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How safe is the car you drive?

ONE OCTOBER NIGHT in 1975, Dr. Arnold Arms dozed off at the wheel of his Oldsmobile Ninety Eight. He was exhausted after working a 12-hour shift at a Kansas City hospital. His sleep lasted only a few seconds and his hands never left the wheel, but it was long enough for him to slip into the opposite lane. At 40 mph, his car crashed head-on into a city transit bus.

The Oldsmobile folded like an accordion, but Dr. Arms walked away unhurt.

Dr. Arms is alive today because, at the instant of impact, an air bag inflated from the dashboard and cushioned him from the crumbling automobile. “When I found myself perfectly all right afterwards,” he recently told a Washington conference on traffic safety, “I was able to get out of the car and help some people in the bus. I knew the air bag had given me a second chance to live.”

Unfortunately, few drivers get that second chance these days. General Motors equipped some of its larger cars with air bags for a short time, but no longer. Air bags won’t be available, even as an option, until 1983 at the earliest. Nor can they be fitted into existing cars. But it wasn’t just the air bag that saved Dr. Arms. He was driving a heavy full-sized car, a car with one of the best records for getting its occupants through a crash alive.

As automobile companies make cars lighter to make them more fuel-efficient, they are also making cars more dangerous. At first, the high cost of gasoline served to bring down the number of deaths on American highways-as the speed limit was lowered and the average car driven fewer miles. But today, the fragility of new, lighter cars has almost canceled out these benefits. In 1970, there were 55,000 deaths from motor-vehicle accidents in the U.S.; in 1975, after the Arab oil embargo, the number fell to 46,000; last year, it climbed back to 52,000. “We’re trading American blood for Arab oil,” says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

It’s possible to make a light car safe – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made one as an experiment, but it wasn’t cheap. In general, automakers, at the public’s behest, have exchanged safety for gasoline mileage. A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that all of the 10 most dangerous cars made between 1977 and 1979 were subcompacts, all but one (the Ford Mustang) were built in Japan. All of the 10 safest cars were made in the U.S.

and classed either as intermediate or full-sized; four were station wagons. The researchers studied accident claims for medical injuries incurred in 1977-79 car models in 20 states, and published the following:

10 Safest Cars

1. Oldsmobile Toronado two-door

2. Chrysler Newport four-door

3. Buick Estate station wagon

4. Oldsmobile Ninety Eight four-door

5. Mercury Cougar four-door

6. Oldsmobile Delta 88 four-door

7. Chevrolet Caprice station wagon

8. Lincoln Continental four-door

9. Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon

10. Chrysler LeBaron station wagon

10 Safest Subcompacts

1. AMC Pacer station wagon

2. Volkswagen Dasher station wagon

3. AMC Pacer two-door

4. Volkswagen Dasher two-door

5. Chevrolet Corvette

6. Chevrolet Monza station wagon

7. Datsun 510 station wagon

8. Mercury Bobcat station wagon

9. Volkswagen Rabbit two-door

10. Datsun 510 four-door

10. Most Dangerous Cars

1. Datsun 200 SX two-door

2. Plymouth Arrow two-door

3. Datsun F-10 two-door

4. Dodge Colt two-door

5. Mazda GLC

6. Dodge Colt four-door

7. Datsun F-10 station wagon

8. Datsun B-210

9. Ford Mustang two-door

10. Subaru DL two-door

That gas guzzlers turn out to be the safest cars should come as no surprise. Laws of physics dictate that when a big car hits a little car, the little car sustains more damage. During 1979, in crashes between large and small automobiles, occupants in the small ones were eight times more likely to die than those in large ones. And when a very big car, like a 17-foot-long Rolls-Royce Camargue, collides with a lightweight 12-foot Toyota Starlet, the Toyota driver is 10 times more likely to die than the Rolls-Royce driver. As one Rolls publicist crudely put it: “You can drive right through a Toyota without spilling a drink.”

