Figuring Sweden’s Safety Obsession

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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; or maybe Saab; or one of the German brands, not to mention the host of five-star vehicles from the American companies and even those from Japan and Korea.

How did Sweden, a country of only 9 million people, come to get two car companies on that short list? Isn’t it curious, that blue-and-yellow fixation on safety? Why are their cars are so crammed with safety features, they practically make crashing look fun?

After all, Germany has its unlimited-speed Autobahn, and its carmakers pride themselves on building safe cars, too. But Sweden’s automakers seem to put safety above all else, including style and sales volume.

Why is that?

Society at work

The answer is a two-parter. First, there’s 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 Sweden’s 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 Volvo’s Safety Center in Goteborg, 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 a year and a half 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,” he says. “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.”

Vision Zero

Already Sweden 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 driver’s license at age 18. There are stiff drunk driving laws that punish 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) with 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.

And there are also 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.

Your roots are showing

In essence, Volvo and Saab are microcosms of Swedish society itself.

“Safety is in our blood; it’s built into the walls here, it isn’t just talk,” says Volvo’s Johnny Korner, noting that Volvo’s 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 requirements. 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, Volvo’s rear-facing child safety seat, and even Saab’s 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.

Innovations aplenty

Because of all this, though the companies may be small — together they account for only 1.03 percent of the world car market — their safety contributions are mighty. Many of the inventions that make today’s cars so safe have Swedish roots.

The safety belt is chief among them. After his friend was killed in a car crash, Volvo’s 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 the laminated windshield (1947), rear-facing child safety seats (1972), and side-impact airbags (1994).

This year, Volvo says unveiled more safety “world firsts” with the introduction of the XC90. Volvo’s first sport-ute 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.

As for Saab, the company founded in 1937 to build military aircraft for a war Sweden never entered, it’s been compelled to be safe since 1947 when it turned to carmaking. Today, the company has numerous safety inventions to its credit, the most well-known and medically lauded being the Saab Active Head Restraint (SAHR). The SAHR reduces head movement following a rear impact, and reduces the risk of whiplash injuries. Other Saab safety innovations include daytime running lights (1969), side-impact door beams (1972), and safety gear for pets (2000).

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 pre-tensioner deployment, and greatly improved ride and handling.

A toast (non-alcoholic, of course)

Ford bought Volvo in 1998 and GM finished its long-anticipated purchase of 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 new models — Saab’s 9-3 sedan and Volvo’s XC90 sport-utility vehicle heavily influenced by their new owners. If these new vehicles are indicative of Saab and Volvo’s future direction — and if their safety innovations trickle down into U.S.-built products — the future could be brighter than a daytime running light against the Uppsala snow.

So this winter, when you buckle up your three-point safety belt, strap your child into a rear-facing safety seat, and survive a rear-ender on the way to Target, raise a mug of glugg to the Swedes. Chances are, you owe your life to them.

Just don’t drink and drive. It’s not safe.

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