A car is an extension of the person driving it. And if you're like most Americans, you see yourself as individual and unique -- not simply a cookie-cutter floor model, but packed with personality and experiences that make you, you. The same can be true of your car -- that is, if you're willing to take that floor model and run with it.
With a car, if you can dream it, you can do it, from lifting, resculpting and refitting to an almost infinite number and variety of add-ons.
But beware: While manufacturers build with safety in mind, standards are less strict for aftermarket accessories and sometimes nonexistent for DIY projects. When adding personality to your vehicle, be sure you aren't also adding danger. Let's take a look at some risky car accessories.
Even more important than the laws of country and state are the laws of the universe. And it doesn't take Isaac Newton to tell you that top-heavy things like to flip. When you use a lift kit to boost your car's center of gravity, it's like resting a coin on its edge rather than on its face. The higher the boost, the more prone the car is to flipping.
In fact, one braking test study found that raising the suspension of a 1992 Ford F-150 by 4 inches (10 centimeters), lifting the body by 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) and adding 38-inch (96.5-centimeter) tires increased the likelihood of flipping by more than 30 percent and reduced braking performance by 25 percent [source: Knight].
And it's not simply your own life that a lift kit endangers. Cars protect you best when they hit bumper to bumper. But in a collision, your lifted truck is likely to put its nose through the other driver's window, making the crash much more severe.
Sure, jacking your ride could be totally boss (as your kids might say), but you may want to think twice before making your truck a monster.
Colored Fog Lights
The thought on colored fog lights runs something like this: White light, made up of all the colors in the light spectrum, refracts through fog in weird and wild ways, lighting up the foggy sky in front of you like a bright, blank screen. But yellow light (with a longer wavelength and high sensitivity by the human eye) refracts in only one way, so while fog continues to make things a little blurry, using yellow light cuts through the fog much better than your manufacturer-issued headlights.
Unfortunately, that's not true. The Ask a Scientist program at the U.S. Department of Energy explains that for a variety of reasons (including the relatively large size of fog droplets when compared with wavelengths of light), the only advantage of yellow fog lights is that they may look better to some people [source: Barrans].
And they have a distinct disadvantage: distracting oncoming drivers. Perhaps you think it's reasonable to draw the attention of drivers behind and around you, but do you really want to distract a driver who's heading straight at you?
Dash-mounted TV Screens
A 2009 Nielsen report found that the average American watches 151 hours of television per month [source: Gandossy]. You can do the math: That's about 5 hours of TV every day. And today more than ever, Americans are even unwilling to unplug in the car.
It takes only a quick online search to find a plethora of DIY, how-to articles teaching drivers to install TV screens either in holes in the dashboard commonly occupied by radios or as stand-alone monitors that sit atop the dashboard.
Unfortunately, these screens are not only for backseat child viewing and for passenger entertainment anymore.
States like Virginia and Illinois expressly prohibit the installation of television viewing systems in the front areas of cars, and more states are following suit. But do you really need a law to tell you this is a bad idea? Unplug from the tube for the time it takes you to get from point A to point B, and you and your fellow drivers will be much safer.
Sure, a GPS is a distraction, but you have to know where you're going, and it's better than trying to read a map while zipping down the road, right? Wrong. A study by Privilege Insurance found that 19 percent of GPS users were distracted when driving as opposed to only 17 percent of traditional map users [source: Oswald].
While much of this distraction can be remedied by practicing with your GPS and programming a destination prior to take off, an aftermarket GPS introduces two more dangers: the limited sight line and the projectile. If you didn't see that stepladder in the middle of the road, it could be because in that critical split second, your view was blocked by your dash-mounted GPS. And that suction cup is unlikely to keep your GPS screen attached to the dash in a crash, rendering it a potentially dangerous projectile.
Think again before installing a GPS. And if you need food for thought, check out this episode of Mythbusters, which explores the power of in-car projectiles.
Drinking and driving is dangerous, and that applies not only to alcoholic drinks but to all manner of beverages. Heading Insurance.com's list of the top-10 most dangerous foods to consume while driving is coffee, which (as you may have noticed) is not only damp, but can be exceedingly hot. There's nothing that induces mad swerving (and uncontrolled profanity) like boiling hot coffee in your lap. Also making the list of killer foods are soft drinks, due to both spillage and something that Insurance.com calls an unacceptable risk of "fizz up your nose" [source: Borroz].
