Each February, we devote a special section of the magazine to the issue of safety and safety gear. This year, you’ll find a special news section highlighting all of the most recent technological developments unveiled at this year’s Performance Racing Industry show, as well as a buyer’s guide to the latest racing boots and gloves on the market. Elsewhere in this issue, you’ll also find a fascinating interview with safety gear pioneer Bill Simpson highlighting his own racing career, as well as NASA’s role in racing safety development and what he sees as the technological innovations that might revolutionize the future of safety gear. Hopefully, this issue will inspire you to take a moment and reassess your own gear, before the start of the new season.
I’ve always taken a certain amount of satisfaction in producing these annual safety gear issues, as I’ve always felt strongly that, even though we may be racing historic cars, this shouldn’t mean that we have to also sacrifice the decades of safety advancements that the sport has spawned, since these cars were new. People died, on a regular basis, racing our cars. But science and technology have given us the tools to escape that fate…or have they?
I recently read a book by a researcher/adventurer named Laurence Gonzales that actually forced me to look at my views on safety, in a new light. The name of the book is Deep Survival—Who Lives, Who Dies and Why? And it is an in-depth analysis of the influences and factors that lead to life and death situations in a variety of action and extreme pursuits—everything from mountaineering and big wave surfing to automobile racing and flying. At its core, Gonzales comes to the conclusion that those who survive extreme, life-threatening situations are those people who are better able to adapt their mental image and perception of their surroundings, under extreme pressure. In so doing, they are more accurately able to assess the risk of a given situation and make the right snap decisions that might mean life or death.
Part and parcel to this concept is something he refers to as “risk homeostasis,” which he explains as when “…people accept a given level of risk. While it’s different for each person, you tend to keep the risk you’re willing to take at about the same level. If you perceive conditions as less risky, you’ll take more risk. If conditions seem more risky, you’ll take less risk.”
One of the many examples Gonzales provides is that of a Navy Seal, who drowned on a not-too-arduous, white water–rafting trip. The reason he died, according to the author, was that he was so accustomed and trained to much more extreme and threatening situations in the water, that when he fell out of his raft in moderate rapids, he didn’t take it too seriously and, as such, did all the wrong things that resulted in him being pinned under a boulder and drowned. So what does this have to do with racing, you may ask?
Gonzales goes on to propose that the many advances in safety technology that we enjoy don’t always make us safer, because they can give us a false sense of security, which in turn encourages us to take greater risks than we ordinarily would. A perfect example of this is modern Formula One. Drivers from earlier eras never would have entertained some of the on-track antics that we see today, because they knew the result would have been certain death. With drivers today walking away from horrifying accidents, you can’t help but wonder if that is emboldening them to push the limit to levels of risk previously unimaginable?
Another real world example of this phenomenon that the author cites was the introduction of anti-lock brakes. “When anti-lock brakes were introduced, authorities expected the accident rate to go down, but it went up. People perceived that driving was safer with anti-lock brakes, so they drove more aggressively.” Gonzales sums up by stating, “Technology advances intended to improve safety may have the opposite effect.”
Now before you think I’ve gone completely off my rocker, I’m not saying that safety improvements like the HANS device—or for that matter seat belts!—are bad or dangerous. But I do think this book makes a very interesting point that I never considered before. Are we, as historic racers, taking more on-track risk now than we used to, as a result of better safety equipment? A Can-Am or Formula One car is every bit as lethal today as it was 40 years ago. But have we since been lulled into a false sense of security, thanks to all of the safety innovations that we now enjoy?
This last point was crystallized for me while I was interviewing Bill Simpson for this issue. I asked Simpson about the state of safety in historic racing. Simpson’s response was that, overall, people are using the right equipment but “You can’t change a car design, you know? You just can’t do that…and these things were dangerous!” Hopefully, we’ll never become so complacent as to lose sight of that fact.