But size isn’t the only factor in safety; design counts, too. Japanese cars performed worse than similar-sized American models because of their weak occupant “cages”-the shell of metal around the front and back seats. When, in another study, the NHTSA crash-tested the Chevy Chevette and Toyota Tercel (about the same weight), both front-ends crumbled on the outside, but the Chevette showed little intrusion in its interior. The Tercel was badly deformed: seats thrown against a twisted dash, steering wheel pushed back against driver, both doors jammed shut. In the test crash, at 35 mph, both the driver and the front-seat occupant in the Tercel would have been killed-even if they wore seatbelts. The two Chevette occupants would have survived.

Safety not only weighs more, it costs more. Almost all of the safest cars cost over $10,000. The Oldsmobile Toronado lists for $12,500, while the Cadillac Seville, which ranked best in a safety analysis by Consumers Union, costs more than $20,000. In general, the cheaper a car is, the more dangerous it is: There’s less metal in it.

To understand how important weight is, consider the federal study that found that a driver’s chance for serious injury rises 5 per cent for every 100-pound decrease in a car’s weight. In other words, if you just traded in your old 3400-pound 1979 Chevy Malibu wagon for a new fuel-efficient 2400-pound Chevy Citation, your chance of injury went up 50 per cent.

But finding a 4000-pound car may not be easy in a few years. As automakers shrink their cars to meet the government’s 1985 average fuel requirement of 27.5 mpg, the car’s safety will shrink too. At General Motors, engineers have already lopped 800 pounds off their luxury models since 1977 and anticipate that the average 1985 GM car will weigh about 2700 pounds. Corporate officials insist that “controlled crushability” features will balance out the dangers of lost weight.

Still, safety experts remain skeptical, estimating that the shrinking automobile could lead to an increase of 15,000 fatalities annually by 1990. Already, nationwide fatality studies show that Japanese subcompacts are three times more deadly than U.S. luxury cars. In North Carolina, the only state to compile accident rates by make and model since 1966, light cars by Toyota and Datsun were involved in three times as many serious accidents as hefty Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs.

The worst road hazard of all rarely figures into probability surveys: the driver. Accident rates reflect not only how a car is designed but also who is driving it. The fact that sporty Mazdas have four times the fatality rate of the conservative Mer-curys is probably due to the experience and conservative driving habits of the Mercury owner. This is hard to prove: The industry keeps its buyer profiles secret.

But consider the fatality rates of the Pontiac Firebird and Chevy Camaro. They’re corporate twins with identical chassis and body parts, but the Firebird’s fatality rate is 4.9 deaths per 10,000 cars while the Camaro’s is 3.5. A GM spokesman explained the difference: “The Firebird appeals to a predominantly male, Smokey and the Bandit-kind of driver; the Camaro more often attracts a female customer.”

“But suppose,” muses Dr. J.H. Engel, a statistician with the Department of Transportation’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “a little old lady drove a Datsun 280Z only to church on Sunday while a wild kid kept an old Rambler for dates on Saturday night. Which would have the better safety record? We don’t have enough data to make any perfect conclusions.”

Still, myths about car safety abound. Among them:

Myth 1: Small cars offer increased maneuverability to avoid accidents. While they may handle better, they don’t have lower accident rates: Subcompacts currently make up 38 per cent of the auto population but account for 55 per cent of the fatalities in two-car crashes. Says Ben Kelley, senior vice-president for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “A crash is an instantaneous event, and the ones that really do damage are often the ones you don’t see. This idea that maneuverability keeps people out of crashes is not supported by the data.”

Myth 2: In big cars, there’s enough metal so you don’t need seatbelts. The Insurance Institute found that shoulder-lap belts reduce the severity of front-end crashes involving big cars by 50 per cent. In that split second after impact, the car stops while the driver keeps going, colliding with glass or sharp edges. The NHTSA estimates that “about 60 per cent of the people killed or injured in car crashes would have been saved from serious harm if they had been wearing safety belts.” It’s safer to drive a small car with a seatbelt than a big car without one.