What this means is that it's probably not a good idea to eat or drink while driving. And nothing says "I drink and drive" like the addition of an aftermarket cup holder. As if there wasn't already enough chance of you dropping your drink in your lap, add to it the chance that your jury-rigged holder will detach from the vent where it hangs by the smallest of hooks and become something else to roll around under your feet.
Not only do tinted windows block 65 percent of the sun's heat and 99.9 percent of its damaging ultraviolet rays, but many think they're (like a couple other entries on this list) totally boss. Though most states ban windshield and front-window tinting, you can still have your back windows tinted.
But even if the law gives you the green light, be sure to weigh the perceived awesomeness of tinted windows against the danger before taking your car to the local detail shop. The risk of reducing visibility out your back windows is obvious -- say hello to sideswipes during lane changes. Less obvious, but no less dangerous, is the reduced eye contact with pedestrians and other drivers that tinting creates. How often do you wave another driver through a four-way stop, meet eyes with a pedestrian waiting at a crosswalk or use other types of sign language to signal your intentions and emotions to drivers around you? With tinted windows, you can kiss this communication goodbye.
Apparently, some car enthusiasts have decided that breaking the flow and uniform color of a car's body with holes for things like lights is unseemly. Especially in the forums of Corvette and Mustang fans, you can find instructions and kits for smoothing over distracters like reverse lights, driving lights and even head- and taillights. Many of these blackouts are illegal on street-driven cars and are intended only for display or showroom use.
But again, should we really need laws that stop us from blacking out headlights? For those still scratching their heads: Lights were put on cars for a reason, namely so that you can see where you're going, other drivers can see you and you can signal your intentions to change your path to other drivers. Going into stealth mode on the road may seem like fun, but so does becoming a ninja hit man, and if you've ever seen old kung fu movies, you know that ninja hit men never live very long.
Is an add-on car or truck trailer really an accessory? For the purpose of this article, yes, mainly because it's one of the most deadly post-market add-ons any vehicle can take on. USA Today reports that more than one person per day is killed in the United States due to crashes in or with passenger vehicles towing trailers [source: Copeland]. The highest cause of trailer fatality is when poorly secured trailers break loose and careen or roll into traffic. This means that when you tow a trailer, it's usually not your own life you're taking into your hands. It's the lives of random passing motorists who may be unprepared for your trailer to come skidding through a red light.
Also, drivers who only tow trailers once in a blue moon are likely to forget the trailer is there, meaning that they forget to take the extra length of the vehicle into account when turning or changing lanes.
While not especially prevalent, the microwave powered by your car's cigarette lighter plug-in is both so awesome and so obviously a bad idea that this list would simply be incomplete without it. With so many commuters stuck in traffic and trying to multitask on the way to work, a surprising number of manufacturers have jumped into mini-microwave creation [source: Houston].
In fact, the mini microwave of death is but one in a category of dangerous in-car appliances that allow you to do things in your vehicle that you really should have done at home, including refrigerators, popcorn poppers, Wi-Fi routers, a range of personal grooming equipment and, of course, coffee makers. Your car should be for getting you from place to place, not for preparing meals and going through your daily getting-ready-for-work routine.
Though not technically an in-car accessory, some have even tried the addition of an under-car deep fryer, which also seems like a recipe for disaster.
Musical Car Horn
There are a number of ways to make nearly any song you want come out of your smart phone. Now the same is true of car horns. For example, the Web site zercustoms.com allows you to install and then download a car horn system that plays selections from a variety of themes, including Christmas, reggae or tailgate. Some musical car horns are even set up to play MP3s [source: GizMike].
Note that these systems are different from car PA systems, in which you play or speak whatever you like through a handheld microphone system. No, these musical car horns augment or replace your car's existing horn.
Imagine a driver drifting into your lane on the freeway, at which point you go to warn him with your horn -- only it plays Lady Gaga. Do you think this driver is more likely to get out of the way immediately or to be distracted and make a critical error? There are enough distractions on the road without adding musical horns to the mix.
