We are constantly being asked by folks to tell them what is a safe vehicle to purchase. I asked Greg Allen, who is our most experienced lawyer in the section of the firm that deals with vehicle safety issues, to write a piece for this issue on that subject. He agreed to do so and it is set out below.
Because our firm has been involved in crashworthiness litigation for many years, we are often contacted by friends and clients for our recommendations for safety features for an automobile they are intending to purchase. This is especially true when parents are shopping for a first automobile for teenage sons and daughters. The statistics show that there is a strong likelihood that a new teenage driver will be involved in some form of accident. Those accidents often have serious consequences. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 35% of deaths to teenagers occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents. Their research shows that immaturity combined with drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts, distracted driving (such as cell phone use, loud music or other passengers), drowsy driving, night time driving and, drug use aggravate the problem (www.nhtsa.gov).
Generally, we do not recommend a particular brand of vehicle because there are trade-offs based on weight, size and type of vehicle. However, there are some basic safety features that everyone should be aware of when making a decision to invest in a new car or truck.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) was introduced in the late 1990’s. It is a computerized technology that improves a vehicle’s safety by preventing loss of control. When the ESC detects a loss of steering control, it automatically applies individual brakes that will help steer the vehicle in the direction that the driver is intending to go. The braking of the individual wheels prevents the car from both over steering and under steering. Some of the systems even change the engine power until the control is regained. Electronic Stability Control has been touted as one of the most significant safety innovations in decades. This is especially true if you are planning to buy an SUV, which tends to be top heavy and may roll over if you lose control. By maintaining directional stability in an emergency maneuver, the risk of rollover is significantly reduced. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that SUVs with Electronic Stability Control are involved in 67% fewer accidents than those without the system.
The system is very sensitive and can detect a loss of steering control. A vehicle can sometimes over steer in an emergency evasive maneuver or on slippery roads. The ESC can detect the skid and apply brakes to the individual wheels in a nonsymmetrical manner in order to bring the vehicle back in line with the driver’s intentions. The ESC can work on any type of surface, including icy or wet conditions.
Many cars and trucks today still do not have ESC. Most U.S. manufacturers intend to make ESC standard equipment by the end of 2010. This is an important safety feature.
Anti-Lock Braking Systems (ABS)
In order to have Electronic Stability Control, your car must have an Anti-Lock Braking System. Even if you don’t have Electronic Stability Control, we strongly recommend buying vehicles that have an Anti-Lock Braking System. Many systems are still offered only as optional equipment. The Anti-Lock Braking System prevents wheel lock-up with heavy braking. Automotive engineers have known for years that effective braking requires that tires operate at their peak performance. When you slam on your brakes without an Anti-Lock Braking System, the tires will lock down completely. When the tires start sliding and leaving black skid marks, they are not braking effectively. Engineers call this tire saturation. Brakes work more effectively just at the point where the tires start to lock up, but not completely. It’s very similar to the principle used by race car drivers. Racers go into a turn and allow the car to start slipping but not completely. When the car starts sliding, it may lose complete traction and slide into the wall. The intention of the driver is to keep the vehicle riding with all four tires at peak performance.
Many drivers who are unaware of Anti-Lock Braking Systems have a tendency to pump their brakes to prevent wheel lock-up. That is the same principal that ABS works on. The computer senses when the tires are locking up and will release the brakes just slightly. If you’ve ever slammed the brakes on with an ABS system, you may have heard a groaning or chirping sound. That was the ABS system working. If you have an ABS system, you no longer have to pump the brakes. Drivers, including your children, need to be trained to “stomp and steer” if the car has an ABS system. With a properly operating ABS system, the driver can maintain steering control under heavy braking because the skid is being prevented. There are a number of types of Anti-Lock Braking Systems. Some not only prevent wheel lock under braking, but also electronically control the front to rear brake bias. Some of the systems are called Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) or Traction Control System (TCS), or Emergency Brake Assist (BA, EBA, or HBA).
There are certain physical principles that can’t be overridden by safety systems. Newton’s laws of physics always apply. There is no doubt when a heavy vehicle strikes a lighter weight vehicle the heavy vehicle will win most of the time with all things being equal. That’s why smaller cars need good crashworthiness features. The most important part in crash protection is that the vehicle rather than the occupant absorb the energy of the crash. The car needs to be designed with the strong box theory in mind. The passenger compartment needs to maintain its integrity while the rest of the vehicle, including the front end and rear end structures, are allowed to crush to absorb energy. That crush needs to stop when it reaches the passenger compartment. While no vehicle is completely crush resistant, there are major differences in various manufacturers and various designs. While you cannot generally tell by looking at a vehicle whether or not it has as good crash performance, there are resources available that can help you determine whether or not to buy a vehicle. You can look at the crash reports from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.gov). You can also go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website (www.nhtsa.gov), or to Consumer’s Union (www.consumerreports.org). Other websites to check are www.kbb.com, www.edmunds.com, www.nadaguides.com/car/video, and www.safercar.gov. You can learn about the crash rating of your car by doing simple research.