Myth 3: The roads would be safe if everyone drove small cars. Not necessarily. The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles found that severe injuries are just as likely to occur when two small cars collide as when a small car hits a large one. Says one traffic safety expert, “If you’re a fly, it doesn’t make much difference whether you’re hit with a three-ounce hammer or a 10-ounce hammer.”

Myth 4: All body styles are equally safe. Even excluding death traps like convertibles, the Highway Loss Data Institute found differences between various body styles of a single model. No one knows why, but four-door cars are linked to fewer accident injuries than two-door models. And station wagons are safest of all.

Myth 5: The newest cars on the market are the safest. The Department of Transportation reports that most recalls for safety-related defects occur in the first two years of a model’s production. As cars go through a shakedown period, the flawed bolts and bearings are discovered (often in accidents). Says one GM dealer, “If you’re really concerned about safety, you should just get a ’68 Cadillac and say to hell with the newer cars.”

Most motorists act blissfully unconcerned about auto safety -even though statistics show that, on the average, they’ll be in a serious accident once every 10 years. Since 1970, the use of seatbelts – the best crash protection you have -has steadily declined. Today, 89 per cent of Americans don’t buckle up.

Nor do automakers seem interested in reversing this trend. Since 1974, they have successfully fought government attempts to make mandatory the installation of automatic seatbelts or air bags in new cars. These are “passive restraints,” meaning that they protect the driver whether he likes it or not. The latest delay came in April when Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis announced another postponement, rescheduling the target date for 1983. Arguing in favor of the action, industry spokesmen adopted the gun lobbyists’ view: Cars don’t cause accidents; people do. They have a point.

Says R.T. Kingman, GM’s public relations director in Washington: “Next to acts of God, acts of drivers are what make the roads dangerous. If a person wants to write down all the things he can do to avoid injury, at the top of the list would be, ’don’t drink, use your seatbelt, pay attention to the road, and don’t tailgate.’ At the very bottom of the page would be, ’pick the safest car around.’ “

Auto-industry maverick John Z. De-Lorean agrees. “In general, roadways are improving, but drivers are not,” he wrote in The New York Times. He added that while the technology exists to cut highway deaths dramatically, “we have lacked the political courage to do it.” He suggested the installation of a device to combat drunk driving: When the driver turned the ignition key, the device displayed a random seven-digit number. “The driver was then given three chances to repeat this number on a simple keyboard like that on a pocket calculator. If in three tries he could not, the car was disabled for a brief period of time.” The device is ready to go now -and costs just $10 -but automakers won’t install it.

While it’s clear that a drunk driver can hurt people other than himself, it’s not clear that a driver who doesn’t wear a seatbelt is harming others. Some conservative theorists, including economist Milton Friedman, argue that the government has no business requiring the installation of passive safety systems like air bags or automatic seatbelts. They interfere with what DeLorean sarcastically calls “a person’s free right to kill himself.”

When a car traveling 30 mph plows into a solid barrier, two collisions take place. In the first tenth of a second, the car crumbles -the hood arches up, the doors buckle, the engine jams into the firewall. In the next fiftieth of a second, anyone in the front seat undergoes the second collision. Without a seatbelt, the occupants slam into the dashboard or windshield. With a seatbelt, well. . . that depends on the car.

In 1979, the NHTSA began comparing cars’ ability to protect occupants in front-end collisions. All cars are required by law to pass structural-integrity tests at 30 mph. But NHTSA’s 35 mph tests were designed to show which cars could exceed the minimum safety standards.

Using dummies belted into front seats, NHTSA crashed cars into concrete walls and recorded the impact. Vehicles were graded pass or fail on their ability to protect the driver and front-seat passenger as well as their ability to retain their structural integrity.

