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Without additional safety considerations, a cage can make your car more dangerous.
While most enthusiasts spend their cash eking out extra performance, those who spend a ton of time at the track often invest in additional safety equipment for their cars. One of the upgrades a track rat might consider is a roll cage, so Road & Track sat down with an industry pro to better understand the risks involved in caging a car, especially one that finds its way onto the street.
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According to Chris Platt of Safety Devices International, there are three different roll cage customers. The primary group have dedicated racing vehicles. These cars are stripped before the cage installation and are trailered to the track without exception. The second group of buyers are enthusiasts who intend to track their car, but don’t have the funds to do a full build all at once. These cars tend to stay in service on the street longer, and often feature half cages as opposed to a setup with front bars. The final group are customers who simply want to give their vehicle more of a sporty appearance, often opting for half cages. According to Platt, these cars retain the majority of their interior appointments, including the trim, stock seats, and belts.
While Safety Devices International works primarily in the world of motorsports — it has sold cages to rally racers since the Seventies — it still works with customers from all three categories. It’s important for customers interested in a cage to understand the big picture when it comes to this piece of safety equipment, Platt notes. More specifically, buyers need to understand the cage functions as one part of a greater safety system.
“If there is a roll cage going in the car, you need to have a harness,” said Platt. “You really have to have a helmet on as well. The seat might be a point of discussion for some, but generally speaking, your harness doesn’t work with a standard seat. So a seat and a harness tend to go together, and by that same virtue the harness and the helmet go together. As far as we are concerned, you shouldn’t be driving a vehicle with a roll cage in it without the correct protection for yourself.”
This position seems extreme for folks who regularly drive their track cars on the street. But the legality of driving with a helmet on is questionable in most places, and many drivers don’t tighten their racing harnesses properly for street driving. While you might think that isn’t a big deal as long as your head clears the bars of your cage while seated, Platt strongly disagrees.
“Changing out a set of wheels and tires doesn't present a lot of risk to you as a person,” Platt says. “Changing suspension and all of the other standard modifications don’t carry an inherent risk with them. Strapping in a roll cage, which is inside of the vehicle, is quite different. That’s quite a big step to take, and I think people sometimes just see it as another item on the checklist. They don’t often think of the safety implications associated with it. The magnitude of your body’s movement in the vehicle is significantly increased in an accident, and contacting your head against a bare roll cage is not something either is designed for,” Platt told R&T. “You may well have some impact absorbing padding on there, which we would always recommend, but even then FIA and other specialist paddings we offer are made for use with a helmet.”
Enthusiasts might not realize a roll cage can deform in an accident. As the shock of an impact passes down the load path of the cage, the bars are engineered to absorb as much of that impact as possible. The tubes may bend if the welded joints are up to par. This is why companies like Safety Devices International undergo extensive destructive testing in order to ensure the design functions as intended. That is also why Platt doesn’t recommend tackling your own cage build, though he did note that the pre-bent kits on the market are better than going it alone. Be mindful of the welds you make if you go that path however, as basic welding knowledge isn’t enough to make a safe cage. You can actually make the thing too strong by accident, which can result in the bars sheering to become giant spears in your interior. Not exactly safe, helmet or not.
“Anyone who has some experience welding will know you have to be certified for every type of welding, and every angle,” said Platt. “You’re not going to smatter some general welding knowledge across all materials. It doesn’t work like that.”
A quick recap of what we've all learned:
A roll cage probably doesn’t belong in a car that spends most of its time on the street. And while it seems counterproductive that a piece of safety equipment can actually make your daily driver more dangerous, a roll cage isn’t meant to be used in isolation. Don't go through the troubling of caging a car that doesn't get competitive use. Should you still decide to go that route, consider a pre-fabricated unit or a tube kit from a respected supplier. If you currently have a cage of any kind in your street car, compliment it with a proper racing seat, padding and harnesses. They still might not save your life in an accident, but may give you a better shot.