Shopping for Safety

Today's cars offer a slew of devices that help prevent accidents or injuries. The trick is figuring out the must-haves.

You've picked the car, the engine, the seat material, and the color. Now you've got a few thousand bucks left to spend on extras. While weighing the merits of six-speaker audio vs. the moon roof, you notice a long list of safety features also available as options. Some are pricey; some cost only peanuts. Which ones do you really need?

Most autos' safety gear falls into two categories: features that help drivers avoid accidents and those aimed at preventing injuries when accidents occur. Accident-avoidance equipment ranges from basic anti-lock brakes and traction control to sophisticated stability systems to keep your car on the road in the most trying conditions.

Ask the engineers who design safety systems and most will tell you they prefer the active devices. "I'd rather avoid the accident in the first place," says a TRW Automotive engineering manager. Consumer-safety advocates, though, are big on occupant-protection systems. "Side air bags would be the first thing I'd go for because of the added protection, especially with the increased incidence of SUVs on the road," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety. "Passive safety" features -- increasingly complex versions of air bags, seat belts, and headrests -- are the ones you buy hoping you'll never need them.

Most car buyers will want some safety features of both types. The actual list of must-have options will depend on what's already standard in your new car. If you're buying a $14,000 subcompact, the answer may be: not much. In that case, you'll start with the basics: an anti-lock braking system ($470) and side air bags ($330). Even though ABS is standard on most higher-priced models, one out of every five vehicles built in North America last year didn't have it. Chrysler (DCX ) says 40% of its vehicles are sold without it.

CRUCIAL PROTECTION

ABS is the high-tech version of the old driving-school lesson: When braking hard, pump the brakes so they don't lock. Retired race-car driver Jackie Stewart likes to say his reflexes are excellent, but ABS pulses the brakes more quickly than he can. Don't leave the dealership without it.

Side air bags are one feature many safety experts tell their family and friends they must have. As concerns grow about the risks posed by hulking SUVs, side air bags offer some relief. If a passenger car is struck in the side -- especially if it collides with a big SUV or pickup truck -- they can provide crucial torso and head protection. Conventional-size side air bags built into the seat protect the occupant's body. Even better, says Ditlow, are the new, larger curtain or canopy bags ($470) that deploy downward from the inside roofline and protect against head injuries, particularly when a vehicle rolls over, as SUVs are more prone to do.

If you're buying a well-equipped family car or SUV, these features may be part of the standard package. That means you can move on to anti-whiplash headrests ($300). They automatically reposition themselves in an accident to support occupants' heads and prevent neck injuries.

Several newer safety systems focus on tire-related problems. Not surprisingly, Little Rock (Ark.) lawyer Tab Turner, who represents hundreds of consumers suing for failures of their Firestone tires, is a big fan of run-flat tires, which won't blow out when punctured. It was blowouts on Ford Explorer SUVs equipped with defective Firestone tires in the 1990s that caused drivers to lose control, resulting in some fatal rollover accidents. The cost of run-flats from Michelin and Goodyear (GT ) has dropped by about half in the past two years, to roughly $300 for a set of four, Turner says. They're one of the few safety items that you can easily add to an older model.

Turner also favors sensors that warn drivers when air pressure in any tire runs low. Over- or under-inflated tires can impede a vehicle's safe handling. At $50 extra, this system tops J.D. Power & Associates' annual survey of most popular new auto technology. "That's pretty cheap when you're getting a $20,000 vehicle," Turner says.

Traction control ($220) is another useful device. Imagine you're stopped at an intersection with two wheels on dry pavement and two on ice. This system senses when wheels slip during acceleration. It adjusts throttle and brakes to limit the power going to those wheels to avoid spinning. Power still flows to the gripping tires to propel the car forward.

ON COURSE

Slightly higher on the safety food chain are more advanced systems that build on ABS and traction control to offer even greater handling. Electronic stability control ($450) senses from the steering wheel, brakes, and gas pedal what the driver intends and keeps the vehicle on course even in the most difficult road conditions. With stability control, a quick turn at high speed on wet or snowy pavement -- a maneuver that can spin a car out of control -- results in little more than a slowed-down wobble as the car stays in its lane. On an SUV with a higher center of gravity, such control can be invaluable. "I would not consider buying an SUV without stability control," says David Champion, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.

Air bags offer safety advantages, but only if the occupants are seated properly to get the most benefit -- and the least harm. Short drivers, who tend to sit far forward to reach the brakes and accelerate, can suffer burns or broken facial bones from the explosive force of an air bag mounted in the steering wheel. Adjustable pedals ($200) allow the driver to sit farther back in a safer position. Seat-belt pre-tensioners, which cinch occupants to their seats more securely at the first sign of trouble, also offer protection in a crash but are not available as a stand-alone option. And there are sensors ($200) that can detect whether a front seat is occupied and gauge the weight and position of a passenger so as to control the deployment and force of air bags for that seat.

Suppose you're getting a luxury auto. With many of the above features already included, you might want to consider one of the variety of collision-avoidance systems arriving on high-end cars. There are systems that sound a warning if your car is too close to the vehicle ahead -- or if you're about to back over a tricycle in the driveway. Other systems warn if there's a car in the driver's blind spot or use sophisticated "adaptive cruise control" to maintain a safe distance between your car and the one in front of you (see box). One of the latest innovations: active roll control, an electronic system that helps keep a vehicle from leaning to the right or left and rolling over. This technology costs hundreds more at least. But when it comes to safety, if you can afford it, get it.

By Kathleen Kerwin

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