Ever wonder why outward visibility is so terrible in modern cars? It's not your imagination. It also is not a coincidence that features like "blind spot warning system" and "rear view backup camera" have become standard even on compact cars near the bottom of the new car price ladder. They're putting those things on everything from the Mercedes S-Class to the Kia Soul because visibility, especially behind and to the side (the classic "blind spot") is almost nonexistent in some modern vehicles.

Here's why.

Around 1990 when the SUV boom began in the U.S., auto manufacturers generally tried to economize by building big SUVs on existing platforms from cars and (pickup) trucks. In broad strokes, 1990s SUVs are some of the most unsafe vehicles you can drive today. They were almost uniformly top-heavy, poorly proportioned, and practically designed to flip and roll over during sharp handling.
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Something darts in front and you need to swerve to avoid it? Well your 1994 Ford Explorer is going to go full Michael Bay. Then of course there was the infamous Ford/Firestone rollover fiasco that was all over the news for the better part of three years and practically brought both companies to their knees. Firestone was making (and still makes) shitty tires that were exploding and causing Ford's tall, heavy, poorly balanced SUVs to do cartwheels. The public became sufficiently exercised for Congress to act.

In the early 2000s Congress and the NTSB mandated new measures to make vehicles either better at avoiding accidents or able to make accidents more survivable. Making cars better at avoiding accidents involves complicated and generally quite pricey technology like electronic stability control, torque distribution / all-wheel drive, and a whole lot of other electric nannies to bail out poor drivers doing dumb things like braking while cornering fast. The other option was to increase your odds of living through an accident, even a rollover. And that's much cheaper.

Your car's pillars (A, B, C, and in some vehicles like station wagons, D) have exploded since then. Some of them are so wide now that outward visibility is near zero. Why? Two reasons. One is that they are now stuffed full of airbags. The other is that they have been thickened to strengthen them so that the roof (per NTSB rules) can support the entire weight of the vehicle during a rollover. Here's the C-pillar in America's most popular family car, the Camry. Twenty years ago that would have been three or four inches wide, tops, to maximize driver visibility and exterior aesthetics. Now it has enough steel in it to support a 4000-pound load during a high speed impact.

Anyone knowledgeable about the industry over the years can confirm that the single biggest change in cars since, say, the 1960s and 1970s is weight. Cars today weigh twice as much or more as comparable vehicles did Back in the Day.
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The curb weight of a 1967 Ford Mustang was 2970 pounds. The curb weight of this year's model is over 3800…and the Mustang is a sports car with great pains taken to keep weight down. All that weight is about safety, period. "Classic" cars were and are death traps. If you got in an accident at highway speed you were probably dead. Today cars are full of airbags, safety cages, crush zones, reinforced everything, load-bearing A-B-C pillars – you name it. All that weight increases occupants' odds of surviving an accident.

If you happen to have a pre-2000 car as well as, say, a post-2010 car to compare it to, grab a ruler and measure the three main pillars. Or just sit inside and admire how much better your visibility is from behind the wheel of the older vehicle. Modern cars are engineering marvels for the most part, but unfortunately we are now relying on gadgets to allow us to see what's going on around us. Anyone who has survived a serious accident will no doubt argue that the tradeoff is worth it.

51 thoughts on “NPF: BLINDED”

  • Thank you for clearly describing what I have been getting ever more irritated by for years. You are quite right, these beasts are far more survivable but seem more likely to get into an accident. I drive one of those awful SUVs (1999 Jeep Cherokee) but learned to drive by a set of rules: constant surveillance, following distance, slow before the turn, accelerate out of the turn, etc… Driving with a 8" B and C post is unbearable and unsafe – I can't track the other cars.

    But, as with my diving skills, I'm a dinosaur. In both I will be overtaken by a machine that does it better in all respects. In neither respect will I go quietly.

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    I've used Firestone tires on all of my vehicles since 1986. I've never had a problem with any of them.

  • True enough, but there's considerable variation in modern cars, which is largely down to fashion.

    Compare, for example, the VW Golf with the Mazda 3. They're hatchbacks of a similar size and price. The Golf is slightly more expensive, and VW is not known for skimping on safety.

