Weathering safety hazards

Weathering safety hazards

Ed Henry

Today’s new cars and trucks are chock full of crash avoidance and crashworthiness features.

This year’s crop of cars is safer than ever, thanks in part to the phasing in of government regulations that mandate additional side-impact protection. Side-impact air bags are now available on 62 models. Some manufacturers, such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes, have even installed side air bags in the back seat.

Dual front air bags are required on all 1999 cars and light trucks. Manufacturers have responded to concerns about the risk of injury from rapidly inflating front air bags in several ways. Some have installed depowered bags, which deploy 20% to 35% less rapidly than previous versions. And a few are offering “smart” child-safety seats. When the special seat is in the open position, the front passenger air bag is deactivated.

Kids in the back

Warning labels are required on the dashboard or visor of all new vehicles to make it harder to forget the cardinal rule of air bag safety: Children under 12 should always ride in the back seat.

This isn’t based only on height or weight, but also on the wiggle factor: By 12, a child is more likely to understand the importance of staying properly belted and positioned away from the dashboard, and more able to comply.

Infants in rear-facing child safety seats should never be seated in front of an air bag, because their heads would be virtually on top of an exploding bag. Air bag cut-off switches are allowed on vehicles without a rear seat or with a rear seat too small to accomodate a child safety seat. (Cut-off switches are also allowed in special circumstances, such as when an infant with medical problems requires constant observation and the driver is the only other person in the vehicle.)

When babies outgrow their rear-facing seats, they should graduate to forward-facing safety seats or booster seats, attached to the back seat with an adult safety belt. Integrated child safety seats, which are available as standard or optional equipment on a broad range of vehicles, simplify the task of keeping children safe.

If an older child must ride in the front seat, move the seat back as far as possible to keep the child out of the space the air bag needs, then watch out for wiggle. Leaning forward to fiddle with radio dials, for example, can put a child at risk.

Seat belts and air bags

Most drivers can virtually eliminate the risk of injury from inflating air bags by wearing their safety belts and sitting at least ten inches from the steering wheel, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The old reliable three-point safety belt remains the single best crash protection device in any car or truck, in any crash. Safety belts provide protection in rear and rollover crashes, in which air bags play no role, and they keep you in the best position to benefit when an air bag deploys in a head-on collision.

Of course, a safety belt only works if you buckle up. About a third of the drivers of cars in this country fail to buckle up; 40 percent of sport utility drivers don’t use seat belts, along with 50 percent of pickup drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

While three-point safety belts have been required on both sides of the back seat since 1991, some automakers have improved back-seat protection by adding a three-point safety belt for a passenger sitting in the middle of the back seat.

Inertia reels on the shoulder portion of all safety belts allow upper body movement under normal circumstances, but they lock in a crash. The speed with which they lock and tighten the belt can be crucial, especially in frontal crashes. Enter belt webbing grabbers and automatic crash tensioners, which speed up the tightening process. Tensioners, a spin-off from air bag technology, respond in milliseconds to any quick changes in a vehicle’s motion, to lock and tighten the belt in case of a crash.

Tight is good in a safety belt, but too much tightening in a crash could cause injuries from the seat belt itself. Belts with force limiters have slack sewn in at one end to let the belt out a bit to prevent injury.

Bigger is safer

A vehicle’s size and weight are two of its most important safety features. Small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars, in relation to their numbers on the road, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And collision injuries consistently decrease as vehicle size increases.

One reason: Most new cars have one-piece, or unibody, construction, with built-in crush zones that fold up like an accordion in a crash. These crush zones are designed to absorb crash forces before they reach the driver and passenger. The larger the crush zones, the lower the crash forces that reach the inside of the vehicle. Translation: Bigger cars are safer cars.

With the increasing popularity of sport utility vehicles and pickups, the average weight of vehicles on the road is increasing these days. That makes lighter and smaller vehicles even more vulnerable in multi-vehicle crashes. (Note, however, that sport utilities are twice as likely to have rolled over than cars in fatal crashes, according to the NHTSA.)

Safety ratings such as the ones on pages 50 and 51 may help you compare the crashworthiness of vehicles within the same size and weight class.

Crash avoidance

Safety features such as anti-lock brakes and traction control are designed to help you avoid a collision in the first place.

While anti-lock brakes prevent a vehicle’s wheels from locking up during emergency braking and let the driver retain steering control, they do not stop the vehicle any faster, according to NHTSA. You could still lose control with excessive speed or extreme steering.

