Why is a Saab so safe? It seems that every car on the market today claims to be the safest around. Advertisements show lovely billowing airbags gently arresting the dummy in slow motion with zero apparent injury, while car manufacturers in general love to base their safety claims on somebody's findings, usually showing their particular model to be the safest car for a set of data figures. So how do you, the consumer, look beyond the marketing hype to actually get a proper indication of automotive safety? I will try to explain the art of saving lives in cars as it pertains to Saabs, and highlight features which are not so obvious to most, but are just as important to the overall safety package as those ubiquitous airbags. I will also attempt to show some instances of how other car manufacturers who claim to be safe, really aren't. Hopefully you can then base safety decisions on proper knowledge of what separates a safe car from an unsafe one.
Safety from the ground up - tyres first!
One of the most often neglected safety aspects of a car, and one that is the same no matter what the brand of car, is that of tyres. A car's performance hinges almost solely on the four small squares of rubber that are in contact with the road, so it stands to reason that your choice and maintenance of your tyres are vital to your safety. Yet most motorists have some sort of tyre problem, ranging from the incorrect tyre pressures, to downright hazardous lack of tyre tread or deteriorated sidewalls, both of which can lead to a blown tyre or loss of grip in the wet, potentially fatal situations. Tyres need to be symmetrically placed on a car, that is, the same type of tyre on each opposite wheel. Ideally you have four of the same type of tyre, but having two differing pairs of tyres is OK, as long as they are not different between the left and right sides (eg. two Michelins front and two Pirellis back is fine, but not one Michelin front left and one Pirelli front right). When replacing tyres, try to replace them in pairs, as they will then wear evenly and not pull your car in one direction. The newest tyres should always go on the front as these are the steering wheels, and most often also the driving wheels.
Wheels should be rebalanced each time a tyre is changed, and the suspension setup should be such that the tyre sits square to the ground. I have seen many instances of cars (mostly hotted up ones) where the tyres are angled in at the top to provide better cornering ability (supposedly). This type of angle is well suited to racing cars going 200kmh plus round hard corners, but is of no use to cars going even 120kmh around normal road curves, as the forces are not large enough on regular roads to warrant this type of angle. If you are doing 120kmh around town corners, you are 1. a fool who obviously has no regard for safety anyway, and 2. doing illegal speeds, further endangering lives. A square suspension setup ensures that the full tyre profile remains on the road at normal speeds, and maintains even wear on your tyres.
Tyre brand can also help make a car safer. Tyre compounds vary greatly between manufacturers, as do sidewall strengths, tread patterns and many other factors. You may think that any old tyre will do the job, and it will if you are driving straight in the dry without having to brake at any stage. Hell, if this were the case bicycle tyres would work just fine and be more economical to boot! However, in the real world it rains, and you have to brake often, sometimes whilst cornering. It is then that your choice of tyre can make a vast difference to the continued control of your car. Lower profile tyres allow better cornering because there is less pressure on the sidewalls, but you sacrifice some ride quality for it. Personally, I would prefer a low profile tyre optimised for wet conditions, because it is this type of tyre that will do the most to keep you in control in an emergency under the worst circumstances, namely emergency braking in the wet at high speed whilst swerving to avoid something. My favourite brand (and Saab's) is Michelin, but as a guide, any brand used as the preferred tyre by a good sports or luxury car manufacturer (eg Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes etc) is usually a safe bet.
Finally for tyres, DON'T BUY RETREADS! Retreads have had the worn surface re-cut, which means that there is less rubber to puncture and less heat dissipation than the original tyre was intended to combat. As a result you are more likely to blow a tyre, with potentially fatal results. Don't skimp on the only area physically in contact with the road.
Brakes and ABS.