Overall, NHTSA’s crash tests confirm the findings of the Highway Loss Data Institute – that big cars provide more protection than small ones, and that American-made vehicles outperform their Japanese counterparts. Among subcompacts, the Chevy Chevette and Fiat Strada were deemed safe. Among compacts, the Ford Mustang,* Plymouth TC3, and Chevy Citation all passed. As usual, the Japanese cars came out looking like cracker boxes; every one scored badly in the NHTSA experiment.

With a pass/fail grading system, some cars squeaked by, providing some occupant protection, but failing one or more of the structural-integrity tests. When Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, evaluated the NHTSA results on a five-point scale, some of the passing vehicles were dropped in the rankings. The Ford Thunderbird, given passing marks for the occupant protection by the NHTSA evaluators, received the equivalent of a “D” and a “C” from Consumers Union engineers. The CU panelists concluded that, after three borderline readings involving the driver’s chest, head, and legs, “a severe or fatal injury [was] likely.”

The $20,000 Cadillac Seville was the only car to receive top scores in all categories. Other large and intermediate cars slipped by with mixed ratings -the Buick Riviera, Chrysler Cordoba, Olds Toro-nado, and Olds Cutlass Supreme. Weight wasn’t the only factor: Researchers report that some cars would have ranked significantly higher with minor seatbelt and steering improvements.

But what about the cars traditionally billed as safe-the Volvo, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz imports? When NHTSA ran its frontal tests on the Volvo 244 DL, Audi 4000, and Mercedes 240 D, all three models failed. The Volvo had weak seat-belts (they stretched); the Audi, a poorly designed roof (it buckled); the Mercedes, a superstrong front-end (it wouldn’t give). Without that crumbling metal up front, the Mercedes dummies inside absorbed the full force of the impact.

True, the NHTSA tests were experimental. Researchers ignored real-world conditions in which only one in 10 motorists wears seatbelts and four in 10 fatal accidents are caused by sideswipes, rollovers, and rear-enders. But the tests do mimic what happens when two cars of a similar size run head-on into each other. And when engineers rammed a 1980 Ford Mustang into a 1980 Toyota Celica, the dummies in the Mustang “survived”; those in the Japanese car “perished.”

Since NHTSA’s tests were completed last year, the published results have had a curious history. Joan Claybrook, the former NHTSA administrator who directed the investigation, praised Detroit and suggested the findings be used to blunt Japanese car sales in the U.S. When NHTSA published the results in a colorful booklet. The Car Book, 1.2 million copies were snapped up in a matter of months, creating a rare government best-seller.

But reactions from automakers -even those who did well – were cool. “By crashing only one car, the tests were misleading,” said Ford’s top safety expert. “Virtually worthless,” was how one legislative analyst from GM put it. Noted a Toyota dealer, “Somebody’s always taking shots at the number-one imports.”

In the end, no Detroit-backed campaign was mounted to cash in on the results. Safety engineers from both Ford and General Motors contended that any crash-test commercials would be yanked off the air by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising. (The FTC calls this excuse “nonsense.”) When a group of 200 New York City-area GM dealers launched an ad campaign extolling the passing marks given the Chevette, they ran into flak not from the FTC, but from GM.

The ad, picturing the demolished frontend of a Japanese-like import, showed an occupant being loaded into an ambulance above a headline: “But it got 43 mpg!” The copy further explained that Chevette passed the NHTSA tests while subcompact imports failed. Still, GM’s corporate brass didn’t appreciate the message. “Since we doubted the reliability and absoluteness of the NHTSA data,” says GM safety engineer Richard Humphrey, “we suggested they no longer use the GM logo or trademark.” The dealers’ campaign was killed.

In 1980, car manufacturers spent some $2 billion on advertising, singing the praises of status and style, performance and price, mileage and more mileage. What they didn’t mention was safety. In a month-long monitoring of radio and TV commercials, the word never once came up.