For more information on car accessories, check out the links on the next page.
What makes certain car accessories unsafe (or even illegal)?
From cuts and bruises to more serious injuries, many bad things can happen to the human body, and unfortunately, many of these can take place in a car. It's the job of manufacturers, governments and consumers' common sense to ensure that they don't.
Along these lines, the following three factors can make seemingly benign car accessories into deadly weapons. First, projectiles: While Mythbusters debunked the myth of the killer Kleenex box projectile, there are plenty of other accessories that can, will and do fly around the car, wreaking havoc during crashes. Ask yourself -- will your dash attachment or mini microwave really stay put when your car flips at 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) per hour, and if not, would you mind being hit in the head with it?
Second, distractions can also be deadly. Your hands-free smart phone interface, GPS navigation system, baseball-player bobble-head or even cup holder can distract you from the 12-prong buck standing on the double-yellow line. About those prongs: They're pointy, and you'd really rather not have them through your windshield. Even a newfangled smart device can create more distraction than ease if you're not comfortable with how to use it. Do your homework. And avoid things that are meant to distract you, like the dash-mounted DVD player. For truly terrifying (but also totally fascinating) statistics about distracted driving, visit the Web site of the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab.
A third factor that makes many car accessories unsafe is line of sight. Similar to distracted driving, in which you aren't looking at things and thus hit them (or are hit by them), blocking your line of sight with feathered rearview talismans or tinted back windows can help ensure that you don't see things, with the same results. Car manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that you can see your blind spots with a quick over-the-shoulder glance and have an unobstructed view of the 180 degrees in front of you. Don't spoil all their hard work by hanging fuzzy dice in your line of sight.
Next, let's look at how the government is trying to help protect you from unsafe accessories.
Thinking of upgrading your car for performance? HowStuffWorks looks at 10 legal and illegal car modifications.
- Barrans Jr., Richard. "Ask A Scientist: Fog Lights." U.S. Department of Energy. (Jan. 25, 2011)http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/phy99/phy99xx4.htm
- Borroz, Tony. "The 10 Most Dangerous Foods to Eat While Driving." Wired. July 17, 2009. (Jan. 25, 2011)http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/07/dangerous-foods/
- Copeland, Larry. "State laws target safety of towed trailers." USA Today. July 6, 2010. (Jan. 25, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-07-05-trailer-laws_N.htm
- Gandossy, Taylor. "TV viewing at 'all-time high,' Nielsen says." CNN. Feb. 24, 2009. (Jan. 21, 2011)http://articles.cnn.com/2009-02-24/entertainment/us.video.nielsen_1_nielsen-company-nielsen-spokesman-gary-holmes-watching?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ
- GizMike. "Musical car horn plays mp3s." Gizmo-Central.com. Jan. 1, 2008. (Jan. 25, 2011)http://www.gizmo-central.com/automobile-gizmos/musical-car-horn-plays-mp3s/
- Houston, Thomas. "Mobile Microwave Turns Your Car Into a Kitchen." AOL Tech. Aug. 14, 2008. (Jan. 21, 2011)http://www.switched.com/2008/08/14/mobile-microwave-turns-your-car-into-a-kitchen/
- Knight, Danielle. "Monsters on the highways." U.S. News & World Report. Oct. 24, 2004. (Jan. 25, 2011) http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/041101/1trucks.htm
- Oswald, Ed. "GPS Nav May Be Dangerous Distraction." Betanews. Feb. 21, 2006. (Jan. 25, 2011)http://www.betanews.com/article/GPS-Nav-May-Be-Dangerous-Distraction/1140554400
- Page, Atlanta. "Top Overrated, Useless and Dangerous Car Accessories." Yahoo! Associated Content. Dec. 15, 2010. (Jan. 21, 2011) http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/6118978/top_overrated_useless_and_dangerous.html
- Wells, Joseph. "Car Gadgets Should Not Be Painful: Dangerous Car Accessories." Yahoo! Associated Content. March 16, 2010. (Jan 21, 2011)http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2790450/car_gadgets_should_not_be_painful_dangerous.html?cat=27