Action shot during IIHS side impact crash test
Action shot during IIHS side impact crash test. Click image to enlarge

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By Paul Williams

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Search for Safety

Most traffic accidents are fairly harmless. They cause aggravation and inconvenience, but usually the main victim of these “fender benders” is your bank account. Unfortunately, not all car crashes are as benign. Sometimes events go very wrong, very fast, becoming literally a matter of life and death.

We see and hear examples of this in the news everyday. “A family killed…”, “two children die…”, “a mother loses her life,” and sometimes we see first-hand the results of serious collisions on highways and at intersections. While parading slowly by, we hope such a thing never happens to us. But eventually the images fade.

Until we’re looking for a new vehicle, that is. Then safety becomes a key factor in the decision-making process (below style and performance, it must be said, but key nonetheless). This concern lead to a question recently posed to me by a new parent shopping for a car: “What,” she asked, “are the safest vehicles on the road?”

The question isn’t as easy to answer as you may think, because it depends on what you mean by safety. If you mean “crashworthy,” then the bigger the vehicle, the better. A large SUV like a Chevrolet Suburban comes to mind. It’s a big, solid truck, and if someone drives into your Suburban, especially in a lower-speed collision, chances are that you’ll be okay.

By this measure, big SUVs should be at the top of the safety list.

Action shot during IIHS side impact crash test
Action shot during IIHS side impact crash test. Click image to enlarge

Then again, SUVs and trucks are notoriously poor handlers, especially in winter. How many times have you seen a row of SUVs in the ditch during a severe winter storm? Even with the latest roll mitigation technology and electronic stability systems, the formidable mass of these vehicles makes them a handful to control, especially in emergency situations or when road conditions are poor. And they take much longer to stop than a car.

In comparison, a small car is much easier to manage, and is arguably safer. A smaller car has less mass, is nimbler, and communicates the road surface to the driver more directly. In an emergency it can change directions more readily than a larger vehicle, and consequently is less likely to overpower the driver. It’ll stop faster, too.

So by this measure, small cars should join big SUVs at the top of the safety list.

You may also think that an expensive car would be safer, and you’d be right, especially when you consider the vast range of safety equipment typically fitted to vehicles in this category. Luxury cars from makers like Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Lexus are packed with the latest engineering and technical wizardry to both protect the vehicle’s occupants and optimize driving dynamics (accelerating, turning, and stopping).

Some luxury models will even stop themselves if their sensors detect other vehicles getting too close, or they’ll sound an alert if they detect that the driver is “nodding off.” And they could have technology to prevent the vehicle getting pushed off the road in a strong crosswind.

These features are surely desirable, so expensive cars should also be high on the safety list. (But don’t forget that Princess Diana died in a big, advanced, expensive Mercedes-Benz, quite likely because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.)

View after IIHS side impact crash test (doors removed)
View after IIHS side impact crash test (doors removed)
View after IIHS side impact crash test (doors removed); Kia Soul (top) and Volvo XC60. Click image to enlarge

Obviously, safety is a multi-faceted dimension of car manufacture, with different makes and types of vehicles offering certain safety benefits and penalties, depending on the situation. What is needed is a set of objective tests against which all vehicles can be compared.

Canada doesn’t operate its own comparative testing program that covers all vehicles on our roads, but automakers and government agencies do commonly cite the results from two testing agencies in the United States. These are the private-sector Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and the U.S. federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). (The NHTSA is part of the International New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).)

All manufacturers are keen to have their vehicles do well in tests from these agencies, and are very quick to include good test results in their advertising to consumers. In fact, it’s correct to say that manufacturers actually design vehicles to do well in testing from the IIHS and NHTSA, such is the negative impact of a poor result from these bodies. By this measure, these are very influential organizations, and although they do focus on crash resistance, they are moving to incorporate more “handling” and “technology,” in their assessments.

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