Opinion: Drivers can be their own worst enemy | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Drivers can be their own worst enemy

Ken Johnson
Free Press Opinion Columnist

About three weeks ago I tried an experiment with my GMC. Yeah, it’s a pickup but it’s still GM, automatic transmission, key on the steering column, air bags and seat belts.

Chevy products are amazingly similar and seem to share a number of common parts. Who would ever dream that?

What I wanted to know was whether I could turn the key off while driving (yes, I could) and if the motor died, would I crash?

Now, I did not want the airbags to blow. My test was to see if I lost power steering and power brakes, just like those Chevy Cobalts that have kept General Motors in the news for so long.

So yes, at 30 mph the engine died and I lost all power. Even the radio quit.


But guess what? I could still steer and stop. While it took a lot more effort to turn the steering wheel, and considerable effort to push the brakes hard enough to stop, there was really no problem.

You have to know I’m a serious car guy, so I’ve been in and out of some hairy driving problems. Many of them were caused by ignorant me, so I now also support mandatory training for young drivers.

Cars have become so reliable and safe it takes virtually no skill to go, turn or stop. But when an emergency comes up too many of us are clueless.

Look up what Canada requires for beginning drivers to get a license. If you do, you’ll find that it really does work. And it is a lot better than our method, which is to give the kids a car, help them get their license and turn them loose.

Back to GM and the Chevy Cobalt/Saturn Ion “killer cars.”

The big news is that multiple lawyers are salivating at multiple class action lawsuits to pry big money out of that rotten GM. The entire media has been treating us to quick, finger-pointing headlines, like “GM Lied, People Died”.

Our brilliant political leaders leaped into the fray, too, claiming GM deliberately sold defective cars.

Too bad the air bags make such an easy headline, because they really are a different problem; turns out there are lots of reasons why you do not want an airbag bashing you in the face, trying to shove your glasses through your nose, unless it’s a major crash.

Worse, with all the TV, radio and newspaper reports plus mindless blogs, I’ve seen only one report that bothered to look at all 13 of those fatalities.

You can read it, too; it’s in the current Car and Driver magazine, written by Eric Tingwall.

He used a Saturn Ion for the tests (there were 479,000 of them produced, and a tad over one million Chevrolet Cobalts in those 10 years).

In 10 years those cars were in 31 accidents where air bags did not deploy.

In those 31 wrecks, 13 people died.

So what happened to those 13? Four were Saturns and nine were Cobalts.

There were only nine cars involved because four fatalities were passengers not using seat belts. All four were impaired by drugs or alcohol.

Three were drivers not using seat belts who were impaired. One driver was using his seat belt, but was also impaired.

Certainly it’s hard to steer when it suddenly takes 15 pounds of effort to guide your car instead of the power-assisted 3 pounds, particularly while a bit muddled.

One driver using seat belts had a history of epilepsy and was seen slumped over the wheel immediately before the collision.

The lawyers will carve their own stories for judges and juries, and GM said they blundered. The car company already fired 15 and more will go.

But all of us ought to look at how we drive; we hurtle down highways at 75 mph while other drivers are heading toward us at the same speed. The result? Over 30,000 drivers or passengers die each year in wrecks. And of course it is always the fault of the automakers, isn’t it?


Tingwall summarized this whole fiasco:

“The dominant narrative — that the cars were shutting off, causing them to become uncontrollable and preventing airbags from deploying — doesn’t hold up.

“The truth is that most cars have an Achilles’ heel, sometimes two when you factor in the driver.”

GJ Free Press columnist Ken Johnson is founder of the Grand Junction Free Press and former owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel. He spends his time between the Grand Valley and California.

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