• Erik JP Drobey

Physics Lessons


When I bought my 1990 Miata over four years ago, I had already prophesied the little car’s fate. I would drive the pop-up headlights out of it, mod it, teach my son how to drive with it, and, ultimately, hand my college-bound son its keys. 


As the Fates foretold, the Miata has carved a predictable path to the present. Now, though--with the "kid" in his senior year, applying to colleges, and preparing to leave home and embark on his next adventure--I find myself scrutinizing the ridiculously-light, comically-tiny roadster and questioning my oracle-like powers. 


You see, it’s not the car’s future I may have misread; it’s my own as a parent. When I bought the Miata, I drove by the principle Todd and Paul themselves do: the safest car is the one which avoids a crash in the first place. I still live by that principle, and I’m happy I do, since it turns out that the safest car is also a hell of a lot of fun to drive. 


That principle informed my approach as I taught my son to drive, and--thanks to the awesome instructors at Sears Point Race Experience--“the safest car is the one which can avoid a crash” was one of the first assertions my son heard at their Safe Teen Driver course. From all indications, learning to drive in the Miata while informed by that principle has undoubtedly helped him become more than competent behind the wheel. 


So I trust my son’s driving skills, and I trust the Miata’s handling and relative quickness to help him stay safe. 


But then, there’s physics. 


What if, for some reason, he couldn’t avoid a crash, despite his skills and training? After all, the best race drivers in the world crash. What if he were to hit a tree, or get into a collision with a gas-can laden, apocalypse-ready truck? Laws governing kinetic energy and mass would not bend to his favor. 

The Miata, weighing in at just over 2100 pounds, would not fare well in a collision with this Mad-Max rig. Image captured from madding.com.

Nor, I imagine, would the 31 year-old roofless roadster’s passive safety features prove all that effective. Yes, the car is air-bag equipped, but one of the air-bag sensors is not functioning properly. And crumple-zones? I know there were such things as crumple zones in 1989, but I suspect the footwell comprises a significant portion of said zone. 


As I was preparing to write this piece, I happened to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson--”your personal astrophysicist”--speak about this topic on his Star Talk podcast (the segment on car crashes starts at 37:55 of the episode). On crumple zones specifically, deGrasse Tyson explains that, if the energy from an impact “goes to crumpling the car, then [that energy] does not go into crumpling you, provided you are in a casing so that the casing is not part of what gets squished.” Mass, of course, also weighs in on this issue. DeGrasse Tyson’s first car was a Mercury Montego, a veritable “land yacht” in which he was waiting at a stop light one day when another car plowed into the Volvo behind him. The Volvo, in turn, crashed into the Montego, which then crashed into a small Honda. The crumple zones on the Volvo did their job (because Volvo), while the Montego barely registered a scratch. As for the light Honda in front of the Montego? A neck brace and a lot of damage were involved. “Higher mass," deGrasse concludes, "almost always wins” in such scenarios. Damn you, physics. 


Every time I drive the Miata, I realize I’m behind the wheel of a car that’s much smaller and lighter than most other vehicles on the road at any given time. I am willing to trust the car and my skills to keep me as safe as possible while accepting the risks inherent in driving such a Lilliputian vehicle. Increasingly, though, I’ve been growing less comfortable with the notion of my son doing the same. 


A couple of months ago, my son wanted to go for a drive. I had to work that morning, so one of us would have to take the Miata while the other would fire up the FR-S (which is also a small, light car, but one with modern safety tech--not to mention a roof). I handed him the keys to the FR-S. Halfway to work, while driving the Miata top-down at 80mph along highway 280, the passenger-side rear tire blew out. Thankfully, I was fine, as were the other drivers on the road. I took my foot off the throttle, kept off the brakes, and merged carefully onto the shoulder.

Were my son to have driven the Miata that morning, he would likely have experienced the same incident at some point along his route. I’m confident he would have handled the blowout as well as he could, but the thought of him having to do so behind the wheel of the Miata is what finally convinced me not to hand him those keys on his way to college. 


So do I want my son to get something massive like a cheap Phaeton as his first car? No, but that would be absurd and fabulous all at once. How about a tank/SUV like an old Suburban? Not a chance. Despite my concerns about the Miata, I still understand the logic of a vehicle nimble enough to avoid most crashes is likely safer than one that isn’t. It’s just that I’d like for him to drive a car with more modern crash-protection features than those that were designed when this sort of getup was regarded as at the pinnacle of fashion


I realize I’ve written this parental lament as if my son has no say in what first car he’ll drive. In truth, if he really wanted the Miata, I’d hand him the keys and deal with the worrying on my own. I have asked him what his ideal first car would be (if not the Miata, the proceeds from the Miata’s sale will fund part of the purchase price). His answer: a used WRX hatch (or similar), which he regards as fun, practical for a college student, adventure-capable, and relatively safe (I can't argue with that logic). We haven’t yet pinpointed a budget (it will be modest), and I'm hoping Todd and Paul will share their recommendations on an upcoming podcast, but I’d say that’s a fine place to start. I asked my son if he would consider a Saab 92-X. “A Saabaru? Of course,” he replied.


Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.


The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.

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