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
"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
You may answer differently if it requires two or three
incidents to cover your costs.
1. Electronic Stability Control
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,
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
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
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