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Shopping for a Safe Vehicle

by Joanne Brickman

Americans are in a car buying mood.  We bought sixteen million new vehicles last year and, even with the recent rise in gas prices, the purchase rate doesn't seem to be slowing much.  With more and more vehicles on the roads, it comes as no surprise that the number of accidents are increasing, too.
     A few years ago, seniors accounted for only five percent of all people injured in traffic crashes.  However, with more of us on the road these days (statisticians estimate that one-third of all drivers were over 55 at the dawning of the year 2000), we stand a much greater chance of being involved in a collision.
      This reality makes it extra important to place vehicle safety features high on your priority list when planning a new car purchase. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has mandated two very important safety features:  air bags and seat belts.  NHTSA says that as of October 1, 1999, air bags have saved 4,758 lives and that seat belts save about 11,000 lives annually. 
     Lap seat belts have been in cars for decades and they're still used for middle seat passengers on most vehicles.  But it is the three-point belt that makes this a truly effective safety feature.  Remember when the shoulder belt first came out and we had to buckle both the lap and the shoulder belt?  How many of us did that? 
     Thanks to Volvo inventor Nils Ivar Bohlin, today's seat belts require only one click.  Bohlin designed the three-point belt shortly after joining the company in 1958 and Volvo introduced it in 1959 in their 544 sedan. Other automobile manufacturers soon followed suit. Today, the three-point belt is required by the federal government in outboard positions in all vehicles and is still the most effective occupant restraint in all types of accidents.
     Recently, there have been additional advances in seat belt design.  The adjustable belt, for example, allows changing the height of the shoulder strap to accommodate a person's size and has encouraged more drivers and passengers to buckle up. 
     Seat belt pretensioners retract the seat belt to remove excess slack, almost instantly, in a crash. Energy management features allow seat belts to "give" or yield to prevent forces on the shoulder belt (during a severe crash) from concentrating too much energy on your chest. 
     Probably no safety feature has created more fuss than the air bag.  Still, backed by crash statistics, the government stands firm, and front air bags continue to be a mandate for manufacturers.  They have, however, asked the automakers to lower the power of the bag by 20 to 25 percent and encouraged them to include passenger-side on/off switches in vehicles without rear seats.
     Fairly new to the air bag array are side air bags. Side air bags are either standard and optional on a surprising number of today's vehicles.  They provide additional chest protection by inflating instantly during many side crashes; some also provide head protection.  Before transporting children in a car with side air bags, be sure to check the owner's manual or other sources (like the Internet) for information and warnings about potential danger to pint-sized passengers in these vehicles. 
     Seat belts and air bags are superb safety features, but they deal only with occupant survival.  How about features that help prevent an accident? Anti-lock brakes, one of the best crash avoidance helps, are standard on a growing number of vehicles, but continue to be misunderstood by many buyers. Anti-lock brake systems (ABS) prevent a vehicle's wheels from locking during "panic" braking and allow the driver to maintain steering control as the vehicle slows.  But they do require that you break the habit of pumping your brakes (an automatic tendency of most senior drivers) -- ABS does that for you.  And they do take a bit of getting use to.  But they're well worth the learning effort and are one of the best safety features available today,
even if you have to pay extra for them. 
      Another excellent crash avoidance feature is traction control. Traction control systems improve vehicle stability and steering control during acceleration by controlling the amount the drive wheels can slip when you apply excess power. The system automatically adjusts the engine power output and, in some systems, applies braking force to selected wheels during acceleration and cornering. Traction control is a standard feature on many of today's vehicles.
     All General Motors cars and a number of other nameplates offer daytime running lights (DRLs) as a standard feature on their vehicles.  DRLs increase the ability of oncoming drivers to see your vehicle.  Be warned, though:  DRLs may not include tail lights or other exterior lights, so it's important to remember to turn your headlights on at dusk. 
     Smart car shoppers are turned on to the importance of vehicle safety features.  Join them and give yourself every chance to avoid being a crash statistic or to survive should an accident happen. 

For a complete description of all the safety features available on today's vehicles, surf over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association web site.



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