Driver Safety

Behind-the-Wheel Protection

A 38-year-old mother and her seven-year-old son were killed one evening after the vehicle she was driving overturned and crashed on the highway. The car, which was traveling at an unknown speed, swerved left and rolled over numerous times before coming to rest in the center divider. The mother and her child were ejected and were pronounced dead at the scene.

Unfortunately, this horrendous scenario plays out over and over again across the nation each year. Based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), rollovers are responsible for one-quarter of the nearly 40,000 deaths that occur on the nation’s roadways each year.

Before you shop for your next vehicle, it may be a wise investment of time to develop a checklist to help you zero in on what you need in a vehicle. Who will drive your car—you or your teen, either now or in a year or two? And where and how are you driving—long-distance highway driving or local stop-and-go traffic? More important, however, is whether the car suits your family’s needs—especially its safety.

Knowing the pitfalls of a particular vehicle could make the difference between a safe and nonsafe driving experience. For example, a high-performance vehicle (300-plus horsepower) can mean trouble if your teenager gets behind its wheel. High-performance vehicles also pose a real temptation to drivers who do not use good judgment and speed.

Rollover potential is also worthy of consideration. They are much more common for SUVs than for other vehicles because of their higher center of gravity. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that in 2008, 58 percent of SUV occupants killed in crashes were in vehicles that rolled over. By contrast, 47 percent of deaths in pickups and 25 percent of deaths in cars were caused by rollovers.

Next, consider safety features, such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control that can help avert crashes, especially if they are used properly.

An anti-lock brake system (ABS) helps reduce the potential for a crash when a driver hits the regular brakes hard, locking the wheels. Wheel lockup can result in longer stopping distances, loss of steering control and, when road friction is uneven, loss of stability if the vehicle begins to spin. Anti-lock brakes can reduce problems on wet and slippery roads by working with a vehicle's regular brakes to decrease stopping distance and increase control and stability during hard braking. Technically, these brakes prevent wheels from skidding by monitoring the speed of each wheel and automatically pulsing the brake pressure on any wheels where skidding is detected. Essentially, they allow you to brake and steer at the same time, helping drivers to maintain steering control during emergency stops.

Despite these safety features, it is not clear whether anti-lock brakes have significantly reduced the number of on-the-road crashes. A recent federal report concluded that anti-lock brakes reduce overall crash involvement risk by 6 percent for cars and 8 percent for pickups and SUVs, but they have no effect on fatal crash risk.

A possible reason: The average motorist rarely experiences total loss of vehicle control, which anti-lock brakes are designed to prevent. The more popular theory is that drivers do not know how to use anti-lock brakes effectively. Drivers tend to pump the brakes. In fact, with anti-lock brakes, you press down on the brake pedal as hard as you can, and you keep it pressed down.

Electronic stability control (ESC) is an extension of anti-lock brake technology. When a driver makes a sudden emergency maneuver or enters a curve too fast, ESCs automatic braking is applied and, in some case, the throttle is reduced to help prevent the vehicle from spinning out of control.

IIHS has found that ESC reduces the risk of fatal multiple-vehicle crashes by 32 percent. While both cars and SUVs benefit from ESC, the reduction in the risk of single-vehicle crashes was significantly greater for SUVs than for cars—49 percent versus 33 percent. The reduction in fatal single-vehicle crashes wasn't significantly different for SUVs (59 percent) than for cars (53 percent).

Moreover, many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and ESC effectiveness in preventing rollovers is even more dramatic. It reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers of SUVs by 80 percent and cars by 77 percent.

ESC reduced the risk of fatal crashes by 43 percent. The IIHS indicates that if all vehicles had ESC—which is expected by model year 2012—it could prevent as many as 10,000 fatal passenger vehicle crashes each year. However, rollover crashes would not be eliminated as a result of collisions with other vehicles or roadside obstacles, tire failure or loss of traction with the road surface due to weather conditions. Thus, vehicles with ESC still need strong roofs and effective restraint systems to protect occupants in rollover crashes.

Seat Belts and Airbags

All new cars have airbags. Although airbags have reduced driver deaths by about 14 percent and passenger deaths by about 11 percent, they are mainly effective if you wear lap/shoulder belts. Deaths are 12 percent lower among drivers who wear belts, and 9 percent lower among belted passengers.

Make sure your vehicle has side airbags that will protect your head. Sometimes, side air bags are optional, but experts recommend that you purchase them.

Once you own the car, it’s important to make sure you use these safety systems properly. The improper use of airbags, for example, can be life threatening. Injuries from air bags have occurred primarily because drivers and passengers were sitting in the wrong position when the bags began to inflate. Regardless of size or age, a driver who sits within 10 inches of the steering wheel or an infant in a rear-facing restraint in front seat is at risk.

It also is important to properly maintain these safety systems and other vehicle features. Tires should be inflated based on the manufacturer’s recommendations. Improperly inflated tires can affect any vehicle's stability, increasing the possibility of a crash.

Bald tires—tires without tread—are extremely slippery when it rains. The reasonable lifespan of your tires is five or six years, but depending on driving and environmental factors, it may be shorter. A good rule of thumb is to quickly inspect your tires once a week and rotate them every 10,000 miles.

To learn more about vehicle safety, refer to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Next: Teen Drivers