Ford, Honda Lead List of Safest Cars

THIRTY-four vehicles have earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick award for 2008. The award recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes based on ratings in the institute's tests. Winners also have to be equipped with electronic stability control (ESC), which research shows can significantly reduce the risk of crashing.

Compared with last year, automakers have more than doubled the number of vehicles that meet criteria for Top Safety Pick. At the beginning of the 2007 model year, 13 models qualified, but as manufacturers have made changes and introduced new and safer vehicle designs, 10 additional vehicles qualified during the year. Now another 11 vehicles are being added to the list for 2008. Designating winners based on the tests makes it easier for consumers to identify vehicles that afford the best overall protection without sifting through multiple sets of comparative crash test results.

"For 2008, consumers have the widest selection of vehicles they've ever had that afford the best protection in the most common kinds of crashes," said Adrian Lund, institute president. Front and side impacts are the most common kinds of fatal crashes, killing nearly 25,000 of the 31,000 vehicle occupants who died in 2005. Rear-end crashes usually aren't fatal, but they result in a large proportion of the injuries that occur in crashes. About 60 percent of insurance injury claims in 2002 reported minor neck sprains and strains.

All current car and minivan models, small and midsize SUVs, and small and large pickup trucks are eligible to win Top Safety Pick. Eight vehicles from Ford and its subsidiary, Volvo, make the list of winners for 2008. Seven winners are from Honda and its subsidiary, Acura.

Winners have features that help avoid crashes, the institute stated. The institute added a crash prevention criterion last year to earn Top Safety Pick. Winning vehicles have to be equipped with ESC, which can help drivers avoid crashes altogether. ESC is a control system comprised of sensors and a microcomputer that continuously monitors how well a vehicle responds to a driver's steering input and selectively applies the vehicle brakes and modulates engine power to keep the vehicle traveling along the path indicated by the steering wheel position. This technology helps prevent sideways skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers, institute officials said. ESC can help drivers maintain control during emergency maneuvers when their vehicles otherwise might spin out.

"Vehicles should be designed to provide good occupant protection when crashes occur, but now with ESC we have the possibility of preventing many crashes altogether," Lund said. "If all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 10,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year." Institute research indicates that ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56 percent and fatal multiple-vehicle crashes by 32 percent. Many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 80 percent (SUVs) and 77 percent (cars).

For the first time, pickups are eligible for the safety list. Pickup trucks haven't been eligible to win Top Safety Pick until now because the institute hadn't begun side testing them. The Toyota Tundra is first to qualify. Pickups aren't as likely as cars or SUVs to have side airbags or ESC, and Toyota has made these features standard in the Tundra.

"Pickups are among the top selling vehicles in the United States," Lund said. "They're also more likely than in the past to be used as family vehicles, so equipping them with the latest safety features is important."

Protection in rear impacts improves: Crash tests have driven major improvements in the designs of all kinds and sizes of passenger vehicles. The institute began frontal crash tests for consumer information in 1995. Side tests were added in 2003 and rear tests in 2004. Most vehicles now earn good ratings in the frontal test, but significant differences still are apparent in vehicle performance in side and rear tests.

Some manufacturers have been working to improve the ratings of their vehicles in the rear test. For example, the seat/head restraints in the Honda Accord, Element, and Odyssey as well as the BMW X3 and X5 are rated good compared with previous designs that were rated marginal or poor. Audi improved the design of seat/head restraints in the A3 from acceptable to good. Another 23 vehicles would have won 2008 awards if they had good seat/head restraint designs, the institute stated.

Each year, the institute offers to test Top Safety Pick candidates early in the model year. The policy is for manufacturers to reimburse the institute for the cost of vehicles if the tests aren't part of the group's regular schedule. Top Safety Pick is presented by vehicle size because size and weight are closely related, and both influence how well occupants will be protected in serious crashes. Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford better protection in crashes than smaller, lighter ones.

For additional information on the Top Safety Picks, visit www.iihs.org.

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