So you’re pregnant with your first kid and want to buy the safest car on the planet. What brand do you think of first?
Probably Volvo – a brand that’s become synonymous with safety. In fact, both of Swedens automakers, Volvo, and Saab are world-renowned for safety innovations. Today their cars are so crammed with safety features, they practically make crashing look fun.
Why are Swedish automakers so hell-bent on safety?
After all, Germany has it’s unlimited-speed Autobahn, and it’s carmakers pride themselves on building safe cars, too. But Swedens automakers seem to put safety above all else, including style and sales volume.
Why is that?
The answer is a two-parter. First, the environment. This small northern European country is besieged by long, harsh, dark winters and moose-riddled roads. (Sweden averages ten moose-car collisions a day.) Consequently, driving in Sweden is a true “Survivor” experience.
Second, and most importantly, is Swedens culture. Safety isn’t just part of the driving scene; it’s part of the country’s heritage.
“Safety is endemic to Swedish society,” says Johnny Korner, safety specialist at Volvos Safety Center in Gothenburg, Sweden. “We are a caring people. We have enjoyed 250 years of peace. We have a stable, wealthy society, and this enables the government to provide built-in safety nets for everything. We place great emphasis on accident prevention and worker safety. We provide free health care. We give 1-1/2 years of paid parental leave.”
Walk down a street in Stockholm and you’ll see this attitude in action, says Stephen Janisse, Saab spokesperson. “Everyone wears helmets when they’re biking and ice skating. When people walk around at night, they wear jackets with reflective stripes. And people wait for the walk light before crossing the street..”
People take a lot of voluntary steps to stay safe, says Saab safety expert Christer Nilsson, “They don’t wait until a safety measure becomes law. For instance, when a 1960s Swedish study revealed that driving with headlights on during the day reduced the risk of head-on collisions, people started voluntarily driving with their headlights on during the day. In 1977 it became law, but people had already been doing it for years.”
Sweden, a country of 9 million people, has one of the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world. But according to the Swedish government, this is not enough.
In 1977, the Swedish parliament passed “Vision Zero,” a national goal to achieve zero traffic fatalities or severe injuries. They’ve already made progress. In the 1970s, Sweden had approximately 1,200 traffic fatalities per year. In 2001, the country suffered fewer than 600 fatalities (even though traffic had increased three-fold since the 70s).
Some of the rules Sweden has in place to make driving safer include:
* A graduated driver training process: starting with a learner’s permit at age 16 and ending with a full drivers license at age 18.
* Stiff drunk driving laws: Driving with a blood-alcohol level above 0.02 percent (roughly equal to one bottle of light beer or a whiff of 180-proof Aquavit) is punishable by a fine and temporary license suspension. Driving with a blood-alcohol level above 0.10 percent will get you thrown in prison, your license suspended, and you’ll have to take a driving test to get a new license.
* Mandatory auto safety inspections: Much like our smog tests, Sweden requires every car to undergo an annual multi-point safety inspection. Cars that don’t pass don’t pass Go.Saab & Volvo: Your Roots are Showing
* In essence, Volvo and Saab are microcosms of Swedish society it’self.”Safety is in our blood; it’s built into the walls here; it isn’t just talk,” says Volvos Johnny Korner, noting that Volvos founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson penned the following mission statement back in 1927: “Cars are driven by people. The guiding philosophy behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is – and must remain – safety.”Putting safety first means going above and beyond legal crash-test
* Both Saab and Volvo perform more and stricter in-house crash tests than are required by law and have long histories of studying real-world accidents. Saab, for instance, has gathered information from more than 5,000 road accidents involving Saabs and makes safety improvements according to what it learns.Information gleaned from real-life accidents led to such innovations as the Saab Active Head Restraint, Volvos rear-facing child safety seat, and even Saabs placement of the ignition key in the center console (to prevent driver knee injuries in head-on collisions).
The automakers also put their cars through “moose avoidance” and “moose crash” tests to determine how well their cars and passengers will fare in an encounter with an 836-pound mammal.
The companies may be small (together they account for only 1.03 percent of the world car market), but their safety contributions are mighty. Many of the inventions that make today’s cars so safe have Swedish roots.
After his friend had been killed in a car crash, Volvos then-president Gunnar Engellau ordered engineer Niels Bohlin to come up with a solution to prevent more deaths. The result was the three-point safety belt. Volvo introduced the three-point belt in the Nordic market in 1959. Nine years later, on Jan. 1, 1968, it became required in every new car built in America. The three-point safety belt is why Volvo employees like to say, “There’s a little bit of Volvo in every car today.”
Other Volvo safety innovations in wide use today, include:
* 1947 – Laminated Windshield
* 1972 — Rear-Facing Child Safety Seat
* 1994 – Worlds First Side-Impact Airbag
* 1998 – Inflatable Curtain AirbagThis year, Volvo unveiled more safety “world firsts” with the introduction of the XC90 sport utility. Volvos first sport-ute, the XC90 boasts a “Roll Stability Control” system (to keep it from rolling over, as SUVs are wont to do), a high-strength steel-reinforced roof structure, inflatable curtains for all three rows, and car-to-car compatible bumpers.Saab SafetyFounded in 1937 to build military aircraft for a war Sweden never entered, Saab soon turned its attention to building automobiles. It introduced it’s first car in 1947. Today, the company has numerous safety inventions to it’s credit; the most well-known and medically lauded being the Saab Active Head Restraint (SAHR). The SAHR reduces head movement following a rear-end impact and reduces the risk of whiplash injuries.Other safety innovations include:
* 1969 – Daytime Running Lights
* 1970 – Headlight Wipers-Washers (important in snow and ice)
* 1972 – Side-Impact Door Members
* 1993 – Saab Safeseat
* 1997 – Triple-Load Path (crash-management system)
* 2000 – Pet Gear (designed to protect canine passengers and their human counterparts)For the 2003 model year, Saab has introduced what it claims may be one of the safest cars in the world – the 9-3 sedan. The 9-3 features a (new, improved!) second-generation SAHR, a crash-worthy steel safety cage, side curtain airbags, sophisticated sensing system for airbag and seatbelt pretensioner deployment, and greatly improved ride and handling.US Ownership Ford purchased Volvo in 1998 and GM bought Saab in 2000.
Both have charged the Swedish automakers with leading the safety development efforts of their companies. It remains to be seen if Saab and Volvo can stay true to their Swedish roots and carry on their safety legacies in this melting pot society. Under U.S. ownership, both Swedish automakers just introduced all-new models – Saabs 9-3 sedan and Volvos XC90 sport-utility – which feature new safety innovations.
If these new vehicles are indicative of Saab and Volvos future direction – and if their safety innovations trickle down into U.S.-built products — the future could be bright indeed.A Toast to the SwedesThe next time you buckle up your three-point safety belt, strap your child into a rear-facing safety seat, or survive a rear-ender on the way to the shopping mall, raise an imaginary shot of Aquavit to the Swedes.
Chances are, you owe your life to them. Just don’t drink and drive. It’s not safe.