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Safety for dummies

If you're one who downs daily vitamins for your health, you should purchase at least one of the top three safety options offered in today's automobile showrooms. That's a no-brainer. But cost considerations complicate the decision-making process.

Modern safety technology falls into two categories: accident avoidance and crunch-time protection. Drivers with confidence in their driving records may opt for the avoidance packages; those who believe fate eventually taps each of us on the shoulder usually take the protection, says Joe Wiesenfelder, automotive expert and car reviewer for Cars.com in Chicago.

"When people ask me, 'Should I spend money on this feature?' I fire back with, 'What is your deductible?'" he says. "If the item saves you even one fender bender, it might pay for itself."

You may answer differently if it requires two or three incidents to cover your costs.

Here are the most widely touted features on the market:


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1. Electronic Stability Control (Avoidance)
Ford calls it AdvanceTrac, General Motors labels it StabiliTrak, but any wizardry with "stability" in its name refers to the car's ability to control steering under uncontrollable circumstances. Electronic stability control evolves from anti-lock brakes by adding first traction control, to keep the wheels from spinning when you accelerate, and then yaw control. Yaw refers to the car's rotation of its vertical axis, so ESC monitors that turning rate, matches it to your intentions by examining where you are turning the steering wheel, and applies the brakes individually to make the car go where you're trying to aim it. It also reduces engine torque, when needed, to keep you on track.

The end result: fewer skids, spins and rollovers.

The first ESC units were available 10 years ago, but the concept caught on faster in Europe, where price sensitivity doesn't dominate the market as in the United States. But when rollover death statistics began piercing Americans' awareness, ESC sales began picking up for SUV models. After all, 61 percent of SUV occupant fatalities were in rollover crashes, compared to 46 percent in pickup trucks, 33 percent in vans and 24 percent in passenger cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Foreign studies show that ESC reduces both single-car accidents and head-on collisions by 35 percent among Toyota products; 29 percent in Mercedes. In the U.S., those statistics could save 5,000 to 8,500 lives and $35 billion in economic losses annually, says Philip Headley, chief engineer for advanced technologies at Continental Teves, an automotive technology supplier in Auburn Hills, Mich.

People have to remember these technologies aren't designed for Mario Andretti-type drivers, warns Adrian Lund, chief operating officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "You cannot defy the laws of physics, so if you go around a curve too fast, nothing will help you."

In fact, real-world statistics on anti-lock brakes don't match that safety feature's stellar performance on the test tracks. Lund worries that operator error could similarly sabotage ESC numbers as well.

More high-tech accident-avoidance systems -- some that don't rely on the operator -- already are working their way into high-priced vehicles, and others are being readied for the near future.

Prices hover around $800 (assuming the vehicle already has anti-lock brakes; for cars like Ford Taurus, throw in another $600); a few luxury SUV models now offer it as standard equipment. Consumers who want to stick their toe in the water could add just traction control to their anti-lock brakes for under $200, Wiesenfelder recommends.

2. Side Air Bags (Protection)
When it comes to protecting passengers in side crashes, torso and head air bags have grabbed the spotlight. Yes, today's vehicles are required to put a reinforced bar in the door frame body, but according to Lund's reports, driver fatality risks fall by 45 percent when you add the air bag upgrades, with the head air bag offering the most protection. (Torso protection accounts for an 11 percent reduction in deaths.)

These curtain bags deploy from the ceiling to cover the door windows. Recently, vehicles like the Chrysler Pacifica and Toyota Sienna minivans began covering all three rows of seats. SUV models like the Ford Explorer and Expedition offer a "Safety Canopy" only for the first two rows. Once fired, they stay inflated for six seconds, which is long enough to protect riders for the length of time it takes to roll the car three times.

Unfortunately, these extra air bags must be custom designed for the vehicle, so if your make and model doesn't offer it as an option, you're out of luck. On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports no incidents of serious injury to children from either the side or curtain air bags (the frontal versions were known to occasionally cause injury). Ask your dealer if the vehicle complies with the latest safety standards.

Plan to fork over between $560 and $1,000 for a curtain air bag, and $350 for the side impact ones.

3. Backup Assistance (Avoidance)
The blind spot behind most cars on the road today ranges from 12 feet to 50 feet, depending on the driver's height, among other things. That's how 58 children died last year, backed over in their own driveways by a parent or immediate family member -- and those are just the incidents reported to Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars in Kansas City, Kan. Studies to determine the amount of damage caused by blind back-ups are inconclusive, but officials say more than 3,000 children are rushed to emergency rooms across the country each year from this phenomenon.

"The good news is manufacturers are making roofs more sturdy and reinforcing the crumple zones. But that also means creating thicker pillars," Fennell notes. "People like their SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks, but they're not being warned about the huge blind spots they produce behind these larger behemoths."

That's why her organization is fighting to spread the word about a feature manufacturers tout as a "parking assist." One version is an audio tone that varies its beeping intensity the closer your rear bumper edges toward a solid object. Other manufacturers offer video cameras that automatically transmit a bumper's-eye view the second you put your vehicle in reverse.

"You literally can read the license plate of the car you're backing up in front of," she explains.

Brands like Mercedes charge $1,000-plus to install this feature in the factory; Volvo tacks on only $400. The good news, however, is that aftermarket products work just as well, so stereo and alarm shops can assist you for as little as $20. You call the price shot here.

Of course, these aren't the only safety devices available today. Nearly every manufacturer dangles an exclusive safety feature among its line of cars.

Telematics (Protection) - General Motors calls it OnStar, that onboard system that alerts an emergency crew anytime your air bags deploy. If you don't answer, the system pinpoints your whereabouts and sends an ambulance. Current pricing approaches $870 per year.

Tire pressure monitors (Avoidance) - Mercedes wants you to know when your tire is about to blow. But is it worth $890 to replace old-fashioned maintenance at a gas station stop?

Intelligent head restraints (Protection) - To cut down on whiplash and neck injuries, Volvo offers the WHIPS system as a standard -- a fixed head restraint positioned high enough and close enough to the head to prevent it from snapping backwards in a collision. On some of their higher-end models, Saab, Nissan and Infinity offer active head rests that move upward and forward to cradle your skull during rear impact.

Rollover sensor (Avoidance) - To date only the Volvo XC90 SUV offers a true rollover prevention system to sense when the body is starting to tip sideways and do its best to right the situation. But is it worth a base price of $40,965 to even consider this option? Says Car.com's automotive expert Joe Wiesenfelder, "Well, not unless you roll over."

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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