When it comes to automotive safety, size does matter — but it isn’t everything.
Increasingly, automakers are turning to a new generation of safety features and design tricks to help make today’s vehicles safer than ever. The real standouts are those gadgets, like electronic stability control, designed to help avoid accidents in the first place. But in the end, no amount of engineering can defy the laws of physics when, inevitably, a crash happens.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that performs a battery of crash tests on every car sold in the United States, if all other things are equal, a heavier vehicle will generally offer better protection in a crash than a smaller one. This is particularly the case in two-vehicle crashes when a large vehicle is pitted against a smaller one.
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“If you put your children in a large car, they will be safer than if you put them in a small econobox,” says Jonathan Linkov, managing editor of autos at Consumer Reports magazine, which ranks the safest vehicles each year based on crash tests performed by NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which performs its own set of collision trials.
But just because one vehicle has more mass than another doesn’t mean it will necessarily offer the most protection, says Joanne Helperin, senior features editor for Edmunds.com.
In a crash, “a lot comes down to technology,” she says.
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When most people think safety features, typically the first things that come to mind are airbags and seatbelts. While they are important features, many people don’t realize that all seatbelts and airbags aren’t created equal.
The newest generation of airbags, for instance, uses sensors in the seat to judge the size of the passenger and adjusts its force accordingly. This can be a big advantage in the case of a small passenger who might be injured by a full-force airbag deployment.
The location of the airbags also makes a big difference. One of the biggest lifesavers is side-curtain airbags. These airbags, which can be mounted in the side of the seat, in the ceiling, in the doorpost or even in the door itself, offer several types of protection for the occupants.
First, they help in the case of a rollover, Linkov says.
“What happens is the vehicle senses you are about to roll over and it deploys the side curtain airbags. Those then keep your head, torso and arms inside the vehicle and out of harm’s way,” he says.
The inflating cushion also helps shield you from flying debris that might otherwise do serious damage in a side-impact accident.
This is especially important because, unlike in a head-on or a rear-end accident, where you have a lot of steel between you and the other vehicle, in a side crash, all you have is a thin car door protecting you.
Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS, said the benefits are so profound that no vehicle tested by the IIHS has performed well or earned a good rating in the side impact test without side airbags.
Like improved airbags, a seatbelt isn’t just a seatbelt anymore. The new generation of seatbelts offers features that help protect passengers more efficiently by using features like energy management and pretensioners, which sense an accident and pull back on the belts to get the passengers into safer positions.
The biggest breakthrough in automotive safety over the past few years has been in the features designed to actively avoid accidents in the first place. These include things such as blind spot warning systems that use cameras and sensors to scan your surroundings and sound an alarm if you begin changing lanes while someone is lurking beyond your field of vision. A similar gadget scans the lane ahead of you and begins buzzing if you begin to drift out of your lane — a handy tool on long, monotonous road trips where you might be prone to drifting off to sleep.
Another gadget designed for long-distance trips is a distance-sensitive cruise control that adjusts your speed automatically if the car in front of you taps on the brakes.
Helperin says one camera-based feature that is becoming more popular the longer it is on the market is the rear parking sensors for large vehicles with big blind spots, such as sport utility vehicles.
“Those are less about saving your life than they are about saving those outside the vehicle,” she says. “They are just terrific if you have kids. They help avoid back-over deaths or injuries.”
She says with the proliferation of SUVs, cases of accidentally backing over a child playing in a driveway have blossomed. “There is a movement to get more cameras as standard equipment to avoid that kind of accident in the first place,” she says.
Sold under a variety of names, including dynamic stability control, vehicle stability control, electronic stability program and vehicle stability enhancement, all the systems work in a similar way to keep you safe. Stability control works in concert with your antilock brakes and constantly monitors each wheel. If one starts spinning out of control, like when you take a turn too fast or hit a slick spot, the car’s onboard computer automatically applies the brakes on that wheel to bring it, and the car, back under control.
“Stability control is great. It can help keep the vehicle under control in almost any avoidance maneuver,” Linkov says.
This device is so promising, the Federal Highway Administration has proposed a rule that would require all manufacturers to begin equipping passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds with stability control as an optional feature starting with the 2009 model year. The rule will then require manufacturers to make the feature standard equipment on all vehicles by the 2012 model year.
“Stability control is being compared with the seatbelt in terms of the number of lives it can save,” Helperin says.
