Friday, June 23, 2006

Safer At Every Speed

Safer at every speed Once reserved for the well-wheeled set, lifesaving innovations are trickling down to entry-level cars as automakers respond to competition and consumer demand By Royal Ford, Boston Globe Staff May 28, 2006 Americans hit the roads this first weekend of heavy summer travel aboard some of the safest vehicles ever built. And it's not because they're all driving luxury cars. Key lifesaving technology, often as standard equipment, is moving down the automotive cost chain, touching even entry-level cars. Car makers of widely affordable vehicles, particularly Honda, Hyundai, and Kia, are increasingly making critical gear such as side and side-curtain airbags, electronic stability control, and antilock brakes standard fare in cars whose base prices range from $10,000 to $25,000. Until recently, these features were available only in vehicles above $30,000 -- forcing people to buy luxury cars if they wanted safer rides. ``It's amazing what happens when automakers finally decide to deal with a problem," said David Friedman, a research director at Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which in 2003 designed a sport utility vehicle that incorporated many features now in use. Honda's new subcompact Fit, for instance, starts at $14,000 and comes with six airbags front to rear and standard antilock brakes (ABS). Most entry-level cars only have two front airbags. Virtually all Hyundais come with six standard airbags. Its small SUV, the Tucson, starts at less than $20,000 with the airbags and crucial electronic stability control (ESC). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated Hyundai's $25,000 2007 Entourage minivan as the safest on the market because of its full package of front, side, and three rows of curtain bags, stability control, traction control, and ABS. And its Azera sedan, also at $25,000, brings all of the above while boosting airbags to eight. Driven by competition, government testing requirements, and consumer savvy, it is a trend that will continue, predicts David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports magazine. ``You're going to see more and more safety features, in more and more cars, at cheaper and cheaper value," he said, adding that many should be made standard. Of all the new safety features, electronic stability control is the one that safety advocates and industry participants call the most revolutionary. That's because it prevents accidents, while many other advances take over after a crash. ESC uses sensors to monitor driver intent, wheel speed, slippage, forces compelling the car, and then acts on individual wheels that should be slowed or powered to force the car back to its proper path. Studies in the United States, Japan, and Europe in the past two years have shown the impressive lifesaving potential of ESC. Hyundai and Kia, a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Co., have made ESC standard in a broad swath of their lineup, leapfrogging even Honda and venerable Volvo, which relies largely on after-crash protection, in standard safety gear. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that equipping passenger cars with ESC cuts the risk of single-vehicle accidents 35 percent and that SUV risk would drop 67 percent. The insurance institute , a research group funded by auto insurers, estimates that if all vehicles on US roads had ESC, 800,000 accidents could be prevented and 14,000 lives spared each year. And while studies are scarce on the relatively recent addition of side-impact and side-curtain airbags, NHTSA estimates that the former could save 1,000 or more lives per year and the latter are reducing deaths by about 45 percent among drivers hit on the driver's side. For example, the institute rated the Ford Five Hundred sedan the safest only after airbags that are optional are added. Side airbags protect the torso from side-impact crashes. Curtain bags protect the head from intruding vehicles and contact with the window or door frame, and they keep limbs inside the car in cases of rollover. And, particularly in the case of SUVs, they help prevent unbelted occupants from being ejected. Indeed, analysts and those in the industry acknowledge that future federal testing standards will likely mean that side and curtain airbags will be necessary to pass the tests. Compliance and competition will drive safety, said James O' Sullivan, chief executive for Mazda North American Operations, who argued that standard safety features may become ``the price just to get into the game." Economic class has played a strong role in the safety of cars that Americans drive, according to a study by Consumer Reports . It said last fall that only 2 percent of households with incomes under $40,000 have cars with curtain airbags, while 20 percent of households with incomes above $80,000 ride with that level of protection. But wealth is only one factor. Often, the report said, even those with the money shun optional safety equipment. ``Our experience has been that when you make safety equipment optional, people don't buy it," said Chuck Thomas, a chief safety engineer for American Honda Motor Co., Inc. Consumer Reports found that drivers rank CD players, cruise control, air conditioning, and power outside mirrors as more important options than ESC or curtain airbags. In fact, 9 of the top 10 choice options were for comfort, convenience, and entertainment; ABS was the only safety feature . Advocates say this is why crucial safety features should be standard. Yet many manufacturers still go for rock bottom sticker prices and offer safety as an option, and have been known to bundle safety with noncritical options before it can be bought. For instance, the 2005 Mazda3 offered ABS and additional airbags for $800, but only if consumers also spent $1,400 on special wheels, power controls, and air conditioning. Yet bad publicity over SUVs caught up with manufacturers in the late '90s, and that is where, in these expensive vehicles, many safety features first became standard as companies responded to protect a profitable segment of the market. SUV suspensions were changed from floppy single rear axles with leaf springs to independent suspension systems; frames were modified to lower the center of gravity and make the vehicles less likely to roll over; and the fronts of SUV frames were lowered so their contact point with cars does not ride up and over those cars. SUVs also got the first antirollover sensors. These moved into some luxury cars, which also got side-assist systems that warn drivers when a vehicle has moved into their mirrors' blind spots; and brakes that sense when drivers quickly remove their feet from the gas -- indicating an emergency -- and begin braking even before the driver hits the brake pedal. Yet not all of the trend comes from a heartfelt industry effort to save lives, said Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for IRN, Inc., a Grand Rapids, Mich. automotive consulting firm. ``Part of what's going to drive it is competition," said. ``Everybody's looking for a niche in an increasingly competitive market." © Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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