Also look at vehicle characteristics such as maneuverability, rapid acceleration and driver visibility.

Shopping for a good fit

When you’re shopping for a car or truck, remember to try it on for safety before you buy. That means looking beyond specific safety features.

* Have all regular drivers check for good visibility out of all the windows and mirrors.

* Make sure all regular drivers can sit comfortably at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel, which houses the front air bag. Some luxury cars have a seat-adjustment memory feature, so frequent drivers can instantly readjust the seat for optimal comfort and safety.

* Have all regular passengers buckle up to make sure the lap portion of the safety belt fits low and snug across the pelvis, not the abdomen, and the shoulder portion fits snugly across the chest and does not ride up on the neck. Adjustable top anchors, which are widely available on new cars, allow short drivers and passengers to adjust the length of the shoulder belt for a comfortable fit.

* If small children will be on board, make sure the child safety seat you plan to use fits easily in the back seat. All back-seat safety belts now have automatic locking retractors, which make the tricky job of installing a safety seat correctly a little easier.

* Headrest designs vary widely, and a good fit for one person might not be so good for another. These restraints play an important role in protecting against whiplash, which is one of the most common types of injury in car accidents.

To be effective, headrests should fit around the back of the head, not the neck, and as close to the head as possible. Headrests are increasingly available for back-seat passengers as well as those in the front seat.

This year, Saab’s 9-5 model features an active head restraint system for front-seat passengers. If the bottom of the seat is pushed forward in a rear-end collision, the headrest moves up and around the person’s head like a catcher’s mitt.

Government crash-test ratings

Each year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash-tests cars, trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans that are new, potentially popular, redesigned or equipped with improved safety equipment.

The frontal-crash test is designed to simulate a head-on collision between two identical vehicles moving at 35 miles per hour, Instruments measure the force of the impact to the head and chest of crash-test dummies, which are secured with safety belts in the driver and front passenger seats.

The data, which indicate the chance of life-threatening injury, is combined into a one- to five-star rating. Five stars indicate the best protection for drivers and passengers wearing seat belts (10% or less chance of serious injury), while one star indicates the least protection (46% or greater chance of serious injury). The ratings do not apply to unbelted occupants of the vehicles. Vehicles are twice as likely to be involved in severe frontal crashes than in severe side crashes.

The side-crash test is designed to simulate a typical intersection collision between two vehicles, It measures the chance of a life-threatening chest injury.

NHTSA emphasizes that these ratings are meaningful only when comparing vehicles within the same weight class. If a light vehicle collides with a heavier vehicle, occupants in the lighter vehicle are at greater risk for injury than those in the heavier vehicle,

For crash-test data that becomes available after our press deadline, call NHTSA’s auto-safety hotline (800-424-9393) or visit the agency’s Web site (www.nhtsa.dot.gov).

FRONTAL CRASH RATINGS

DRIVER FRONT-SEAT

MAKE AND MODEL PASSENGER

1999 Light passenger cars ight)

(2,000-2,499 lbs. curb weight)

Chevrolet Prizm 4dr **** ****

Chevrolet Prizm 4dr [ss] **** ****

Ford Escort 4dr *** ***

Honda Civic 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Honda Civic 2dr Results due Jan. 1999

Hyundai Accent 4dr *** ****

Mazda Protege 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Mercury Tracer 4dr *** ***

Nissan Sentra 4dr *** ****

Saturn SL 4dr Results due Dec. 1998

Toyota Corolla 4dr **** ****

Toyota Corolla 4dr [ss] **** ****

Toyota Tercel 2dr NT NT

Volkswagen Beetle 2dr Results due March 1999

1999 Compact passenger cars

(2,500-2,999 lbs. curb weight)

Chevrolet Cavalier 2dr *** ****

Chevrolet Cavalier 4dr **** ****

Dodge Neon 4dr *** ****

Ford Contour 4dr NT NT

Ford Escort ZX2 2dr NT NT

Hyundai Elantra 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Mazda 626 DX 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Mercury Mystique 4dr NT NT

Mitsubishi Eclipse 2dr NT NT

Mitsubishi Galant 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Nissan Altima 4dr Results due March 1999

Oldsmobile Alero 4dr Results due Dec. 1998

Plymouth Neon 4dr *** ****

Pontiac Grand Am 4dr Results due Dec. 1998

Pontiac Sunfire 4dr **** ****

Pontiac Sunfire 2dr *** ****

Subaru Legacy 4dr **** ****

Toyota Solara 2dr NT NT

Volkswagen Jetta III 4dr NT NT

1999 Medium passenger cars

(3,000-3,499 lbs. curb weight)

