Vehicle safety has come a long way since I rolled around in the floorboard as a kid

I drive a 2011 pickup truck. That’s not exactly ancient or an antique, but it’s also not fresh off the assembly line. That means it doesn’t have its own electronic brain like so many of today’s new vehicles, nor does it boast as many safety features. My wife’s car, meanwhile, boasts so many safety features that you’re barely allowed to ride in it.

Now, I don’t have anything against advancing safety features — except for that whole “I’ll brake for you” deal. I wouldn’t mind my truck warning me that there’s a stalled car up ahead or a deer in the road, but I don’t want it deciding to slam on brakes. Yes, there could be a human being crossing the street, but just give me a beep and let me decide whether they are worth the front-end damage.

I admit that I’ve always been a little slow to embrace vehicle safety. I remember a little over 20 years ago when Georgia passed its seat-belt law. At the time I thought it was infringing upon my right to possibly be thrown through a windshield. Shortly after it passed, I was working a past-midnight shift at the Ledger-Enquirer and got stopped by a local cop on my way home for not wearing a seat belt. I suspect he was looking for bigger violations than the fact that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt. It just gave him a good excuse to see if I was committing a real crime, like smuggling fireworks from Alabama.

I was pretty new to the whole column-writing thing at the time, but that was when humans still knew how to read and that made me pretty darn famous among literally dozens of Columbusites. He looked at my license, did a couple double-takes and then threw it in my lap saying, “#&%# it! You’ll make fun of me in the newspaper.” Then he marched back to his car and left.

I realized that the prospect of a $15 fine was very real, and I’ve worn a seat belt ever since. And it probably saved my life a couple of times since then.

I don’t remember wearing a seat belt much as a kid, though. I know we all should have, especially as big as cars were back then. My folks had a Pontiac in which I could lie under the back window and look at the stars or take a snooze down in the floorboard.

My friend Jim and I took turns driving as we commuted to college in Americus, Georgia. I had a junky little car, but he had a meticulously restored 1965 red Mustang convertible. He kept the seats coated with Armor All, though, and when he’d hit the brakes I’d go sliding into the dashboard. I don’t remember if it even had seat belts. And I’m not sure Jim didn’t hit the brakes sometimes just for the entertainment of seeing me bruise my ribs.

And most folks my age who grew up in rural areas remember riding around in the backs of pickup trucks. My dad built houses when I was a kid, so riding in the back was equal parts the joy of wind in your hair and the excruciating pain of sand in your eye. Today, there are rules about securing your dogs in the bed of a pickup. Back then, the rule was that a parent was simply required to yell, “Y’all hold on!” before hitting a bump. It’s a well-known fact that many kids feared to have run away or been abducted in the 1970s were simply bumped out of a pickup on country roads.

Today, we have to watch a YouTube video to figure out how to install car seats in which infants and toddlers are strapped down and restrained as if they were Hannibal Lecter. It looks horribly suffocating to me.

“Quit crying! You can breathe when we get to the store!”

And that’s just my wife yelling at me when I fuss about the seat belt in her car. I can’t imagine how strapped-down kids must feel. I guess I could ask them.

“You need anything back there, maybe some cookies?”

“Only if served with some fava beans and nice Chianti — in a sippy cup, please.”

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