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Instrument Panel Impalement

By Al Vinikour

Oooh, shiny! And deadly...I’m always looking for things that might be fodder for my next column. Generally it’s some jackass weaving in and out of traffic like sewing machine operators at a sweat shop in downtown Bangladesh. Other times its apparent amputees who don’t have a free hand to operate their turn signals. Or even people who insist on ruining my driving cadence by forcing me to slow down so they can make their turns… just because they want to go home. Inconsiderate bastards! But when I was trying to come up with this week’s topic, little did I realize that it was right in front of my face. No, not my nose; I’m talking about automotive dashboards.

I’ve been driving a lot of 2013 and even 2014 vehicles lately and a lot of emphasis seems to be on upscale materials and hand-stitching that manufacturers are concentrating on in crafting dashboards. Some are just plan gorgeous while others, even though they may not be in the Bentley or Mercedes-Benz category, are still trying their best to give the customer the feeling that something nice is being done for them besides lightening their savings account.

Once I had my subject, I started reflecting on dashboards I have known, and since I was the product of automotive junkyard people, I have known more panels than Hugh Hefner knew women (although I guarantee you that he probably had the better deal). Because designers and engineers didn’t know any better, the first half-dozen or so decades of the automobile had dashboards that were made out of steel. Consequently, when the more-often-than-not front-end collisions occurred, there would generally be two outcomes: either the passenger’s and/or driver’s head would reach parity with the dashboard… and by that I mean that BOTH of them would have steel plates; or one or more of the front-seat occupants would “go into real estate” as paramedics are wont to say. 

In the mid-’50s, some of the manufacturers dallied with the idea of constructing instrument panels with external padding to act as a safety buffer between the cold, hard steel underneath and the soft, pink flesh of the potential victims. This was a good idea except for one thing: early materials had some kind of gripe against the sun… and the sun generally wins. It was easy to spot the losers in the contest because some dashboards were as melted as a Yamamoto Peppermint Patty laying on a park bench at Ground Zero in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. For all I know, the early safety dashboards were the inspiration for Silly Putty. But… I digress.

As the years increased the materials and construction of instrument panels, dashboards and even steering wheels were improved to the point that they became selling points for safety in their own right. It still may not have been possible to survive a head-on crash with a Santa Fe Railroad 4-8-8-4 locomotive barreling down the tracks, but it WAS possible to survive the same type of crash against a Buick Roadmaster. Combine the new and improved safety dashes with the advent of airbags, and it almost made drivers want to go out and LOOK for head-on collisions.

Just as there are eight million stories in the Naked City (as opposed to eight million nakeds in the Story City) so, too, must there be a plethora of stories of how safety and technology devices went through their evolutionary process to become the things most take for granted today. For instance, how many people were blinded for life by the reflection of the sun beaming through a rearview mirror, directly on the driver like an early-day laser beam before self-tinting mirrors were invented? Or how many innocents were impaled on a solidly-anchored hood ornament before a breakaway latch ceased such carnage? Or even worse, how many people died looking like Freddie Krueger because fire-retardant materials weren’t used in automotive interiors, and because people would usually become unconscious from smoke inhalation before they could be rescued that they shrunk up like raisins from the horrific flames that did them in?

The sub-point of the last 688 words has been that although innovations aren’t always developed quickly enough to have saved your Uncle Roy, they’ve been updated and refined to the point that they could very well save your future grandchildren and even the grandchildren of people you hate. Just like I can come up with a column idea when colleagues around me are in the midst of writer’s block, so, too, is it possible to develop and improve technologies and devices that make everyday life less dangerous for all of us. If this pattern continues, the most dangerous thing people are apt to encounter is to read my column while drinking coffee and eating a McGriddle at McDonald’s for breakfast.

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