Commentary: American Drivers: Stiffed on Safety?

By Christine Tierney

Probably nobody at Mercedes-Benz will ever forget the embarrassing 1997 film footage of its boxy A-Class compact tipping over during a sharp turn on a test run. But Mercedes' aggressive damage-control campaign led to the rapid installation on all its vehicles of an electronic system designed to prevent the kind of skid that often leads to a rollover. By the time I left Europe last December, electronic stability control (ESC) was fitted on fully half the cars sold in Germany and elsewhere in safety-conscious Northern Europe.

Back in the U.S., I was surprised to find almost nobody thinking about these new accident-prevention systems. In fact, only about 6% of the vehicles built in the U.S. are equipped with ESC, and many of those are foreign brands. Some Detroit carmakers are even backing away from installing antilock brakes, which are a necessary component of advanced systems. "It's not just that the Europeans are moving ahead" in car safety, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of Washington's Center for Auto Safety, "the Americans are moving backward."

While crash-related fatality rates in the U.S., Germany, and the rest of northern Europe are among the lowest in the world, measured in deaths per passenger mile, Europeans are bringing the death rate down more quickly. In the past 30 years, the number of German traffic fatalities has dropped 70%, while U.S. deaths fell by just 20%. True, Germans buckle up more, but experts also credit accident-prevention technology.

There's a reason Americans are getting stiffed on safety: With the Big Three frantically cutting costs while positioning rebates as their biggest selling point, Detroit is having trouble pricing in safety innovations, says Jeremy Bowler, senior research manager at J.D. Power & Associates. Washington could help, but lawmakers are loath to increase carmakers' costs.

Consider rollovers, which accounted for one-quarter of the 42,000 road deaths in the U.S. in 2001. After the Ford-Firestone debacle in 2000, Congress mandated the installation of tire-pressure-monitoring systems, but overlooked ESC. In fact, only 3% of vehicles involved in fatal rollovers show tire damage, but at least 20% entail some kind of loss of control. "I would certainly like to see [ESC] become standard on SUVs," says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

Stability control clearly makes a difference. In November, Mercedes-Benz reported a 15% drop in accidents involving its cars built since mid-1999, when ESC became standard. Yet on all but the priciest SUVs and pickup trucks -- vehicles whose high center of gravity makes them more prone to roll over -- the Big Three are stingy. In the midsize-SUV market, for example, ESC is optional on some Ford Explorers, but it's not even an option on base versions. Toyota, in contrast, offers stability control as a standard feature on its 4Runner and as an option on the Highlander.

Detroit has the technological savvy to build safer cars. In the 1990s, GM moved ahead of the pack in equipping vehicles with antilock brake systems (ABS). But in the current brutal wheel-and-deal market, GM has begun to "de-content," to use the industry's telling jargon. GM still equips 82% of its vehicles with standard ABS. But the company is now making it an option on models that previously had it as standard equipment, and customers must pay hundreds of dollars extra.

The trend puts pressure on foreign auto makers to follow suit. In Germany, Volkswagen equips all Golf compacts with ESC. But at Detroit-area VW dealers, I found it was included only on top-end models. As explained by Dale Koelzer, sales manager of the VW Fox dealership in Rochester Hills, Mich., such features make the cars seem too upscale.

In short, price competition among U.S. carmakers is costing lives. If Congress is intent on improving SUV safety, it should consider making electronic safety systems mandatory on these tall vehicles. Once the systems are widely used, prices will fall. In the meantime, consumers are getting a phony bargain, and a false sense of safety.

Tierney drives a VW with ESC.

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