OCCUPANT RESTRAINT SYSTEM
You only have to turn the television on and watch the NASCAR drivers on Sunday to understand the importance of occupant restraint. The reason the NASCAR drivers can survive horrific looking crashes is because they are completely coupled to the vehicle by five point racing harnesses that are firmly attached to the frame. The drivers sit in a very strong seat system and they are protected by a roll cage and safety nets. It has been known for years that in order to protect an occupant in a crash, the vehicle rather than the occupant needs to absorb the energy of the crash. The best way for that to occur is for the occupant to remain coupled to the vehicle within the zone of safety provided by the safety cage of the car. In order to stay coupled to the vehicle, the car needs a strong and effective restraint system. Seat belt pretensioners are a component of a seat belt system that locks the seat belt in place during a crash. The pretensioners can be mechanical, pyrotechnic, or even electrical. The systems are designed to tighten the belt as the crash forces develop. The tighter the belt, the safer the occupant.
Some vehicles still are equipped with center seat lap only seat belts. A three point belt is much more effective than a lap belt. However, it’s better to wear a lap belt than no seat belt at all.
The seating system of a car is part of the restraint system. The seat back needs to be strong. While it’s difficult for a consumer to determine the strength of a seat back, there are certain clues that are available. If the seat belt is incorporated into the seat back, also known as “all belts to seats,” the seat back necessarily has to be strong enough to support collision forces.
The head restraints are vital to guard against whiplash and neck injuries that may occur in a rear end collisions. The restraints need to be tall enough to cushion the head above the top of the spine. Many cars now have head restraints that are adjustable. Be sure that the head restraint will lock into position. Review the previously listed websites for head restraint and crash ratings.
According to current law, every passenger vehicle has to be equipped with dual front airbags. However, not all airbags are the same. There are some airbag systems that have created dangers. You need to research the car you are intending to buy for this issue. Many vehicles now have smart airbag systems that use electronic sensors to gauge variables, such as crash severity, and whether or not the seatbelt is being used. Some airbags can determine whether an occupant is out of position and will alter the force with which the airbag deploys. Smart airbags can inflate with less force in less severe crashes. They can inflate with more force more quickly in more severe crashes. You need to do individual research on the car that you are considering.
Side airbags are now common for front occupants. The side airbag deploys in a side impact and is designed to protect the occupant’s torso. Head protection airbags, an important advancement, are becoming more available. This type of airbag is extremely important in side impacts. Without this type of safety, a strike by an oncoming vehicle on the near side often has very severe consequences because there is no structure in the vehicle to absorb the energy. There is no room to allow the seat belts to function and allow the occupant to “ride down” the collision force. The energy is therefore often transferred to the occupant in a side impact. Side airbags and head protection are probably the most important safety features for side impact protection. Consumer Reports highly recommends head protection side airbags when they are available.
If you are shopping for an SUV, inquire about side curtain bags that drop down and cover the windows in case of a rollover. In our experience, partial or complete ejection are the primary causes of occupant injury or death in rollovers. We have always advocated that manufacturers should use laminated glass in the side windows of SUV’s similar to that mandated by law for the front windshield. In a rollover, windows made of tempered glass break out and the centrifugal forces allow the occupant’s head, arms or torso to get outside the plane of the vehicle. (That’s why NASCAR race cars have the nets in the windows.) Laminated glass will help retain the occupant. This is a very important safety feature. Side curtain air bags that are effective will drop down and prevent complete or partial ejection.
Taller vehicles, such as SUVs and pickup trucks, are more likely to roll over than passenger cars. The rollover rates have been known to be two to three times those of passenger cars. While SUVs are becoming more stable by being designed lower and wider, there is still a significant chance of rollover in these vehicles. NHTSA has developed a five star rating system to notify the consumer of which vehicles have the higher rollover resistance rating (RRR). This rating is based strictly on the static stability factor, which is a measure of the track width and the center of gravity. The stability factor is a good measure of stability, but it’s not the only measure that is important. As mentioned previously in this article, it is very important to have the Electronic Stability Control System if you are going to buy an SUV.
There are many other safety features that automobiles have today. This is an attempt to give you an idea of some of the more important ones you should look for in shopping for a vehicle. It’s important that you research the car or truck you are thinking of buying to make an educated judgment on the necessary safety features for you and your family. Don’t simply trust the manufacturer’s or government standards to protect your family. Your family is too important to entrust their safety to the manufacturer or a government regulator.
J. Greg Allen
Personal Injury Section
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