    Forward visibility is pretty similar. But the VW has a large, rectangular rear window, whereas the Mazda has a puny lozenge about half the size. There may be some technical handwaving behind it, but it appears to be an attempt to make the Mazda look sporty, in contrast to the more staid and sensible image of the VW.

  • Having lived in a college town I still shudder at the though of having to make right or left turns onto a street lined with huge, parked SUVs. It ain't just a lack of visibility in modern cars, it's the inability to see past a row of those boxy, bulky things.

  • One of my cars is a 1957 DeSoto. It's pretty much a death trap.

    I added seat belts to it, but that's about the only safety feature in it.

    Any car pre-1964 has a rigid steering column, unlike the collapsing ones used since.

    In a front-end collision that steering column becomes a spear through the driver's chest. If that doesn't get you, the dash has plenty of protruding metal knobs to punch a hole in you.

    There's a video out there on youtube where an insurance company crashed a 1959 Bel Air into a 2009 Malibu. The modern car destroyed it.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    What Talisker said about the Mazda 3. I bought one because I don't trust any non-Japanese car, but when I back up anymore I don't even bother to turn around, because I can't see dick. I use my mirrors and my park assist and god help me if that goes bad.

  • I had a 1989 Honda Civic for 16 years. I really miss it for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it had big windows that you could actually see out of. I have a 2005 Sonata now; it's an *okay* car (gets me where I'm going, okay on gas,reasonably reliable) but the sightlines just aren't there, and I've noticed that newer cars have windows that are becoming more and more vestigial.

    @mojrim; it drives me nuts when people go into any type of turn–however slight–like, "Jesus take the wheel!" with their foot off the accelerator as they kind of drift through. It's bad in neighborhoods and it's bad trying to get onto the highway. I thought it was just the crappy drivers around here. My area has a lot of stoplights immediately after gentle turns, and if these bozos would simply go through the turn at a normal speed, more people would make it through the light.

  • Classic blind spot doesn't exist if you just rock forward a bit and use the outside mirror. However! The size of mirrors on vehicles needs to be increased. Especially on standard sedans and coupes. I can see twice as much when I use my pickup mirrors as my Pilot's mirrors and half as much as that in my in-laws Accord.

  • Wayne Ruffner says:

    I drive a lot of Avis cars – and I can't think of a single time in the last five years that the car I had managed not to have a big fat console (all the way up to the dash) between the front seats. And it seems that the bigger the car, the bigger that console – like they think all Americans are 5'6", 120 pounds. I'm 6'5" and these consoles bruise up my knees all the time (the consoles and their cohort door panels).

    At least the pillars are doing some good. But waiting on knuckleheads to back out of their strip mall parking spots is killing me.

  • Extra weight also means worse fuel economy. Only hybrids can match the mpg of some of those 30 year old rolling coffins. But hey, SAFETY FIRST. CO2 is someone else's problem.

  • And yet another thing to reduce rear visibility: rear seat headrests (don't know if they're mandated these days or what). I have removed them from both my Golf and wifey's Civic. Much better viewing now!

  • @ Jeff J:

    I wouldn't mind driving a SmartCar. Then I think about my (hypothetical) children riding in one and think of the drivers in my hometown. And then planet becomes merely another sacrifice to keep the wolf from my door.

    So…I dunno. Trade offs and the tragedy of the commons and all that.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Until we got a tiny brand new Datsun economy car in 1971, the only safety features on our late 50's and 60's car, was my father's right arm shooting across in front of the passenger(s) in the front seat if he had to break hard!

    No seatbelts in the car at all, and a solid steel dashboard painted with some sort of texture in the paint to make it look – I suppose – like leather. THAT, was the padding!

    Also, no headrests, so, whiplash, here I come!

    The passengers in the back were on their own…

  • So, Ralph Nader was right — unsafe at any speed. Of course, I once had a professor say that same thing about me once when returning a paper I wrote.

  • ClockworkSteve says:

    Drivers in parking lots seem much more likely to pull through into a spot to avoid having to back out than they did, say, 20 years ago. I assume this tendendy is also part of dealing with the poor visibility when backing up.

