Automakers pick up the pace on safety
There’s an old saying that “safety doesn’t happen by accident.”
The auto industry seems to have taken that saying to heart. As of April 2011, 80 vehicles had earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s “Top Safety Pick” honor for 2011. Most of the picks were cars and SUVs. For all of 2010, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named 58 vehicles to its “Top Safety Pick” roster.
For drivers, a safe car doesn’t really translate into lower auto insurance premiums, however.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, says: “Insurance companies mainly pay for damage to cars, not people. Insurance claims are dominated by low-speed, low-severity crashes, so it’s how often a particular vehicle gets into crashes and how costly the resulting claims are that play the biggest role.”
GM rules the road
Among all automakers, the king of the American road when it comes to safety in 2011 is General Motors, with 13 cars on the institute’s list. It’s followed by Ford, which has 10 cars on the list.
|The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze got the highest marks available in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.|
For all automakers, the biggest safety improvements appear to be with front and side air bags, along with electronic stability mechanisms, which give drivers better control of a vehicle during a crash. In 2009, more than 12,000 people died in front-end crashes of passenger vehicles across the country, more than 8,000 died in rollovers and more than 6,000 died in side-impact crashes.
As of April 2011, the Chevy Cruze, a small car, was one of the GM cars on the “Top Safety Pick” list. Gay Kent, director of vehicle safety and crash worthiness at General Motors, says three-fourths of the automaker’s crash tests on the Cruze have involved the company’s internal safety standards, while one-fourth have focused on federal safety standards.
“That kind of internal focus on safety is fundamental at GM,” Kent says.
For instance, the 2011 Chevy Cruze was equipped with 10 air bags, even though federal standards called for only two.
“We’re going above and beyond what the law requires,” Kent says.
For consumers hunting for a safe car from GM or any other automaker, a couple of resources are available:
• The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.safercar.gov).
• The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org/ratings/default.aspx).
Carroll Lachnit, features editor at automotive website Edmunds.com, says the federal government and the industry-backed Insurance Institute for Highway Safety regularly crash-test and rate cars. “They don’t run the same test,” Lachnit says, “but we’re seeing that the scores are more aligned today than they were in the past.”
Lachnit advises consumers to compare the government’s and institute’s safety lists, thereby boosting the chances of buying a car that holds up well in a crash. “There’s no reason to settle for a car that didn’t do well on both tests,” Lachnit says.
|The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is equipped with 10 air bags.|
Part of the reason that more cars are being rated as safe is that the federal government stepped up its requirements for vehicle safety testing in 2010, according to Lachnit.
“At the same time, manufacturers have gotten better about building vehicles with those tests in mind. Before, automakers were generally getting good scores. But since then, the U.S. government raised the bar, making it tougher to get a four- or five-star rating,” Lachnit says.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uses a five-star rating system for safety designations, with five stars being the top rating.
Air bags over satellite radio
Lachnit also recommends weighing “active” and “passive” safety features. An “active” safety feature is, for instance, electronic stability control (which will be standard equipment in 2012). A “passive” safety feature is, for example, a side air bag.
Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says consumers also must consider how many safety features they can afford. But all things being equal, she says, you should choose side air bags over satellite radio when buying a car.
“Look for as many safety features as you can find in your price range,” Stone says. “Look for air bags — there’s a fantastic safety value in air bags.”
She adds: “Also, make sure any new vehicle has electronic stability control, especially with larger SUVs and trucks. That technology can help prevent rollovers and better help stay in control of a vehicle at high speeds.”
When you’re kicking the tires at an auto dealership, be sure to investigate the safety aspects of any car you’re eyeing, Stone says.
“Auto salespeople know all about these features,” Stone says. “But they may bring them up or they may not. It’s up to you keep pressing until you get what you need.”