Minggu, 11 Januari 2009

protection on roads

Big safety gains for small cars

As gas prices lead buyers to smaller vehicles, safety concerns arise again

The 2000 Dodge Neon did not do as well in tests as Dodge's new small cars. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

As soaring gas prices push consumers to consider buying smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles, questions about whether small cars offer enough protection on roads filled with large vehicles are cropping up once again.

But in the years since the last oil shock, automakers have worked to make small cars safer than ever. Their occupants still aren't as protected as those in many larger vehicles, but the latest statistics show small cars have made big gains in safety.

Automakers are equipping them with more protective features, such as side air bags. They are redesigning them to disperse energy generated by a crash away from the passenger compartment. And they are using more new materials, such as high-strength steel, to reinforce the sides.

As a result, the death rate for drivers of the smallest cars dropped to 106 per million registered vehicles in 2006 from 165 a decade earlier, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That means the smallest cars are now safer than small pickups, a category with 116 fatalities per million vehicles. Death rates in the small car category are on par with fatalities among large pickup drivers.

Still, the driver death rate for very small cars is significantly higher than fatality rates for drivers of vehicles in the safest categories -- the largest sedans, with 41 deaths per million vehicles, and the biggest SUVs, with 33 deaths.

"There's an advantage to being larger and heavier," said Adrian Lund, president of Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute, an organization funded by auto insurers. "Those are the laws of physics, and they still hold."

While today's small cars are safer than earlier models, he said, "the risk of dying in the smallest car relative to the largest car is still 2-to-1."

According to the latest figures, 32,092 vehicle occupants died in U.S. road accidents in 2006, most of them drivers.

To reduce the risks for small car occupants, automakers are pursuing several approaches. One is to design all vehicles so that they are aligned if they hit each other, avoiding the horrible situations that occurred when trucks literally drove over compacts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has encouraged efforts to increase so-called vehicle compatibility because of the surge in recent years in the numbers of light trucks on the road. After automakers started redesigning truck and SUV fronts in 2005, lowering them in some cases, fatality rates for car occupants in collisions with trucks fell substantially, according to NHTSA.

Automakers also are equipping vehicles with electronic crash-avoidance systems that can detect an impending collision and take protective measures, such as braking or tightening the seat belts. Many luxury models have such systems, which tend to trickle down the range of vehicles, appearing initially in the largest and most expensive models and eventually reaching the smallest.

In late 2003, Honda Motor Co. established a "safety for everyone" policy promising a core set of protective features in all its vehicles. "The thinking was, everyone deserves safety regardless of the size or price of the vehicle," said John Mendel, executive vice president at American Honda Motor.

"Today, when you're looking at consumers coming out of larger vehicles looking for fuel economy, it adds a level of reinforcement that they're not compromising," he said.

In May, when software specialist Jim Kurtz started shopping for a car for his 16-year-old daughter, he wanted something that would be safe as well as fuel-efficient. Early this month, he settled on a $16,154 Honda Fit subcompact.

"It had all the safety equipment I was looking for -- not just front, but also side- and side-curtain air bags," said Kurtz, a Baltimore-area resident. "All this and ABS (anti-lock braking) are standard on the Fit."

Honda is running short of Fits because of a dramatic shift in demand toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Small cars are the fastest-growing category in the U.S. auto market this year, with sales up 12 percent, while light-truck sales have fallen 16 percent this year.

"One of the reasons we're seeing this happen so quickly is that people are confident that small cars can be safe," said John Hanson, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. sales subsidiary.

The government imposes some of the world's most stringent safety standards, requiring European and Asian automakers to adapt and even redesign cars destined for the American market.

Compared with the 2001 Dodge Neon compact, Chrysler LLC's new Dodge Caliber features much more safety equipment, including government-mandated tire-pressure monitoring, since poorly inflated tires are more likely to blow out. The Caliber gets five stars for the driver and front passenger in government front-impact tests, and for the driver and rear passenger in side impact tests. The older Neon earned four stars in the front-impact tests, and three stars in the side-impact tests.

Today, 14 of the 17 top-selling small cars get good frontal crash test ratings from the IIHS. In 1997, none of the top-selling small cars earned a good rating.

In the category of subcompacts and mini cars, four of the six subcompacts get good front-impact ratings, as does Daimler AG's boxy Smart two-seater.

Subcompact sales account for 6 percent of U.S. auto sales, but the segment is expected to grow as automakers introduce more subcompacts, including the Ford Fiesta designed in Europe and a small car that Nissan Motor Co. will build for Chrysler.

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