  • The on-board alarms are simply ridiculous now… IMHO they actually make drivers LESS attentive and therefore more prone to being in accidents, alarms be damned. I deal with my client's pre-production and prototype cars every day and the first thing I do is turn all that crap off.

    I was in the tire industry during the Firestone fiasco and found out some really startling information. Turns out one of the main reasons the Ford SUVs were having issues was the terrible suspension geometry to give them a softer ride, so they opted to demand that tire pressures be lowered far below normal to offset the suspension loads. Firestone balked, but Ford threatened to drop the tire brand as OE if they didn't comply so Firestone relented and adjusted their psi ratings with disastrous results.

    The most serious accident that highlighted the tire problem, an SUV rollover in Texas that killed and maimed, was actually not the tires' fault because the tires that didn't fail were below 20psi and all the tires had over 100k miles on them and were worn to nothing. These facts didn't register against the outrage and lawsuits.

    The boycott really started as the result of a Sheik who was killed in Saudi Arabia while traversing the sands in his mega-SUV with Firestone tires aired-down to 10 psi to aid in sand crawling, but he didn't air them back up when he ran on the highway, the tires blew and caused a deadly accident. Firestone tires were immediately banned from the Kingddom after that… bad timing for Firestone.

  • One of the main reasons those older cars are such death traps is because everything else outweighs them. Sure they need some airbags, a crumple zone etc but if everyone was driving a lighter car much of the deadliness is reduced.

    If everyone was in a driverless car they could all be made out of cardboard for all I car and the fuel efficiency would be incredible.

  • combat malamute says:

    It seems like trucks have been getting ridiculous lately. I rented a new Ram while my Pathfinder was in the shop, and that thing was like an aircraft carrier on wheels. And that was smaller than a lot of the brodozers around here.

  • My 370z's rearview is more like a gun-slit than an actual view. I can only see what is directly behind me; nothing past 30 feet or so.

    Changing lanes? More like a leap of faith than an actual maneuver. There's a reason I tend to drop a gear as I put on my blinker.

    I love my car.

  • A small nitpick, collapsible steering columns were mandated in 1968, along with side marker lights, reinforced doors and shoulder belts. Lap belts showed up in 1965 and later.
    A bit about those Bridgestone/Firestone tires, they were built without a nylon cap over the belts for cost savings, which further weakened them in high temperatures.

  • @Rob: Not so much; speed matters more than weight.

    Damage is done by kinetic energy, which is proportional to mass times the square of velocity. So a 3600 pound vehicle travelling at 50 mph is as dangerous as a 2500 pound vehicle at 60 mph. If you are driving a car without modern safety features, colliding with either one will seriously mess you up.

  • The reason cars are so much safer now is because of Federal regulation. Unfortunately, that also is the reason for vision issues. For instance
    1) A-pillar obscuration is due to front crash load paths. A-pillars are now made with exotic steels that just didn't exist in the 90's, let alone in the 50's.
    Another reason is rollover protection. All the major manufacturers meet a 4 times rollover protection, which drives both mass and section size of all pillars, especially the B-pillar.
    2) B-pillar width is driven by several regulations. Rollover, side impact, and side pole protection. Also, the B-pillar has to engage the door structure so you don't get crushed in side impact.
    3) C-pillar is mostly a resultant of crash, seat belt retractor position, and airbag position.
    D) D-pillar on SUV's is driven by belts and rear occupant comfort systems, ie rear seat A/C and heaters being separate from the front occupants.

    Pedestrian protection, rear backup cameras, side sensors, and crash avoidance are all driven in an effort to provide additional safety for people not in the vehicle.

    All those are reasons deaths per mile driven have dropped year by year. And even though mass of vehicles has risen, fuel economy has gotten better and better through both engine, and transmission technologies.

  • I have a year-old Forester. Would have bought something smaller, but I'll have three six-footer children within two years. Anyway, the usual blind spot over the right shoulder has a horizontalish support pillar of some sort that has the same slope as the hood of a car, so I always see a phantom car in that direction when I don't just use the right mirror (which is what I learned NOT to rely upon.) Backing up, I have a camera. Would love to have that in every car from now on, because it makes parallel parking the easiest thing ever. No guesswork about other cars' bumpers any more.