“Safety doesn’t sell” has long been a slogan of the automotive industry, and sales records seem to confirm that point. In 1956, Ford mounted the first marketing effort devoted to safety, hyping an array of protection devices for its full-sized models: lap belts, deep-dish steering wheels, padded dash and visors, and childproof latches. The public responded with a yawn. “That year,” recalls Ford technical information manager Robert Harnar, “our motto was, ’Ford sold safety and Chevrolet sold cars.’ “

Nearly 20 years later, GM ventured into safety marketing in a big way, offering air bags in all of its 1974-76 Cadillacs, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles. Factories were tooled up to install bags in 100,000 cars, but the public ordered only 10,000. So GM tried again in 1978, this time with self-fastening seatbelts in Chevettes. Out of a factory run of 35,000 vehicles, 8000 were outfitted with the automatic seatbelts. And GM had trouble unloading most of them. By 1980, the feature was discontinued.

Safety proponents say GM never actively promoted the system. Ben Kelley of the Insurance Institute notes that automakers are traditionally squeamish about discussing the accident performance of their cars. “There’s always been antipathy toward safety in ads for fear that it might be a negative to the buyer,” observes Kelley. “A crash is not a pretty sight, and there’s a school of thought that says, ’If we talk about crashes, the buyer will be turned off by our car.’ “

One certainty, says Kelley, is that motorists are turned off by unsafe cars. After the massive publicity about the 1971-76 Pinto fuel tank hazards, Pinto sales in 1978-79 dropped by 40 per cent. Kelley contends that safety becomes an industry concern only when the threat of a recall is raised, and in fact, few carmakers claim to be leaders in safety. As soon as the Department of Transportation relaxed its 1982 safety requirements, Ford, Mercedes, and Volvo dropped their previously announced plans for installing air bags in their luxury cars.

What could manufacturers do to make their cars safer? In 1977, NHTSA unveiled the state of the art-a Pacer-like vehicle that seats four, weighs 2500 pounds, gets 37 mpg on the highway and, most important, can withstand a 50 mph crash without causing its occupants serious injury. Estimated to cost $7000 when mass-produced (probably about $12,000 at today’s prices), the Research Safety Vehicle includes such features as anti-skid brakes, air bags that inflate automatically in lieu of seatbelts, and a radar braking system to forestall rear-end collisions. But today, four years after the car was introduced, none of its principal safety items have been incorporated into cars on the market.

In showrooms today, safety is the lowest priority in selling spiels. When a Manhattan auto salesman was asked why the Fiat Strada that he was showing off did so well in NHTSA tests, he shrugged, “I frankly have no idea.” When Paul Hoff-master, new-cars manager of a Washington-area Datsun dealership, was asked how he responds to customer queries about auto safety, he said, “It just doesn’t happen very often. Most people are concerned with good gas mileage-and that’s all.”

It is possible to find a variety of cars whose safety is assured in crashes up to 30 mph. But to discover the handful of cars that offer protection beyond minimum standards takes digging. From the Center for Auto Safety, director Clarence Ditlow also offers some safety guidelines for new-car purchasers. The next time you shop, he says, look for vehicles with these characteristics:

-A big, roomy interior to give youmore survival space in a crash. Volvo,Mercedes, and Saab have excellent paddedpassenger compartments.

-A gas tank positioned forward of therear axle so it won’t explode in a rear-endcollision. Dodge Omni, Plymouth Horizon, Audi 5000, and BMW all fit thiscategory.

-A well-fitting seatbelt that won’t cutacross your neck uncomfortably. NHTSAfound relatively few seatbelt problemswith the Cadillac DeVille, Buick Electra,and Mercedes 300 D.

-A lack of sharp edges or hard surfacesin the front seat to cut down on injuriesafter an accident.

-Rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes for handling.

-Yellow or lime-green paint jobs,which are more visible than colors like redor orange at night.

Someday, you may not have to be a detective to find a safe car. If NHTSA has its way, automakers will be required to announce the crash-worthiness ratings of their new cars, much as they do their mpg scores. But for now, car safety is mostly a gamble. And what you don’t know can hurt you.

