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New technologies raise the bar on highway safety
Creation date: 23 February 2007
It's not uncommon for car shoppers to dither over color, options, or price. But safety specialists recommend two new safety technologies as must buys: electronic stability control and air curtains.
Electronic stability control applies brakes to individual wheels if the system senses the car is veering out of control. Air curtains are air bags -- sometimes called side curtain air bags -- that drop from the car ceiling to provide crucial head protection in deadly side-impact crashes. Studies have concluded that wider deployment of each can dramatically reduce accidents and/or fatalities. Both are standards in some models, but cost as much as $800 each when available as an option.
The system uses sensors and a computer to tell if the front or rear of the vehicle is sliding in a direction other than where the driver is steering. Then working with the anti-lock brake system, the computer applies brakes on individual wheels to arrest the skid or correct the direction of the car. That's different than just using the antilock brakes alone, where all four brakes would be pumped at the same time.
Studies in Japan, Europe, and the United States determined that electronic stability control saves lives, especially in single-vehicle accidents where the driver loses control. One 2006 analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the US found that electronic stability control reduced single-vehicle fatal crashes, which are often caused by the driver losing control, by 56 percent.
Electronic stability control is thought to be particularly important for tall vehicles, such as SUVs, pickups, and minivans, because their higher center of gravity makes them more vulnerable to a rollover. The danger is that when such vehicles begin to slide sideways it is easy for them to be "tripped" by a curb or soft ground and roll over.
Electronic stability control can help the driver regain control of the vehicle before it can be tripped, said David S. Zuby, the Senior Vice President for Vehicle Research at the Insurance Institute. A University of Michigan study last year found electronic stability control reduced the chance of an SUV being in a fatal rollover by 73 percent.
"One of the major reasons people get hurt and killed in side-impact crashes is that they have severe head injuries," said Zuby.
One danger is being hit broadside by an SUV or pickup, which have high-riding fronts that strike a car higher and closer to the heads of its occupants.
Air curtains are low-pressure air bags that are mounted inside the roof. In a side-impact crash they deploy downward to cover the front and rear side windows, helping to shield the head.
An alternative is a seat-mounted air bag, but in most cases these are only for the front seats. In addition, not all seat-mounted bags provide head protection. Some provide only chest protection. Some side-impact safety packages combine air curtains and the front, seat-mounted chest bags.
Zuby recommends car buyers who want to do a "thorough job" of shopping for a safe car should consult crash-test ratings.
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