    I'm sure my next vehicle will be either electric or hybrid, so I'll have to learn a lot of new driving techniques. At least my mom might be able to buy a self-driving car by her 80th birthday, which is going to be another series of things to learn. She's okay with directions, but she's going to have to learn to use computers or she's going to have her car get her lost all the time. We're going to live in interesting times.

    I'm sure the car after that will be some sort of shared pod thing that will smell like vomit all the time, but it will be better than driving among all these lunatics and bots.

  • I ride a motorcycle 95% of the time. I assume that none of these people see anything other than what is right in front of them, and even that is highly uncertain. Cell phones and non-use of turn signals, now those make for an entertaining commute.

  • Motorcycle deaths in my city are going up and up, and I'm certain the size and design of vehicles is a big factor.

  • Couple things, and I can wax about this for days:

    1) Talisker, as a current owner of '10 VW GTI, and as someone who has borrowed many a Mazda3, I agree with you concerning visibility and form beating function in the case of the Mazda (though I am one of the four people in the planet that loves the Nagarre style of auto.) My one caveat is, as much as I love my 4-dr's visibility, and the triple-welded B-pilar's security, I despise the placement of the VW's B. 2 inches to the rear would have made it perfect for average height.

    2) I, for one, love that low gas prices. This will drive up the appetite for Canyoneros that nobody on the planet can seem to drive without going the full retard (much less parallel park.) This will totally not result in a swing in supply/demand in fuel, resulting in some stupid resource war where hundreds of thousands of brown people are killed and tens of thousands of young Americans are literally or psychologically maimed. If your unibody or body-on-frame piece of shit displaces more than 3.5 liters, weighs more than 4000 pounds, and/or roofline sits more than 65" off the asphalt… well… I best just stop typing now.

  • Skipper.No. Ralph Nadar proved a rich person's son could not have possibly been at fault driving and dying in a corvair.

    Many testified as to how safe that car was. He then made even more money on the book. Basically GM handled the entire affair poorly, and Ralph was suddenly famous.

    Nadar is a POS who later helped GWB become president , as if he had not already done enough damage to the USA.

    I wish a great weekend to all.

  • We noticed the poor sight lines when we bought our '06 Civic. Some of it was the A columns that now had airbags in them, but a lot of it was the shallow sweep of the front end of the car. I don't think this is a functional thing, just a matter of design. It looks pretty on the outside, but is a nuisance on the inside. The A column forms a long diagonal effectively blocking a much bigger chunk of one's view than it seems at first.

    We rented a Yaris in Australia with a back up camera, and we really liked it. I remember reading Popular Science back in the 1960s about the car of the future which would have a rear view television camera and automatic collision avoidance. They were off by maybe 5-10 years, which is pretty good. Our next car is going to have lots of cameras. I'd love a set that would build a composite wide angle rear view image where the rear view mirror is now. That would be sweet.

    Now, I would like to put in a good word for finite element analysis (FEA). I first heard of it in the early 70s when talking to a guy designing off shore oil platforms. Basically, you typed in the physical structure on punch cards and dumped them into a computer which would print out a few pages telling you if your rig would survive a storm. By the early 90s aluminum can designers were using FEA running on a Cray supercomputer, think cheap smartphone, but a lot slower, to design new ways of confining food products in minimal aluminum shells. The car makers were also using it to design crumple zones, so car bodies are pressed out of metal much the way aluminum cans are. FEA is one of those invisible technologies that shows up all over the place. All those weird looking skyscrapers that look like someone dropped a pile of Legos are actually structurally sound thanks to FEA. I'm expecting FEA to reach the consumer more directly when 3D printing gets more common and people start buying bespoke items with serious mechanical constraints beyond "looks good on my shelf". So, let's hear it for finite element analysis.

  • The 1st generation Corvair used a swing-arm rear suspension, which could cause one of the rear wheels to tuck under during hard cornering. Early VWs and Tatras had the same flaw.

    The 2nd generation Corvair (1965 and later) got a fully independent rear suspension which solved the handling quirk.

    It was really marketing that killed off the Corvair, however. Starting in 1967 you could get a Camaro with a V8 for about the price of a Corvair. GM barely bothered to market them after that.