Buick Century 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Buick LeSabre 4dr **** ****

Buick Regal 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Chevrolet Camaro 2dr **** *****

Chevrolet Lumina 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Chevrolet Malibu 4dr **** ****

Chrysler Cirrus 4dr *** ****

Dodge Intrepid 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

SIDE CRASH RATINGS

DRIVER REAR-SEAT

MAKE AND MODEL PASSENGER

1999 Light passenger cars

(2,000-2,499 lbs. curb weight)

Chevrolet Prizm 4dr *** ***

Chevrolet Prizm 4dr [ss] Results due Dec. 1998

Ford Escort 4dr *** ***

Honda Civic 4dr *** ***

Honda Civic 2dr ** ***

Hyundai Accent 4dr NT NT

Mazda Protege 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Mercury Tracer 4dr *** ***

Nissan Sentra 4dr *** ***

Saturn SL 4dr *** ***

Toyota Corolla 4dr *** ***

Toyota Corolla 4dr [ss] Results due Dec. 1998

Toyota Tercel 2dr *** ****

Volkswagen Beetle 2dr Results due April 1999

1999 Compact passenger cars

(2,500-2,999 lbs. curb weight)

Chevrolet Cavalier 2dr * **

Chevrolet Cavalier 4dr * ***

Dodge Neon 4dr ** ***

Ford Contour 4dr *** ****

Ford Escort ZX2 2dr * ****

Hyundai Elantra 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Mazda 626 DX 4dr *** ***

Mercury Mystique 4dr *** ****

Mitsubishi Eclipse 2dr * ND

Mitsubishi Galant 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Nissan Altima 4dr *** ***

Oldsmobile Alero 4dr Result due Jan. 1999

Plymouth Neon 4dr ** ***

Pontiac Grand Am 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Pontiac Sunfire 4dr * ***

Pontiac Sunfire 2dr * **

Subaru Legacy 4dr *** ND

Toyota Solara 2dr Results due March 1999

Volkswagen Jetta III 4dr *** **

1999 Medium passenger cars

(3,000-3,499 lbs. curb weight)

Buick Century 4dr *** ***

Buick LeSabre 4dr *** ***

Buick Regal 4dr *** ***

Chevrolet Camaro 2dr *** ****

Chevrolet Lumina 4dr **** ***

Chevrolet Malibu 4dr * ***

Chrysler Cirrus 4dr *** **

Dodge Intrepid 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Dodge Stratus 4dr *** ***

Ford Mustang 2dr NT NT

Ford Taurus 4dr ***** *****

Honda Accord 4dr **** ****

Honda Accord 2dr **** ****

Lexus ES300 4dr **** ****

Mercedes-Benz C230 4dr NT NT

Mercury Sable 4dr ***** *****

Nissan Maxima 4dr NT NT

Oldsmobile Cutlass 4dr **** ****

Oldsmobile Intrigue 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Plymouth Breeze 4dr *** ****

Pontiac Firebird 2dr **** *****

Toyota Avalon 4dr **** *****

Toyota Camry 4dr **** *****

Toyota Camry 4dr [ss] **** *****

Volvo S70 4dr ***** *****

Volvo S80 4dr NT NT

1999 Heavy passenger cars

(3,500 lbs. & over curb weight

Audi A8 4dr ***** *****

Cadillac DeVille 4dr **** ****

Ford Crown Victoria 4dr ***** *****

Lincoln Town Car 4dr NT NT

Mercury Grand Marquis 4dr ***** *****

Oldsmobile Aurora 4dr *** ***

Pontiac Bonneville SSE 4dr ***** ***

1999 Sport utility vehicles

Cadillac Escalade 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Chevrolet Blazer 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Chevrolet Suburban 4dr **** ****

Chevrolet Tahoe 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Dodge Durango 4dr Results due March 1999

Ford Expedition 4dr Results due March 1999

Ford Explorer 4dr **** ****

GMC Jimmy 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

GMC Suburban 4dr **** ****

GMC Yukon 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Honda CR-V 4dr 4×4 **** *****

Honda Passport 4dr *** ****

Infiniti QX4 4dr Results due April 1999

Isuzu Rodeo 4dr *** ****

Jeep Cherokee 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4dr Results due March 1999

