Monday, June 13, 2011

SUVs and ESC

Last week, this report by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, or IIHS, became public. From their website:
IIHS was founded in 1959 by three major insurance associations representing 80 percent of the US auto insurance market. At first, IIHS's purpose was to support highway safety efforts by others. A decade later, IIHS was reinvented as an independent research organization.
The report covered any model of car between 2005 and 2008 that accrued at least 100,000 registered drivers. The results of the report were hopeful; virtually every car had a lower fatality rate than the corresponding 1999-2002 models. The most striking news from the report, however, was the dramatic drop in driver deaths of sports utility vehicles:
“In the past, the top-heavy vehicles frequently rolled over, giving many models some of the highest driver death rates. But drivers of today’s SUVs are among the least likely to die in a crash, the Institute’s latest calculations to driver death rates show. The change is due largely to the widespread availability of electronic stability control (ESC), which helps prevent rollovers. With the propensity to roll over reduced, SUVs are on balance safer than cars because their bigger size and weight provides greater protection in a crash.”
ESC? I’ve heard before that the US Government is requiring ESC on all new cars after 2012. But what is it?

Youtube, as always, came through with an informational video:

Wow! Magic!

But the question for me was never if SUVs are safe or not. Edmonds,  the renowned automotive consumer website, recently posted an article by Anita Lienert, which summed it up concisely: 
The death rate for SUV drivers dropped 66 percent, from 82 per million vehicles for 1999-2002 models to 28 per million for 2005-'08 models. But the death rate for drivers of small, four-door cars was 72 [per] million vehicles for 2005-'08 models, down 35 percent from 110 per million in 1999-2002 models.
Right now, small, four-doors cars have a fatality rate THREE TIMES that of SUVs. And even before the electronic stability control helped reduce the rollover problem in SUVs, small, four-door cars had 110 deaths per million vehicles, verses 82 per million for the SUVs.

Lienert goes on, saying:
The report is clearly aimed at federal regulators who are drafting new fuel-economy rules due out this fall that will force automakers to build and sell smaller, lighter vehicles. The report is also critical for consumers who are turning to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars in an era of high gas prices.
Lienert contends that this report, generated by the “insurance industry-funded group”  is intended to make Congress think twice before regulating SUVs. But to me, the question was never about whether or not SUVs are safe—it’s pretty common knowledge that if a tiny car gets into a crash with an SUV, the tiny car will get crushed. And now, with the benefit of ESC, the sports utility vehicles seem pretty unstoppable.

So, yes. Driving is extremely dangerous—not a year ago, I got into a crash with my 1997 Toyota Camry, which broke both the bones in my right forearm and broke my right femur in four places. And the temptation would certainly seem for car manufacturers to keep piling layers of steel.

But to me, this information could just as easily support an argument for getting heavier cars off the road, as maybe the smaller cars that have the horrible luck of crashing with an SUV won’t be quite so decimated. And the amount of energy it takes to both produce and power these hulking machines makes me cautious. There must be a better way to improve safety without making every car into an armored vehicle?

I wish there was a way to build STRONGER cars without them being HEAVIER. It’s possible, right? Right????

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