Once you have a good set of tyres correctly fitted, your next best safety feature is your brakes. A good set of brakes will prevent the majority of avoidable accidents when correctly applied. One of the most significant advances in automotive safety is that of ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), which prevents wheel lockup when the brakes are applied hard in an emergency. This means that the wheels do not lose their grip (the classic pre-crash squeal of locked tyres sliding over the bitumen) and can therefore be used to steer the car out of trouble as well as provide maximum stopping ability in the minimum distance. This is especially useful in the wet, when brake lockup occurs much more easily. ABS allows you to apply maximum pressure to the brake pedal and keep it on, whilst the ABS computer continuously varies braking pressure to prevent wheel lockup.
If you have ABS fitted (as all current model Saabs do) remember that the brake pedal will vibrate when the ABS is working. THIS IS NORMAL AND IS NOT AN INDICATION TO EASE OFF THE PEDAL. CONTINUE TO APPLY FULL PRESSURE UNTIL YOU ARE COMPLETELY STOPPED. If you do not have ABS fitted, remember to modulate your brakes to avoid lockup. A good technique is to initially press lightly (only for a split second) and increase your foot pressure in a controlled manner until the brakes feel like they are about to lock. Modulate from there to avoid lockup as necessary. Remember, good self control in an emergency is the key to retaining control of a non-ABS equipped car. This may seem obvious, but in the heat of the moment you may forget, so practice your stopping technique on a quiet road somewhere to get used to the way your car responds under extreme braking pressure. Remember also that brakes overheat and reduce in effectiveness when used continuously, so when driving down a long mountain use your car's gears to keep a slow speed. This works equally well for automatics.
ABS is not a cure-all, so use your brakes as if you didn't have it fitted, ie. don't use it in everyday driving, as your habit will then be to decrease the proper distance between you and the car in front because you know you will stop in time. When an emergency arises, you have no stopping distance, and therefore its benefits are negated by a rather large repair bill! With brakes in general, disk brakes are much better than the drum brakes fitted to many cheap cars. Also check your brake pads regularly to ensure they do not wear out. Replace them when there is about 15% remaining, and you will never have braking problems. Self adjusting callipers are also desirable, as they maintain an even pressure on each side of the disk regardless of wear. All Saabs are fitted with disk brakes and self adjusting callipers, as well as a split brake system that ensures at least 50% of braking power will always be available if one brake cylinder should fail. Further, the front disk brakes on Saabs are ventilated to dissipate heat better and therefore reduce brake fade.
A truly safe body.
We now come to the more specific Saab traits which make it one of the few truly safe car brands on the road. Saab has always designed safe cars, but why exactly is one car safer than another? The answer lies in the way the safety cage is put together and the ways in which they are put to the test. Good passive safety (body strength and design) stems from the ability to divert the large crash forces in a collision safely away from the occupants, preventing crush injuries as well as impact force injuries. The physics of decelerating the human body in such a way as not to cause injury is the ultimate aim of any car safety strategy, the idea being to slow the forward momentum of a person at a rate whereby no internal injuries occur. This is separate to preventing the crushing of the passenger cell where external injuries occur by physically compressing the space a person occupies, causing the crushing of body parts as a result. Of course, both these concepts come together in a crash, to hopefully allow a person to open their door after a crash and be able to walk away, as opposed to being trapped in a crushed body shell with internal injuries.
Saab's safety design begins with the bumpers, which are built to absorb impacts of up to 8kmh with no damage. The bumper is constructed of foam with a heavy steel backing, as opposed to most cars which are merely a plastic clip on affair with no structural strength whatsoever. This is also the first stage of the larger crash picture, because it assists in spreading offset collision forces over a greater area, thereby lessening the impact on the passenger compartment. The next level of crash protection is up to about 20kmh, where specially designed structural members are designed to absorb the impact, saving the rest of the structure from damage and limiting repair costs. Up to this stage, the occupants are unlikely to injured, due to the small forces involved. Indeed, at this speed the Saab's airbags have not even deployed (they are designed to deploy above 25kmh in conjunction with the seat belt pre-tensioners, covered later on). Above about 25kmh, it becomes necessary to disperse the crash forces away from the passenger cell, and to limit the deceleration forces on the occupants. Up to about 60kmh, this is largely done by creating special structural members in the front and back of the car to crumple in a pre-determined way to absorb energy and not compress the passenger cell. It also becomes necessary at this speed to ensure that no engine parts or other items penetrate the passenger cell either. This means that in a Saab the engine is designed to slide under the passenger compartment rather than through it in a severe frontal crash. Equally, the rear is protected by similar structural members to divert forces away from the passenger cell, an area often neglected by most manufacturers. As most frontal accidents occur off the centreline of the car, Saabs are further optimised to evenly distribute the forces resulting from an offset collision, such as having strengthened front door sills to prevent the wheel from intruding, as well as structural members which take the impact force and spread it over the whole front end, not concentrating it on one side.