One way to reduce the risk of driving into an accident is to keep your car in good condition. Studies show that aging, unser-viced vehicles are involved in three times as many accidents as newer, well-maintained ones.

In recent years, there’s been an alarming rise in the number of run-down and dangerous cars on the road. The problem is money. The rising cost of new cars forces motorists to budget dollars for purchase payments rather than car care-and to keep their old cars on the road longer. Higher gas prices send motorists to self-service pumps, limiting the regular checkups formerly made by station attendants.

“We’re noticing an increase in locked transmissions, bald tires, and burnt-out engines that ran out of oil,” says the vice-president of a Chevrolet dealership. “The problem is that mechanics no longer come out to say, ’Gee, you’ve got a low left-front tire.’ And few motorists don’t even bother to check the oil anymore or whether the brake or transmission fluid is low. This is what causes accidents.”

Roland Williams, a Ford service manager, recommends steering and brake servicing every 12,000 miles. Toyota dealer Dave Navratil says commuters in heavy stop-and-go traffic would be wise to have brakes examined every 7000 miles.

Steering and braking systems are your car’s most important safety features, but checking wheel alignment, tire tread, transmission and radiator fluids, the horn – even the defroster-can be crucial to avoiding accidents.

“People never think about defrosters,” says Archie Richardson, president of the Automobile Owners Action Council, “but you might be in a Georgia rainstorm on the way to Florida in the middle of summer when the window starts to steam and you can’t see 10 feet in front of you. If the defroster doesn’t work, you’d better pull off the road or you’re going to kill somebody.”

Richardson advises finding expert help. The web of pollution-emission controls might turn anything more serious than an oil change into a mechanical disaster if you try to do it yourself. “There’s no way most people can get into their steering box or take off their wheels to clean and sand the brakes,” says Richardson. “You need special equipment.”

Still, motorists can run their own simple safety checks. The American Automobile Association offers these tips:

Steering. Any play in the steering can indicate a serious hazard. Two inches or more of play in a manual system should be checked right away. If you have power steering, listen for crackling or crunching noises when you round corners or park the car. Other signs of steering problems: front-end shimmying or wobbling.

Brakes. The first sign of brake trouble may be having to press down farther to bring your car to a stop. Or your car may pull to one side. Or the brakes may suddenly “grab” as you press down, or squeal or pull unevenly. If your pedal pressure isn’t firm and well above the floor, either the brake adjustment isn’t working or you’ve lost some brake fluid.

Wheel alignment. Tires can tell you a lot about t he condition of the alignment and suspension systems. Heavy tread wear on one side of a tire shows you need front-end alignment. Flat spots in the tread show that the tires need to be balanced. In addition, a vibration in the steering wheel may mean a wheel-balancing problem.

Tires. New tires have grooves 11/32 of an inch deep, and if your tread is less than 2/32 of an inch, you need a new tire. A home test for measuring tire tread can be done with a penny. If the tread doesn’t cover at least part of Lincoln’s head, you are riding on dangerously thin tread.

There’s another incentive for having your safety maintenance done by a dealership: recalls. Lawsuits from accidents have been the main reason for the recall of 86 million cars found to have safety-related defects. And if you’re not up on the latest notices, a dealer can tell if your model has been cited for traveling with a faulty accelerator cable or a cracked rear-window defogger. Such repairs are made at no cost.

For further information about whether your car’s been recalled, phone the Auto Safety Hotline of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at (202) 426-0123.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to make your risky subcompact a safer car besides wearing your seatbelt. And if you have a car with only a lap belt, a dealer can usually add a shoulder belt for extra protection.

So why not drive a Mack truck? Not abad idea. In collisions between interstatetrucks and other vehicles, only one truckerdied for every 38 auto ocupants. It’s agood idea to have your seatbelt checkedevery three or four years to make sure itwill still do the job in the event of a crash.And make sure you have the seatbeltsreplaced after an accident; they’re goodfor one major jolt – no more.

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