Safety drives auto sales and insurance rates
wandering through the maze of a car dealership parking lot when all of a sudden
it hits you: The car you've hunted for months is sitting right in front of you.
It's the right color and has all the extras. It's perfect.
take it for a test spin. You love it and you've got to have it.
have you stopped to consider its safety rating?
it really the best car for you or is it just a cleverly disguised death trap?
Let's face it, many drivers think safe means
boring. But it's not boring to insurance companies, which base their rates, in
part, on the safety of the cars and their occupants.
Hazelbaker, senior vice-president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, says insurance
companies factor accident records of vehicles when setting premiums. However,
crash-test results are useful to the insurance industry if there's not a lot of
real-life accident data on the newer models of vehicles. Vehicles that do well
in crash tests generally perform well in the real world, he says.
Newer vehicles generally cost more to insure than older ones.
But consumers can get discounts on the newer models if the vehicles have the
latest safety features.
What's more, manufacturers increasingly are aware that safety
can boost their bottom lines.
"Safety sells," says David Champion, director of automobile
testing at Consumer Reports magazine. "More and more companies are using
good crash-test results as an advertising ploy to get a leg up on the competition."
And David Zuby, vice president of the vehicle research center
at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agrees, "Most manufacturers
realize consumers want crash protection."
Safety by design
There are two major factors at play: prevention, or how well the vehicle
is designed to prevent an accident, and crashworthiness, how well the vehicle
performs in a crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a government
agency, performs full-frontal crashes and side-impact collisions and the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety, which is sponsored by the insurance industry,
tests vehicles in an offset-frontal crash, a more common type.
Consumer Reports magazine uses the test results of these two agencies
to compare 85 vehicles in terms of accident avoidance, crash protection and
overall safety. Higher overall scores go to the models that have done well in
accident avoidance and crash protection and can improve your chance of avoiding
or surviving a crash.
As for avoiding accidents in the first place, the magazine looks
at braking performance on both dry and wet pavement, the effectiveness of the
anti-lock braking system, emergency handling, acceleration, driving position,
visibility and even seat comfort. A vehicle that accelerates quickly makes it
easier to merge safely into traffic. Driving position can affect comfort and
your ability to see the road clearly and visibility increases your awareness
of road conditions and other vehicles. Seat comfort plays a role, also. A driver
who is tired or uncomfortable may concentrate less on the road.
Consumer Reports publishes its results in five categories:
Upscale and large sedans -- The
Lexus LS300, the Audi A4 and the BMW 330i topped the charts. The Buick LeSabre
Limited and Chrysler 300M came in at the bottom of 14 vehicles tested in this
Family sedans -- The Volkswagen
Passat GLX (V6) came in at No. 1, with the Toyota Camry XLE (V6) close
behind. The four-cylinder Passat GLS, the Nissan Altima 3.5 SE and the Subaru
Legacy also did well in this category. Safety dogs were the Pontiac Grand Prix
GT, the Oldsmobile Alero and the Pontiac Grand Am.
Small cars -- Volkswagen also took
top honors in the battle of the bantamweights. The VW Golf TDI came in at number
one. Close behind was the Honda Civic EX and the Volkswagen Jetta GLS TDI. Trailing
in this category were the Hyundai Elantra GLS and the Chevrolet Cavalier LS.
Pickup trucks -- In the full-sized
pickup category, pole position went to the Toyota Tundra SRS 4.7, the Dodge
Ram SLT 4.7 and the Ford F.150 XLT 5.4. Taking the top honors in the compact
crew-cab pickups were the Toyota Tacoma TRD (V6) and the Nissan Frontier (V6).
Rated as poor were the Dodge Dakota SLT, the Chevrolet S-10 L5 (V6) and the
GMC Sonoma 5LS (V6). "Pickups generally don't do well in these assessments,"
says Champion. "They usually don't protect the driver in crashes and some
of them have poor brakes and sloppy handling."
Sport utility vehicles and minivans --
In the small-sized SUV category the top vehicles for safety were the
Saturn VUE (V6), the Honda CR-V EX and the Hyundai Santa Fe GLS (V6). In the
mid-sized category, the winners were the Lexus RX300, the Acura MDX and the
Toyota Highlander. SUVs that did poorly were the Chevrolet Trail Blazer, the
GMC Envoy and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. As for minivans, the Honda Odyssey EX,
the Toyota Sienna LE and the Mazda MPV LX all did well. But the Chevrolet Venture
LS, the Oldsmobile Silhouette GLS and Pontiac Montana fared poorly.
Zuby says that the Pontiac Montana, a minivan, probably was the
worst vehicle the institute has tested that's still being sold. "The crush
zone didn't crush as much as it should have done, meaning there's a high likelihood
of a serious injury in an accident."
For full crash-test results from NHTSA click here
and from IIHS click here.
Daniel Pund, associate editor for Car and Driver magazine, says
there's no such thing as a totally safe car. "Because of legislation and
because of government testing, they're all pretty close," Pund says. "For
example, they're all now required to have air bags. Vehicles are safer today
than they were 15 or 20 years ago. There's no question that cars are better
designed these days to handle crashes."
Tires also are much better today than they were 30 years ago,
which means better handling, he says. Seat belts are also better designed so
that the belt itself does not injure an occupant and still protects you from
hitting the windshield.
In the end, no matter how safe the vehicle is, the way it's driven
can have a lot to do with whether you'll suffer a serious injury.
"The safest car in the world is one that never leaves the
garage," says Champion. "How safe a vehicle is depends a lot on the
way it's driven."
For more on automobile safety issues click here.
Prakash Gandhi is a freelance writer based in
-- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003