Side impacts account for about 40% of all collisions, and as such Saab have developed an excellent side impact system which diverts forces away from the passenger cell, as well as minimising the amount of side deformation to it. To this end there are many lateral cross-members, including the brilliant Saab Safeseat, specially strengthened pillars and very strong doors with side intrusion beams and interior padding. Also, the doors have been designed with a full overlap area, ie. they overlap the car structure in all places to prevent the door moving inwards from any angle. This type of door is a prerequisite for good side safety, as it can withstand much more side force without buckling and entering the passenger compartment. The windows also retract fully, as opposed to several modern cars such as Subaru and Mitsubishi where the window doesn't, but rather sits three quarters down, but worse still with the corner at an angle to the sill! This is a ludicrous design, as a side impact is likely to impale the rear passengers on a nice sharp piece of window, most likely killing them by decapitation or severe brain trauma. On the subject of windows, a general tip is to wind them down completely, or only down by a couple of centimetres, preventing your temple from impacting with an edged surface if it were half way down.
Most cars involved in accidents are either hit side on, or hit off centre from the front, usually the driver's side. Saabs however are also tested in many other types of real life accident to ensure that they are safe in all situations, not just the ones that the governments mandate testing for. Examples include rollover testing, car to truck underride, car to pole collisions, rear collisions as mentioned earlier and car to animal crashes to name a few. They are also being made safer for pedestrians, with rounded front ends and recessed windscreen wipers to lessen the severity of impact. Many people aren't aware that all Saabs can effectively withstand at least three times their own weight on their roofs before buckling, so that a roll over crash will not crush you. Saabs have great rollover strength, with extra interior structural members specifically designed for this. Truck underride is also a significant improvement over most cars, as Saabs are crash tested into trucks to ascertain that no part of the body is allowed to penetrate the cabin. Since moose are a big problem in Sweden, the cars are also tested against moose dummies to simulate hitting one at high speed. This particular problem has a type of equivalent in Australia, where kangaroos cause many accidents each year. There are many other types of crash tests done by Saab to ensure that their cars are truly safe. Saab crash tested over 100 Saab 900s during its initial design phase, so you can rest assured that a Saab body is one of the safest around.
A safe interior.
Having a solid exterior is great, but you also need a safe interior to finish off the overall safety package. Designing a safe interior is just as critical, as it is here that the occupant of a car will feel the immediate forces of a collision. Let's begin with the overall interior. Saab determined from the outset that the interior had to be free from hard edges or protrusions, and have therefore designed an interior that protects the occupants from doing any damage to themselves by contact with an interior surface. The facia is laid out so that there are no switches protruding out, and the passenger side curves away from the passenger to give more room between them and a contact surface. The steering wheel has been meticulously designed to crumple inwards if the driver's head should strike it, thus preventing serious head injuries. Furthermore, the steering mechanics are well back in the engine bay to prevent them being pushed backwards into the passenger cell in a collision. Additionally, the steering column from the engine bay side is designed to collapse rather than be pushed backwards. All this is designed to protect the driver before the concept of airbags is introduced.
