giving the public what it seems to want with ever-sleeker designs for new cars, but sexy isn’t always as safe. The boxy cars of decades past died with the advent of computer-aided design programs, and they took their big, panoramic windows to their junkyard grave.

With every new model year, the driver’s view gets more restricted on more models, making it harder and harder to see out the windows. Less glass simply means it’s more difficult to quickly scan for obstacles. It’s a driving task that’s difficult enough already for anyone with a stiff back or neck, and designers say it’s only going to get worse as they juggle new elements of aesthetics, aerodynamics and safety, which can sometimes work against each other. Sleeker and sportier, for instance, usually means smaller, sloped windows. “There is clearly a compromise,” says Dave Sargent, vice president of vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates.

“The more stylish a car looks, the less glass it will typically have.” The new push for aerodynamically efficient vehicles only exaggerates this shape.

All these design changes are a serious development for older Americans, since most of us lose flexibility as we age. As Sargent says, “Reducing the outward visibility doesn’t make the car less safe in an accident—but it could make you more likely to have one.”

Heavy metal

One key design culprit is something called a high beltline, which refers to the space just beneath the windows where the glass meets the metal body. The beltline has grown ever higher, encroaching on the window space. Short windows have the effect of making the roof appear lower, thus making the entire car appear sleeker. These designs also feature rounded roofs and fewer right angles to create a sense of seamlessness where the glass ends and metal begins, says Larry Erickson, chair of the Transportation Department at the College for Creative Studios in Detroit. But rounded designs pinch the windows even tighter and also make it more difficult to see where the front and back of your car end.

The trend of the high beltline doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Max Wolff, director of Cadillac exterior design at General Motors Corporation, says consumers like all that metal surrounding them. “They feel safer, even if that isn’t necessarily the case,” he says.

And as quality becomes more comparable across vehicles, aggressive styling—once confined to sports cars—becomes all the more important to attract buyers. Indeed, older Americans care about style just as much as younger Americans.

J.D. Power’s 2009 initial quality study found that 45 percent of those 55 and older viewed styling as an important factor in choosing a car, about the same as the 48 percent under 55 who feel the same way. As for visibility? “That’s not what they’re after,” says John McElroy, host of the podcast "Autoline Daily." Designers “are after what can look the best.”

Slicing wind—and visibility

It’s not all about looks, though. The designs we’ve come to prefer happen to be more aerodynamic, which can be a boon to fuel efficiency. An aerodynamic design requires making the tail higher than the front to create a smooth wedge that cuts through the air. Designers hungry for any element that can result in energy efficiency gains are creating ever more dramatic wedge shapes, even though a higher trunk lid makes it more difficult to see out of the back.

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