Jeep Wrangler 2dr Results due March 1999

Lincoln Navigator 4dr Results due March 1999

Mercury Mountaineer 4dr **** ****

Nissan Pathfinder 4dr Results due April 1999

Oldsmobile Bravada 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Toyota 4-Runner 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Toyota RAV4 4dr **** ****

1999 Pickup trucks

Chevrolet S-10 Ext Cab Results due March 1999

Chevrolet Silverado Ext Cab Results due March 1999

Dodge Dakota Ext Cab NT NT

Dodge Ram Ext Cab **** ****

Dodge Ram Quad Cab Results due Feb. 1999

Ford F-150 Results due April 1999

Ford Ranger **** ****

GMC Sierra Ext Cab Results due March 1999

GMC Sonoma Ext Cab Results due March 1999

Mazda B-Series **** ****

Nissan Frontier Results due Feb. 1999

Nissan Frontier Ext Cab *** ****

Toyota Tacoma Ext Cab Results due Jan. 1999

1999 Minivans

Chevrolet Venture Results due Jan. 1999

Chrysler Town & Country Results due Feb. 1999

Dodge Grand Voyager Results due Feb. 1999

Ford Windstar Results due Dec. 1998

Mazda MPV **** ****

Oldsmobile Silhouette Results due Jan. 1999

Pontiac Trans Sport Results due Jan. 1999

Plymouth Grand Voyager Results due Feb. 1999

Toyota Sienna ***** *****

Dodge Stratus 4dr *** **

Ford Mustang 2dr *** ***

Ford Taurus 4dr *** ***

Honda Accord 4dr **** ****

Honda Accord 2dr Results due Fed. 1999

Lexus ES300 4dr ***** *****

Mercedes-Benz C230 4dr *** ****

Mercury Sable 4dr *** ***

Nissan Maxima 4dr **** ***

Oldsmobile Cutlass 4dr * ***

Oldsmobile Intrigue 4dr *** *

Plymouth Breeze 4dr *** **

Pontiac Firebird 2dr *** ****

Toyota Avalon 4dr ***** ****

Toyota Camry 4dr *** ***

Toyota Camry 4dr [ss] Results due Dec. 1998

Volvo S70 4dr **** ND

Volvo S80 4dr Results due March 1999

1999 Heavy passenger cars

(3,500 lbs. & over curb weight

Audi A8 4dr NT NT

Cadillac DeVille 4dr **** ****

Ford Crown Victoria 4dr **** ****

Lincoln Town Car 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Mercury Grand Marquis 4dr **** ****

Oldsmobile Aurora 4dr NT NT

Pontiac Bonneville SSE 4dr *** **

1999 Sport utility vehicles

Cadillac Escalade 4dr NT NT

Chevrolet Blazer 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Chevrolet Suburban 4dr NT NT

Chevrolet Tahoe 4dr NT NT

Dodge Durango 4dr NT NT

Ford Expedition 4dr NT NT

Ford Explorer 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

GMC Jimmy 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

GMC Suburban 4dr NT NT

GMC Yukon 4dr NT NT

Honda CR-V 4dr 4×4 Results due March 1999

Honda Passport 4dr Results due March 1999

Infiniti QX4 4dr Results due April 1999

Isuzu Rodeo 4dr Results due March 1999

Jeep Cherokee 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4dr Results due March 1999

Jeep Wrangler 2dr NT NT

Lincoln Navigator 4dr NT NT

Mercury Mountaineer 4dr Results due Feb. 1999

Nissan Pathfinder 4dr Results due April 1999

Oldsmobile Bravada 4dr Results due Jan. 1999

Toyota 4-Runner 4dr Results due March 1999

Toyota RAV4 4dr Results due March 1999

1999 Pickup trucks

Chevrolet S-10 Ext Cab Results due March 1999

Chevrolet Silverado Ext Cab NT NT

Dodge Dakota Ext Cab Results due Jan. 1999

Dodge Ram Ext Cab NT NT

Dodge Ram Quad Cab NT NT

Ford F-150 Results due March 1999

Ford Ranger Results due Feb. 1999

GMC Sierra Ext Cab NT NT

GMC Sonoma Ext Cab Results due March 1999

Mazda B-Series Results due Feb. 1999

Nissan Frontier Results due Dec. 1999

Nissan Frontier Ext Cab NT NT

Toyota Tacoma Ext Cab Results due March 1999

1999 Minivans

Chevrolet Venture Results due Dec. 1999

Chrysler Town & Country Results due Feb. 1999

Dodge Grand Voyager Results due Feb. 1999

Ford Windstar Results due Jan. 1999

Mazda MPV NT NT

Oldsmobile Silhouette Results due Dec. 1999

Pontiac Trans Sport Results due Dec. 1999

Plymouth Grand Voyager Results due Feb. 1999

Toyota Sienna Results due March. 1999

NT No test planned.