The doors, whilst reinforced with side intrusion bars, also have soft lines with no hard armrest surfaces to speak of. This is critical, because even the inclusion of side impact bars is no good if the occupant strikes a hard armrest at spleen or kidney level. Indeed, these hard armrests are known in the safety business as "spleen killers", because that is their most common effect. Saabs have copious amounts of padding in the doors to prevent such things from occurring. Safe seats are also vital to interior safety. How many accident photos have you seen where the seats have been knocked backwards or sideways in a collision? It is vital that the seat remain in its proper position to fully protect the occupants. Most car seats are nowhere near safe enough, with the result that often in a frontal crash, the seat will rip from its mountings and do additional damage to the occupant. Saab seats are extremely robust, so much so that the seat belts themselves are attached to the seat, not the car body. This is of great benefit as it allows the wearer to have the belt at the proper geometry for a collision, to prevent internal injuries. In many cars the seat belts have shocking geometry, so that they sit too high or low when being used. Seat belts should sit over your pelvic area so that it prevents spleen or intestinal injuries that occur if it is too high. Too low and you will slide forward much further, worsening your chances of being injured. Anti-submarining protection also needs to be incorporated. This is usually a raised front plate under your legs to prevent you sliding forwards and under your seat belt in an accident. All Saabs have this feature, which helps keep you in your seat. The Saab Safeseat is a brilliant invention for rear passengers. It provides three full lap/sash seat belts, has steel backing plates to prevent rear cargo from intruding into the cabin, anti-submarining protection and an immensely robust cross member to prevent sideways crushing of the passenger cell. Proper headrests are fitted to prevent whiplash, and baby capsules can be firmly anchored to the top bar. On top of this, the seat can be pre-ordered with child seats built in, to provide proper protection for youngsters without having to fit extra seats. All of this ensures that rear seat passengers are equally protected, whilst maintaining the brilliant Saab functionality of fold down seats to increase cargo space.
A small but typical Saab feature is that of the ignition key mounted in the centre floor, not on the dash as with most cars. This is done for both ergonomic and safety considerations, as it prevents the right knee from colliding with it in a frontal collision, and is one less protrusion to worry about. It also has the added benefit of enabling a gear lock to be incorporated for extra theft protection. Footwell protection is also high on the Saab safety list, as it is the area most likely to be crushed in a severe impact. As a result, special attention has been paid to making sure that the feet, lower legs and knees are encased in smooth areas with no mechanical protrusions to injure them. Backing plates with soft foam exteriors further prevent injury to the lower limbs, ensuring that any intrusions are prevented from directly impacting with soft flesh. Compare this to most other cars who seem to have all manner of sharp objects just above passenger and driver legs. Finally for interior safety, Saab has a good climate system, which provides plenty of air at the right temperatures for the driver. This may not initially seem like a safety feature, but a comfortable driver is an alert driver, and Saab ensure that the right parts of the body are kept at the best temperatures to maintain effective driving feel. To this end Saab have recently pioneered fan ventilated seats, a world first and a pleasant addition to overall driving comfort in hot weather, a bonus in a country such as Australia.
Supplementary Restraint Systems - just that, supplementary!
To round out all the other safety features and enhance survivability, all Saabs now being produced incorporate twin front airbags and side airbags as standard. These, in conjunction with height adjustable pre-tensioning seat belts, provide the last level of severe impact protection. Note that I said last. This is important, because it seems that in recent years most car manufacturers are simply incorporating airbags to say a car is safe, without bothering with the rest of the design process. This is a grave mistake, as an airbag is not going to protect you if the passenger cell is crushed around you, is it? More and more NCAP style crash tests are slowly revealing this to be true, with high decelerations still being recorded on dummies in cars fitted with airbags but no other real life safety measures. The car itself needs to be designed to absorb the shock, not the airbag. Saab fit the larger US airbags to protect their occupants better, as opposed to the lesser facebag adopted by many manufacturers whose cars aren't really safe. This basically provides more room for deceleration, as well as providing a larger impact area should the driver be off centre at the moment of collision.
