Safety in Numbers

More extensive ratings can help you buy a solid car

The rural roads in Jolie Morris' neighborhood near Clear, Alaska, can be tricky. So her car's crash-test safety record is important to the 25-year-old mother of two. But when it came time to replace her 1999 Nissan Quest, she did more than just look at government safety ratings. Morris says she pored over car magazines and scanned the Internet for information before deciding on a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta.

Morris had to dig deeper not because there's a dearth of safe cars. Thanks to such engineering feats as side air bags and stability control systems, auto safety has improved to such an extent that the government ratings are no longer enough to delineate the different advantages of various models. Last year, 88% of the cars tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which issues the government ratings, made the top two rankings of four and five stars, vs. only 31% in 1979.

With the safety gap between the best- and worst-performing cars closing fast, consumers have been seeking ways to augment the NHTSA rankings. Since 1992, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group, has been doing crash tests of its own. And this year, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, came up with its rating system. Each has a different procedure for determining safety. So by comparing the various assessments, a buyer can get a more complete picture of how much protection that model in the showroom provides.

By law, all cars sold in the U.S. offer a mandated minimum amount of protection for a crash at 30 mph. To come up with its ratings, NHTSA crashes new cars at 35 mph head-on into a wall to determine the level of safety beyond the minimum. It also tests for crashes from the side and calculates a vehicle's rollover tendency, based on such factors as weight and height. Its lowest rating--one star--suggests that occupants would suffer serious or even life-threatening injuries in a crash. Drivers of a car with at least a four-star rating can expect a 20% or less chance of serious injury. Morris' Quest scored four stars for driver safety and three for passenger protection. Her new Jetta had five stars in both categories.

The IIHS takes a different tack. It crashes cars into a barrier at an off-center angle to simulate the head-on collision of two vehicles that aren't lined up directly. Offset crashes are more dangerous to occupants, the IIHS says. Experts consider the IIHS's four ratings, which range from poor to good, as a reliable measure of a car's structural strength. Under IIHS's system, the Jetta was third in its class, a still strong showing.

OBSTACLE COURSES. Consumers Union, meanwhile, doesn't do crash tests. Instead, it combines NHTSA and IIHS crash results with its own evaluation derived from driving a vehicle through a rigorous obstacle course. The system, with rankings from poor to excellent, made its debut in April in the 2001 Consumer Reports auto guide. According to Consumer Reports, the Jetta is among the safest cars on the road.

If you're car shopping, and safety is a top consideration, you would do well to first narrow your choices to models with at least four NHTSA stars. Bear in mind that the NHTSA test is considered an effective measure of air bag and seat belt performance. Then see whether the cars also make it to the top three places in any of the IIHS and Consumer Reports safety categories. That was Morris' approach. "I've seen some horrible accidents," she says. You can never be too safe.

By Jeff Green

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