ND No data.

(ss.) With side air bag.

Beat the weather with a sport ute

Roughly 19 million Americans own sport utility vehicles, according to Standard & Poor’s DRI, an economic forecasting firm. And with El Nino settling in, buyers who will never venture off-road are lining up to pay big bucks for sport utes that promise to beat the weather.

But sport utilities range from wimp to ruffian when it comes to tackling inclement weather. Two-wheel-drive sport utes are a lot like family sedans when confronted with anything but warm weather and dry surfaces. Their all-wheel-drive counterparts–whether based on front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicles–are good to go in slippery weather and snow, while the traditional four-wheel-drive is as much at home on the highway as it is crossing brooks and mountains.

So the question becomes, what do you really need and how much should you spend to get a vehicle that suits your needs?

All-wheel drive vs. four-wheel drive

First, some critical definitions. Today’s sport utes usually offer some version of all-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive. The basic difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive is a big one: With all-wheel drive, power is directed to the wheels as needed. If the front wheels begin to slip, power shifts to the rear wheels. With four-wheel drive, the front and rear axles are locked and power is locked into all four wheels, all the time. In this mode, you should not drive on dry pavement.

Most minis–such as the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4–are primarily front-wheel-drive vehicles with all-wheel-drive capability That is, on dry roads the front wheels do most of the work. But if the front wheels begin to lose their grip, up to half of the power supplied to them can be transferred automatically to the rear wheels to reduce slippage. Thanks to viscous coupling, the system runs all the time and the wheels don’t bind on dry pavement as some four-wheel-drive vehicles do. (In the larger all-wheel-drive vehicles–such as the Jeep Cherokee–the power shift generally goes the other way from rear to front wheels.)

While small all-wheel-drive sport utes do well on the highway, their smaller engines, low ground clearance and inability to lock all four wheels into gear impede off-road driving. Some of the minis, including the Chevrolet Tracker, do offer part-time four-wheel-drive and more off-road capabilities.

More-expensive compact sport utes–including the Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee–typically offer more than one four-wheel-drive mode, which increases their flexibility in all kinds of weather and terrain. The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner, for example, come with three drive options, allowing you to shift among two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and part-time four-wheel drive in high or low gear. (As noted earlier, with four-wheel drive, power is distributed to all four wheels, all the time; the low-gear option allows you to shift way down to compensate for the worst conditions.) But in some respects, having three options is overkill. Ifs often just as fuel-efficient to run the car in all-wheel drive as it is to run it in two-wheel drive.

More sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems such as that in the Infiniti QX4 work well on all terrain and also free the driver from having to shift manually to accommodate various road surfaces. The system will do the work for you, selecting the optimum transmission for any road condition you are likely to confront.

If you live in the snow belt, pick a vehicle with high ground clearance and large wheels. “The trick to driving in snow is to have the wide wheel patch that larger tires give you,” says Steve Millen, a racer for 24 years and head of Stillen, a company that upgrades and personalizes cars.

More crash tests

The vehicles at right are rated “Best Picks” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which conducts offset crash tests that complement NHTSA’s front and side crash tests.

While NHTSA crashes the whole front end of a vehicle moving at 35 miles per hour into a rigid barrier, IIHS crashes a vehicle moving at 40 mph at an angle into a deformable barrier that simulates the front of another vehicle. This test provides a good indication of a vehicle’s structural performance in serious crashes. In particular, it indicates how welt the vehicle’s safety cage and crush zones manage the energy of a crash and keep crash forces away from the occupant compartment.

Ideally, a vehicle should perform well on both NHTSA and IIHS crash tests.

Small cars

Volkswagen New Beetle

Midsize sedans

Chevrolet Lumina

Ford Taurus

Mercury Sable

Volkswagen Passat

Toyota Camry

Volvo 850/S70

Luxury cars

BMW 5 series

Lexus LS 400

Minivans

Ford Windstar

Toyota Sienna

COPYRIGHT 1999 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group