Although US regulations are geared towards no seat belt, you are a fool if you drive like this. Seat belts are the best life saver you can use in a car, and without it you are little more than a human missile in a crash. Not only that, but unbuckled rear passengers will be thrown forwards into the front seats, further injuring the front occupants. Pre-tensioners are also fitted to all Saabs. These act in conjunction with the airbag to limit the amount of forward travel by an occupant in a collision, thus increasing the distance to a hard surface or airbag and lessening the impact force. Most modern inertia reel seat belts do little to actually prevent their occupants from pivoting forwards into the dash or wheel, as the impact is too quick for the inertia reel to react. Pre-tensioners alleviate this problem by instantly tightening at the moment of impact in a controlled way. This system must be calibrated with the airbag and crumple pattern to act at the right moment, so simply fitting one to a car without comprehensively testing it as part of the overall system will limit its effectiveness. Basically, these last two devices are there to slow down the human body in such a way as to lessen the final impact. Incorporating them into a car without a comprehensive crash protection strategy is pointless, as they will not be half as effective.
What happens to the human body at the moment of impact?
Medical crash science is an ongoing subject. Until you can safely shield the human body from absolutely all collisions, it will continue to evolve. But as it stands today, this is roughly what will happen in a collision, and what it all means. At the very first instant of contact with another object (usually another car), the human body is in the normal driving position (I will concentrate on the driver as he or she is the person most likely to be injured). As the car body begins to crumple, there is a rapid deceleration force. Since the occupants of a car are not physically part of the car, momentum tries to keep them moving at their previous speed. Without delving too much into mathematical physics, any object which accelerates or decelerates rapidly will experience a large change in kinetic energy. Our bodies in a collision have to absorb this energy somehow, and this manifests itself as shockwaves travelling through the body.
As an example, if you were to hit your head on the steering wheel, the rapid deceleration causes the sudden energy to dissipate by expending itself through your bones and tissue. Because this happens very fast, and because our bodies are not good at converting stored energy into light or sound, it is converted to pressure, and your bones will usually shatter as a result, with obvious consequences. Just as steel can only absorb so much pressure before it bends, so too our bones and tissue can only absorb so much pressure before they too break or get crushed. Since our bodies are about 73% water, it is very easy to see how even a relatively small energy change can be converted into pressure waves, which then go on to rupture cells and create internal injuries. By far the most car deaths occur due to internal head injuries, even though in a lot of circumstances this is combined with more obvious physical trauma such as amputation or crushing.
OK, back to our crash. Once the deceleration has begun, it must be managed in such a way as to prevent the sudden increase in energy which will cause injury. Firstly the car body shell acts as a sort of bellows, crumpling in a pre-defined way to divert the energy of the crash from the front into the surrounding safety cage and beyond. If a car body were completely rigid, it would never crush, but all the energy would still have to be transferred to something, namely the occupants. This creates a much larger force than if the body crumpled to absorb some of the energy. So as the car crumples, the inertia must be such that the deceleration forces are not too much too quickly. In the mean time, the driver has started to slide forwards due to the inertia force. At this stage the airbag sensors have registered an impact deceleration, and have triggered the airbags and pre-tensioners.
As the driver's body continues to move forward, the pre-tensioner pulls the seat belt tight and slows down the forward movement. The airbag inflates and is fully inflated as the driver's head reaches it. By now the car's front section is being crushed at a fair rate, hopefully absorbing a lot of the energy and channelling the rest around the passenger cage via the side beams and other impact reinforced areas. As the driver's head and face hit the airbag, the pressure is released via two or more outlet valves to further slow down the impact force. By the time the driver has fully gone into the airbag, the collision will be mostly over with the bulk of force expended into the car. The anti-submarining properties of the seat have also helped to slow the driver's forward momentum, whilst the proper seat belt geometry has ensured that the belt has not put pressure on a vital area. It is also important that the driver had the correct height adjustment so that the shoulder receives the majority of the deceleration force and not the neck or arm. It also ensures that the forward movement doesn't become a pivoting movement around the arm, creating more injury. More recent developments such as seat belt force limiters (by Mercedes) seek to further reduce the deceleration by letting belt out at a controlled rate to counter the sudden stop in slack by a pre-tensioner.
