Visibility: Now You See Me...Now You Don't

With the possible exception of brakes and tires, nothing influences our safety on the road more than how we respond to what we see from behind the wheel. At Edmunds, we receive complaints that car manufacturers seem to care more about a car's sexiness than its sightlines — the driver's ability to see outside the vehicle. (The Dodge Magnum comes to mind.) Oversized headrests, smaller mirrors, sloping hoods — many of today's design elements appear to hinder rather than help the driver's visibility. Does this mean automakers are remiss in their designing duties? On occasion, yes. Let's see how the forces driving today's automotive designers affect general visibility and what solutions might be plausible.

Undersized Mirrors.
Are the mirrors in today's cars too small? While we receive a lot of complaints at Edmunds that side mirrors, in particular, are too small, automakers must take into account wind noise, fuel economy and many other elements, according to Alan Adler, GM's manager of product safety communications. And allow us to add one caveat of our own: Part of the problem comes from drivers improperly adjusting the mirrors, showing too much of the side of their vehicles and not enough of the highway. Proper adjustment means safer driving.

Oversized Head Restraints (a.k.a. headrests).
Large head restraints — particularly in the rear row of a vehicle — can be significant obstacles to rear visibility. But there's a reason. Modern headrests are intentionally designed to be large — in some cases very large — to reduce head and neck injuries. And it's succeeding. According to Russ Rader, director of media relations at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), headrests of the past were too small — specifically, too short, causing the head to travel too far during a collision, risking head, neck and even brain injury. "The main reason the headrests are larger now," said Rader, "is because they catch the full head during an accident." Rader, whose organization has seen a marked decrease in the number of claims for head and neck injuries, also noted that IIHS has singled out seven vehicles with exceptional headrest design: Ford Flex, Honda Civic, Hyundai Entourage, Mercury Sable, Saab 9-3, Subaru Impreza and Subaru Legacy.

Window Size.
We also continue to receive a number of complaints about small window sizing (the tiny rear window on the aforementioned Dodge Magnum comes to mind once more. Here again, oftentimes we're dealing with trade-offs: structural integrity versus visibility. Daniel Johnston, director of product communications at Volvo America, points out that "designers must take into account the ability of a car to protect occupants during a rollover." In other words, larger pillars, which increase structural integrity, reduce visibility but make the car stronger. GM's Adler concurred, saying, "Vehicle structures must meet targeted requirements without compromise. Additional pillar mass is added if needed."

Aside from all our sniping, many automakers are doing a good job in this area, according to David Champion, visibility expert for Consumers Union. Champion singles out such models as Chevy Malibu, Dodge Caravan and Toyota Sienna as visibility leaders in their respective classes. He offers especially high accolades for the Subaru Forester, saying, "You sit relatively high, with a low 'belt line' and good rear visibility, too."

Sloping Windshields.
In a related topic, many of our Forum participants have complained about oversized pillars in newer models, especially the A-pillars (the pillars immediately forward of the front occupants) in hybrids and fuel-efficient models, which they claim block front visibility. Even such perennial favorites as the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius have recently come under some heat in this area. As one of our consumers wrote of his 2006 Honda Civic LX, "The front window columns create too much of a blind spot. I find this quite dangerous."

And he's not alone. Our own Josh Jacquot expressed similar sentiments about the redesigned Civic in our 2006 Economy Sedan Comparison Test: Honda Civic vs. Mazda 3: "The aggressive rake of the windshield," Jacquot wrote, "wouldn't be such an issue if it didn't create the occasional visibility problem. We found ourselves needing to look around the A-pillars to have full front three-quarter visibility." Why do high-mpg cars have such a steep angle to their windshields? Simple: They're intentionally swept back to increase aerodynamics and reduce drag, thereby increasing fuel economy. If designers straighten the pillars, the car loses its high-mpg rating, which is a major selling point in today's market.

HID Headlamps.
Night-time vision is a whole issue in itself, led by concerns about High-Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps (also known as xenon headlamps). Those intense bluish headlights coming toward you like a UFO? That's what we're talking about here. Once again, it's a plus and minus equation. While the new headlamps improve visibility and increase safety for the occupants of the vehicles that have them, they often do the exact opposite for oncoming drivers; many motorists complain that these headlamps hurt their eyes and even temporarily blind them. And the problem will likely only get worse, as the technology becomes less expensive and appears in more and more cars.

The solution? For one, it's crucial that owners of vehicles with HID headlamps have them properly adjusted and check that adjustment frequently, especially after fender-benders or minor accidents which might throw the adjustment off. Second, many upscale cars now come with adaptive headlamps, which automatically adjust to different driving conditions. Still, it's a serious problem — so serious that that the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently conducting a major study to revamp automotive headlamp standards for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Although these are the main issues surrounding general driving visibility, there are others of course, and in a sense none of them are minor. After all, if you can't see, you can't...see. Other considerations include fold-down DVD screens, aftermarket window tinting, oversized blind spots and glare, to name a few.

Congress made tangible progress on this issue by passing The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007. It requires that all U.S.-marketed vehicles be designed to prevent backing incidents by providing an unobstructed rear view. The Act does not specify that automakers add cameras, sensors or LCD displays to their vehicles to meet the rear visibility standard. This gives automakers a degree of flexibility in how they approach those standards from a design aspect.

Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, non-profit advocacy group that was instrumental in getting the Act passed, is also concerned about forward visibility. "There is a blind zone in front of your vehicle," she said, noting that large SUVs and trucks have blind zones that are "sometimes more than 6 feet out from the front bumper." According to Fennell, 70 percent of all non-traffic, car-related childhood fatalities are due to limited visibility. (See accompanying pie chart.)

We would be remiss if we didn't inject a little common sense and practicality into the discussion. Namely, driver education. As Fennell said, "The first thing is to become aware of the visibility problem." When you take that next test-drive, make sure visibility ranks as high as horsepower, body style or any other factor on your list of requirements. Remember that xenon headlamps, oversized headrests and enlarged windows won't make a whit of difference if a driver doesn't pay attention when behind the wheel. And that all these modern wonders can be undone by that cell phone in your hand. Easily. Every time.

This is not to say that automakers don't have an obligation to improve sightlines in our vehicles. They do. However, we must remember that the first line of defense in the battle against accidents may have more to do with what we do rather than what we drive. Don't forget to follow the basic rules of driving you learned way back in driver's ed: Look twice before changing lanes. Rely on direct line of sight versus mirrors. Don't use your cell phone, eat or spend much time fiddling with controls while your car is moving. And always assume that other drivers can't see you.

Who knows, the life you save may even be your own.