  • @Jon; my 6'4" son drives a 2-door Mini Cooper. You really don't need a Canyonero to fit people in.

    That reminds me; when I was growing up, the must-have status symbol to cement parenthood status was a station wagon. When I was a young adult, suddenly the mommy-status-symbol was the minivan–people who had never gone camping in their lives suddenly needed it–"in case we go camping!" the second the pregnancy test turned blue. Of course, they never went camping after that, but it allowed them to feel all smug that they were doing the mommy thing "right". Then the SUVs became the must-have vehicle, and now it's the Canyonero-sized behemoths.

  • We rented a Dodge Caliber for a road trip a few years ago(because our ancient '81 civic wagon was too elderly to be trusted out of city limits…), and it was a nightmare. My wife opened our sliding driveway gate (about 20' wide), and was waiting for me to back out to close it again. Try as I might, I was entirely unable to see her,either out the windows or through the mirrors. Horrible visibility. I thoroughly hated that car by the time the trip ended.

    We ended up replacing the Civic with a 2010 VW Jetta Sportwagen (a diesel model , but that is an entirely different kettle of discontent) and I'll agree with the others, visibility out of it has been a vast improvement over other makes on the market.

  • I searched far and wide to find my wife's 2009 A4 station wagon.

    Audi actually has stopped importing them to the US.

    Instead they import the Allroad "SUV", which is……wait for it……an A4 wagon raised up about an inch.

    The Germans must think we're very strange.

  • @Major Kong; a certain smug segment of the Brit upper-class are starting to go for SUVs, and it's a source of a lot of jeering by the rest of the country. There's a definite "type" who go for those bloated things. One of the jokes is that they're like goldfish bowls, and the bodies of those who drive them bloat to fit, which explains why Americans are so fat and why the Brits are catching up.

    My favorite Dutch customer has something that reminds me of the 1980s Volkswagen Rabbit. The whole family piles in to go faraway places–the last time I was there, they took me via ferry to a vacation island in the North Sea. We spent several hours in the car traveling through the Netherlands, through Frisland to the ferry, and they're all large Germanic people. I feel like a dainty little fairy next to them, but we all fit comfortably in the car.

  • Katydid, the front seats of most vehicles are okay for most people. But it's the back seats where a six-footer can be cramped up if they're taller than average. I have three sons, one of whom is 6'4" and the other two are twelve and fourteen. And most vehicles don't have bench seats in front anymore. That's another thing I both miss and don't miss.

  • Oddly enough my 57 DeSoto is the easiest car to parallel park of any that I have ever driven.

    Despite being over 18 feet long, I can see all four corners of it from the driver's seat. I know exactly where the car starts and ends.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    The remarkable thing about reduced sight lines and the increase in distracted driving is who it hurts: pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists … anyone *not* in the vehicle.

  • @majorkong: the difference between a range rover and a hedgehog: with a hedgehog the pricks are on the outside.

  • My two cents about the fricking Corvair. It wasn't good enough. The car was heavily compromised from the start. GM wanted a entry level car to compete with imports like the VW and be profitable. The design used fairly exotic materials and technology,which blew out the costing, which led to decontenting of material and equipment.
    One of the decontented features was the rear suspension. A swing axle independent design was used similar to early VWs- a design well know to have tricky handling characteristics, particularly in combination with a relatively heavy rear engine.
    This is not such an issue for experienced "enthusiast" driver- see the long term success of Porsche 911 derivatives- but the Corvair was marketed to "non-drivers" like first car owners who generally were not prepared for its nasty surprises.
    The unfortunate thing is most of the issues could be solved by a $20 compensator spring kit, but again cost cutting. This was a point of argument internally with many senior engineers arguing for the more costly design, and losing out to accountancy.
    The other mess with the car was GMs reaction to the Nader book. Instead of fixing the fault quietly or apologising for the mess, a Nixonian dirty tricks campaign was instituted.
    Private investigators were employed to dig up smear against the man, which predictably was screwed and left GM looking even worse…
    The irony of all this was the Corvair probably ended up with a longer life than if "Unsafe" hadn't been published. The 2nd generation (with a properly configured rear suspension") had no guarantee of production. The 1st generation sales were OK, but compared to the cheap to build and very profitable Ford Falcon, it's performance was lacklustre. The Chevy II Nova did the job better and like the Falcon was scalable, that is could be fitted with different engines and gearboxes,and stretched and rebodied for different models, unlike the Corvair.
    GM feared an image of a humiliating backdown if they dropped it quickly, and GM at its peak didn't do that sort of thing. So the 2nd generation was produced, and quietly ran out its life span, while Chevrolet emphasised more desirable models like Caprice and Camaro.
    Whew, got that off my chest!