As the forward momentum stops, the car rebounds backwards, further expending energy and throwing the driver back again into the seat. This is where a good headrest design and strong seat come into play. As the head comes backwards, it needs to stopped from developing too great a neck angle, as this will result in whiplash and neck injuries. In the worst case spinal injuries can occur, leading to paralysis and possibly death. To counter this Saab seats are extremely robust to stop the driver from breaking the seat back and continuing backwards, and are fitted with specially designed headrests to allow the neck to roll backwards at a safe angle without extending to far. This also helps decelerate the head as opposed to a fixed headrest which abruptly stops the head, usually in the wrong place. Recently Saab unveiled its latest evolution in headrests, the ProTech head restraint system. This is an active headrest which uses the rearward motion of the body to push the headrest into the optimum position before the head begins its backwards arch, thus preventing whiplash entirely whilst absorbing more energy.
Finally, the car comes to rest, having absorbed the collision forces and hopefully having saved the driver from any harm. It is now imperative that the driver be able to get out of the car, or that rescue workers be able to get into the car easily. Saabs are designed such that after a collision, the doors should be able to be easily opened. To this end the longitudinal strength of the doors has been heavily reinforced to prevent it compressing and being difficult to open. Furthermore, the outer door handles are designed to be used as anchor loops to physically rip the door off its hinges before giving way! Try doing that with most car doors. The whole car is able to be lifted via the door handles if necessary, further testament to their strength.
Other safety features you may not have known about.
Cabin adjustable headlights - allows you to point the beam down when carrying a heavy load, improving night time road safety for you and other cars by reducing dazzle.
Fuel tank - placed between the rear wheels to provide maximum protection in a rear or sideways collision.
Cargo lugs - there are four lugs in the cargo area designed to tie down large objects or luggage to prevent it moving forward in a collision.
Brake lights - twin brake lights and high centre light with sensors to let you know when one has blown.
Traction Control System - optional and allows you to maintain maximum driving power to the wheels without wheelspin. This is especially useful in wet and slippery conditions.
Outside temperature sensor - warns of black ice conditions.
Black Panel display - lights only necessary instruments as required to enhance night driving.
Heated mirrors - allows better vision when frosty.
Crash pulse data recorders - only fitted to Scandinavian Saabs, this device is the equivalent of an aircraft black box, measuring the seconds before and after a crash to help Saab build safer cars by analysing the data and building upon that knowledge.
Headlight washer/wipers - another Saab first, these ensure that your driving lights are not dirty, giving better light and allowing others to see you better.
There are many other innovations and items that make Saabs safe, but there is not enough room to include them all here. Rest assured that when you buy a Saab, you are driving the product of an ongoing safety program that has produced some of the world's safest cars and continues to do so. Hopefully I have highlighted in more detail than normal the safety features of Saabs. In conclusion, here is a list of the worst safety concepts I have seen in cars. How many of them are in your car?
Wind down windows that do not fully retract, or worse still retract at an angle like Subaru or Mitsubishi, leaving the sharp edge at perfect head strike height.
Plastic bumpers which are good for absolutely nothing except higher insurance premiums.
Hard interior armrests that do terrible kidney and spleen damage in a side collision.
Under dash equipment which in a frontal collision will slice and dice your legs.
Poor seat belt geometry which doesn't sit where it should. Twists in the seat belt on receipt from the manufacturer (don't laugh, I've seen it!) which can't be removed.
Airbags fitted without a proper safety cage inherent in the car (most manufacturers are guilty of this which is a terrible thing).
Drum brakes. If these are fitted, you can be sure the manufacturer doesn't care about your safety.
Cheap tyres. These may or may not be your fault, but you can correct it, so do it!
No centre lap/sash seat belt.
Poorly designed interiors with hard edges or flimsy seats.