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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Important Features of a Safe Vehicle

Buyers in the market for a new or used car usually have several factors in mind that will determine the type of car they want. Normally price is the main factor followed by body type, available options, mileage ratings and vehicle safety performance. With a little bit of research you can check out safety ratings and available options that add to the vehicle’s safety performance to help you make the smartest decision.

Every year the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) makes headlines with their annual list of best and worst vehicles based on crash tests conducted on new model vehicles of all sizes and body types. The IIHS conducts crash tests to determine a vehicle’s safety rating based on different types of crashes. According to the IIHS front and side impact crashes produce the most fatal injuries while rear end crashes, though not normally fatal, are responsible for most neck and spine injuries requiring long term care. Safety ratings are based on the ability of the passenger compartment to maintain structural integrity, thus preventing major harm to the vehicle occupants (represented by crash test dummies). Another thing they look at is how well the passenger seats and head restraints perform to prevent spinal injuries in rear end collisions. Each vehicle and seat tested is rated on a scale of: Good, Acceptable, Marginal and Poor. The good news is that, overall, vehicle safety is improving year by year.

The IIHS also looks at optional safety equipment such as side curtain air bags and electronic stability control (ESC). ESC is a computerized control system that helps to maintain vehicle stability and prevents vehicle rollovers due to loss of control at high speeds. ESC will be required standard equipment on all new vehicles beginning in 2012. If these items were standard equipment in a vehicle, their performance was tested. If the equipment was not standard, then the tests were conducted without them. The vehicles with these items listed as standard equipment rated much better than vehicles without.

The IIHS has also evaluated new crash avoidance technology that is not normally standard equipment but is available on some makes and models. The new crash avoidance technology includes such items as:

• Forward collision warning with automatic braking – This technology normally uses radar to detect if a vehicle is approaching too closely to a vehicle or object ahead. Depending on the system, it may sound a warning, tighten up the seat belts and apply the brakes. According to the IIHS, this type of crash accounts for up to 40% of the 6 million crashes reported each year.
• Emergency brake assistance – This technology takes anti-lock braking to a new level. It senses “panic braking” by a driver and readies the brake for activation and applies extra pressure. The IIHS said that more than 400,000 of these types of crashes happened every year between 2002 and 2006 resulting in more than 3,000 deaths.
• Lane departure warning – This system can detect an unintentional lane departure (if the turn signal is not activated) and either vibrates the steering wheel, activates an alarm and in some cases applies the brakes to keep the vehicle within the lane. Lane departure collisions between 2002 and 2006 numbered almost 500,000 per year with more than 10,000 deaths.
• Adaptive headlights – These headlights pivot in the direction that a driver is turning allowing them to see objects around a bend sooner.
• Blind spot detectors – Mounted on the rear view mirrors, this device signals a driver either by a light, audible tone, or both that another vehicle is in the driver’s blind spot. It is normally activated when the driver activates a turn signal.

The IIHS feels that the first three items on this list could contribute tremendously to crash avoidance but they feel the last two items may not be very effective. In the case of the adaptive headlights, research has shown that drivers on dark curving roads feel they can go faster when the road is equipped with reflectors or other road markers. The adaptive headlights may provide a false sense of security prompting some drivers to drive even faster. The blind spot detectors are mounted on the rear view mirrors and it is felt that many drivers may ignore them or, in heavy traffic, shut out the constant warnings of vehicles in the blind spot. To view the IIHS report on crash avoidance systems and the auto manufacturers that sell the systems as optional equipment, go to:

If you are considering the purchase of a new or used vehicle, you can visit the IIHS Vehicle Ratings website, type in your make and model and look at vehicle safety ratings going back as far as 1994 for some models.

Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for ages 3 – 33 and young drivers from age 15 – 20 are especially vulnerable. When choosing a car for a teen driver, vehicle safety should be the main determining factor. If you are torn between the choices of two vehicles, choosing on the side of safety could be the wisest decision you ever made.

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