NHTSA maintains a list of
cars that offer stability control as an optional feature on its Web site.
In addition to stability control, NHTSA also recommends buyers choose vehicles with side airbags and another cutting-edge technology called variable ride-height suspension. This smart suspension will adjust the center of gravity on high-riding vehicles, such as SUVs, to keep them under control during a turn and help avoid a rollover.
“Rollover prevention is a biggie,” Helperin says. “That’s because even though rollovers aren’t all that common in the grand scheme, they do account for high percentage of the road fatalities each year. These new smart suspensions are great because they help you keep control and avoid the rollover in the first place.”
Tale of the test
The experts agree that no matter how much technology you include in a vehicle, it can’t keep you completely safe, because, hey, it’s called an “accident” for a reason.
And in those accidents, the laws of physics dictate that big typically wins over small, all other things being equal.
But that doesn’t mean that the safest thing to buy is the biggest honking thing on the road.
Stability control is being compared with seatbelt in terms of the number of lives it can save.
” — Joanne Helperin, Edmunds.com
“You’ve got to remember, even if you buy the biggest thing available, there will always be something bigger,” Linkov says. “If you are in a sedan, it might be an SUV, if you are in an SUV, it might be a city bus, or even a semi.”
With that in mind, buyers should turn to the crash-test scores for their best fighting chance. Those crash tests are important because they measure things like the correct frame rigidity, safety cage strength and where different components, like the steering column and brake pedals, go during a collision.
“These are things you can’t necessarily see on the showroom floor,” Linkov says.
And as a rule, these are the things that the more expensive models tend to consider in their designs, Helperin says.
Price of safety
But while many of the safest vehicles on the road come with large price tags, Rader says a keen shopper can now find safe vehicles on almost any budget.
“When we first started crash testing, it tended to be luxury makes that did better early on, but that has changed,” Rader says. “Consumers can find very safe vehicles in all price ranges today.”
But where cost does tend to correlate to safety is in the options.
“The luxury cars will be the ones that enjoy the best features first,” Helperin says. “Then they trickle their way down to the rest of us.”
And just as shopping merely by price doesn’t necessarily guarantee safety, neither does shopping by reputation.
While many brands, such as Volkswagen, Saab and Volvo all enjoy a reputation for building solid cars, Linkov warns that you should still do your homework.
“One brand may do well with many of their cars, but then have a low-end entry-level one with few features available, and that may not be the safest car around,” he says.
Another thing you shouldn’t take for granted are convertibles.
“We saw with convertibles, a brand that may make a safe sedan may not hold up as well in a convertible model,” Linkov says.
Up until this year, the IIHS didn’t test convertibles. Fortunately, though, Rader says his agency was pleased with most models they tested.
“We really were surprised so many convertibles performed so well in these tests,” he says.
The key to whether a convertible held up as well as a comparable sedan was how the manufacturer compensated for the lost structural integrity the roof offered.
“The roof is a key component to the structure of these vehicles. When you take it off, you have to compensate in other parts to maintain the rigidity, and that is challenging,” he says. “But we found that some manufacturers were doing a very good job.”
And, again, there is no way to tell if the engineers did a good job just by looking at it, only by checking the crash-test data.
How to shop
If all these details seem overwhelming, the experts say the best thing to do is to start by looking for a vehicle that fits your lifestyle. If you know you need to haul construction material to a work site, don’t look at anything other than pickups. If you have seven children, then a sedan is out of the question. If you need great fuel efficiency, then an SUV probably isn’t going to be your best bet.
Then, once you choose the type that
fits your lifestyle, look for vehicles that score well on both the IIHS and the NHTSA crash testing in that class.
Both sets of tests look for different strengths and weaknesses. “Ideally they should do well in both sets of tests,” Rader says.
But beware. Just because a sedan performed best in its class, that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be safer than an SUV that tested in the middle of its class. That’s because the crash tests generally only show how a vehicle would hold up in a crash if it collided with a similar vehicle. But on the other hand, that supersized SUV may be more inclined to roll over. Again, the choice between different types of vehicles should be about what fits your lifestyle the best.
Finally, look carefully at all the optional safety equipment.
“But you know, if you are looking for a vehicle that is going to protect you in a wide range of scenarios, the safest are midsize and larger sedans and minivans,” Rader says. “Statistics show us they have the lowest death rate of anything else on the road.”
Michael Giusti is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.