  • @Major Kong and Totoro; do you suppose this is because Americans expect to lounge around in their cars as if they were hanging out in their living rooms? Between the "on board entertainment system" (update your Facebook while you barrel down the highway at 80 mph!), the texting, the DVD players, and all the other distractions, who has the mental space to pay attention to the road? That's why the monster SUVs exist; to protect the mindless from the consequences of their short attention spans.

  • Whoops, paragraph five should read
    " Private investigators were employed to dig up smears against the man, which predictably was screwed up and left GM looking even worse…"
    Fat fingers and small keyboards strike again!

  • Ha ha ha. The Corvair, my first car (at age 18 owned by me outright), with its pancake engine and dual carbs needing constant synching, and I rebuilt them at least twice.

    Hey, but I got it for $150 with about 1500 miles on it from family friends whose grandmother–and this is straight truth–only drove it to church on Sundays.

    Can't say it was safer than the 57 DeSoto (hello Major Kong) that I abused enough to blow out the exhaust system jerry rigged by my brother who also modified the engine compartment so he could drop a 426 hemi into it.

    Um, my original comment was to be this: They don't make cars like they used to. Thank god.

  • I don't think that the Corvair was a very well made car, but it's a shame that it was the vehicle for Saint Ralph's crusade. It was one of the most innovative cars in Chevy's lineup; IIRC they were trying compact design, independent suspension, rear-engine, and other huge variations from the standard land yachts then coming out of Detroit. It's my impression that getting stung so badly on the Corvair pretty much convinced GM to go back to the tried-and-true until the Japanese posed an existential threat.

    What did I get wrong? There's always something …

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  • GM has always had great designers and engineers.

    Then the corporate bean counters get hold of the design and start cutting corners.

    They usually end up getting it about 80% right. They'll take a great engine and then wrap a mediocre car around it. Or they'll take a great car and saddle it with a crappy engine or transmission.

    Right about the time they finally get it sorted out they stop making it.

  • Hey, Major Kong; regarding your excellent article about almost being run over by a distracted driver: on the weekend news right now, they're discussing the trial of a woman who was simultaneously texting *and* driving drunk (how's that for multitasking for you?) when she plowed into a bicyclist, killing him. She has zero memory of the accident because she was so busy doing things other than driving. These people terrify me. They often seem to be in the Canyonero-sized SUVs so they can remain safe from the carnage they inflict on others.

  • I was in a freak accident where a drive tire blew out after hitting a 3" rock while I was on interstate. I was going 75 mph and my car ended up rolling multiple times, finally stopping after sliding on the roof of the car for 75 yards. Without strong A and B pillars I would be dead several times over, as airbags would have been near useless.

    I'll make the visibility for pillar strength trade any time.

  • TakomaMark says:

    I'm living this post as we speak. 6 months ago I gave up my 1999 Toyota Corolla for a 2015 RAV4. I find I have decent side and front visibility but I would not be able to back up without the rear view camera. I guess, if I really practiced using the side mirrors, I could eventually do it safely but there would still be significant blind spots involved. Properly adjusting the side mirrors does completely eliminate any blind spots for lane changing.

    The big issue is the front columns and I experience this problem all the time as a pedestrian here in the DC area. On most cars these days the front column sits right in the natural view of the street corner when a car is at an intersection. I can't tell you how many times, when I'm beginning t walk through an intersection, a car will start to turn right or left and then come to a sudden stop when the column finally clears their view and they can actually see the pedestrian in the crosswalk. I have the same problem when I'm driving my new car. Was not a problem in the old one. Neither was backing up without a camera, I would just do the old turn around and look out the back window thing.

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