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How Will Your Car Hold Up In A Crash?

By Michelle Martin, InsWeb, June 2002
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Most of us think about accidents in terms of how we'll hold up, and about how to avoid crashes altogether. But your car's design and construction can play a significant role in what happens if an accident occurs. As more studies are conducted and research is gathered, auto insurance companies and consumer groups are reacting by lobbying for the changes that will keep you safe - and keep insurance claims lower.

From seat-belt laws to air bags and anti-lock brakes, the auto industry has responded over the years to studies showing where the weaknesses lay in the design and safety of their products. Government has played a role as well, enacting laws that lower speed limits in dangerous areas, require motorcycle helmet use, restrict teen driving or punish drunk drivers.

With good reason. The tragedy for everyone involved in auto accidents is compounded by a staggering cost to society. A federal study released in May 2002 claims the economic toll of crashes on the U.S. economy each year has reached $230.6 billion - or $820 for every single person living in the country. The study, based on statistics from 2000, took into account lost revenue in areas including workplace and household productivity, property damage, medical costs and travel delay costs.

So, what's next on the safety and prevention horizon? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as well as consumer advocacy groups and the insurance industry, are lobbying for more (and tougher) tests to determine how cars will perform in accidents and strengthen weak areas, and more rating systems to alert consumers to how cars, trucks and SUVs stack up against their competition.

"Crashworthiness," which is the ability of a car to prevent occupant injury in an accident, and "rollover ratings," which let you know how likely it is your auto will roll over in an accident or during certain driving conditions, have been debated recently as they apply to SUVs. (The NHTSA reported that SUVs roll over in 37 percent of fatal crashes, compared to a 15 percent rollover rate for passenger cars. Smaller SUVs have an even higher incidence of fatal rollover crashes.)

But those debates have prompted more attention to crashworthiness in general. At the NHTSA, a full-time crashworthiness group conducts research and vehicle testing to examine autos' structural integrity, crash test results, occupant protection and automotive defects.

Advocates of increased tests and warnings want consumers to get familiar with how the cars and trucks they're thinking of buying perform out on the roadways - and demand safer and better products from automakers.

Where's the debate in that? Well, safety improvements can add quite a bit to the cost of manufacturing a car, which means that either the car is going to cost more to buy, or the manufacturer is going to make less profit on it. Or a little of both. So what individual automakers do with the latest studies and requests for improvements will be interesting to see.

Among the new and recent developments that affect you, or will soon:

  • Congress instructed NHTSA to create a new test by late 2002 that's based on actual road handling. Also coming later this year is a mandate that all SUVs with a wheelbase of 110 inches or less display "rollover risk" warning labels.
  • Ford will offer a stabilizing system by 2005 designed to improve handling and reduce rollovers on SUVs.
  • Earlier this year the NHTSA proposed tougher performance requirements for car and light truck tires. The proposal adds tests in two new areas. The first would ensure that tires won't fail when underinflated. The second would assess performance after a tire has been aged.
  • Though the government requires auto bumpers withstand impacts of up to 2.5 mph without damage, some automakers are voluntarily returning to the previous 5-mph bumper standard, which simply means that the bumpers are stronger, due to pressure from the insurance industry and consumer groups.
  • The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) reports rollover resistance ratings and crash test results in a range of one to five stars, with five stars showing the best safety protection for vehicles.
  • The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act in November 2000 requires vehicle and equipment makers to report to NHTSA all potential safety defects and to advise NHTSA of foreign safety recalls. It also increases penalties for safety law violations and provides criminal penalties for misleading the agency about safety defects that have caused death or injury.

There is a wealth of information on the Web if you want to research this topic further, or see how your car or truck is rated. The NHTSA's site is at www.nhtsa.gov.

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