WASHINGTON — CAN you buy a strong, safe car, and still protect the environment? Yes, say safety experts. But you must know what to look for.
Jerry Ralph Curry, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, prefers bigger, heftier cars for safety reasons. The bigger, the better. But General Curry says that several recent automobile refinements can make even smaller, high-mileage cars somewhat safer than they used to be.
Curry puts air bags at the top of his safety shopping list. When choosing between two cars of equal size and quality, Curry says he would automatically take the one with an air bag.
By Sept. 1, 1993, federal law will require that every auto be equipped with either an air bag or automatic seat belts. Most manufacturers are expected to install air bags by that time for both the driver and the front-seat passenger. Meanwhile, some automakers, such as Chrysler, have rushed to get air bags into their cars long before the deadline.
Priority No. 2 would be antilock brakes. "You don't get the fishtailing with antilock brakes," which means better steering control, he explains.
Next on Curry's buying agenda would be traction control, if it's within your budget.
"That's a problem because traction control comes on cars like BMWs and Mercedes - that's pretty expensive stuff," Curry notes. "But if you can afford it, you'd want that."
Even with new safety improvements, however, there is a tug-of-war between safety and protecting the environment, experts say. Big cars, which burn more fuel, also offer more crash protection to passengers in almost every accident. For that reason, Curry resists congressional efforts, like the Bryan bill, that would require automakers to shrink cars to improve efficiency.
But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, says that more careful shopping by car buyers could boost fuel economy and still protect the environment without sacrificing safety.
He explains: The average new car currently sold in the United States gets 27.8 miles per gallon. But if buyers always purchased the most fuel efficient model in each weight class, the average would immediately rise to 34.4 m.p.g. That could be done with no decrease at all in the size or safety of today's cars, he says.
However, Curry gives safety, not fuel economy, his top priority. He personally drives a Lincoln Town Car - weight, two tons.