Safety gadgets on cars help cut fatalities on the nation's roads

Seat belts, airbags, and fewer drunk drivers keep deaths down. Worry persists about SUVs and motorcycles.

For all the news about SUV rollovers, America's roads are actually getting safer.

And behind that news - issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency this week - lies a tale of progress in everything from seat belt use and breathalizers to "softer" car designs.

For the first time since government tracking began in 1966, the traffic fatality rate dropped below 1.5 deaths per 100 million miles traveled on US roads. Even as more people drove more miles, the number of people killed in car accidents dropped by 342 to 42,643 in 2003.

The progress comes at a time of consumer ambivalence, with many drivers mindful of safety features but not eager to pay more money for them. The safety agency credits the decline in fatalities to greater use of seat belts, fewer drunk drivers, and improved car designs - including growing use of airbags and "crumple zones." Every state except New Hampshire now requires seat belts.

"It's very difficult to move this huge needle," says NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson. "And this is a big reduction."

In fact, it is so difficult to achieve a drop in overall highway fatalities in the face of increased driving and a greater use of less stable vehicles that some experts are doubtful. After reviewing the report on a flight back from California, Clarence Ditlow concluded "This agency is cooking the numbers to make it look like they've accomplished something" before an election, says the director of the Center for Automotive Safety, a private agency founded by Ralph Nader.

Whether that's the case most experts agree that cars have been getting safer.

Woe to the automaker that develops a bad safety rap; there's no faster way to turn buyers away in droves, says Wes Brown, a partner at Iceology, an automotive market-research firm in Los Angeles.

Car buyers often show a reluctance to pay extra for safety features, he says. But increasingly they want those features included, and rank safety as very important in surveys.

"It's become a price of entry in the car market," says Mr. Brown. "If you don't have side airbags, head airbags, traction control, people won't shop you." That's particularly true with luxury cars, though more economy cars are starting to offer such features at least as options.

So the signs of consumers giving safety short shrift in marketing studies may suggest they take it for granted, rather than being uninterested.

Role of federal mandates, testing

Since the federal government started mandating safety devices such as seat belts, shatterproof windshields, padded dashboards, and collapsible steering columns in cars in 1968, the playing field has leveled somewhat between cars with advanced safety features and more basic models. In 1996, for example, front airbags became mandatory.

Since then, most advances have come through public education campaigns and tougher law enforcement. As drunk driving laws got tighter and enforcement tougher, public education campaigns made turned drunk driving into a social taboo. Similarly, laws requiring passengers to wear seat belts debuted amid statistics trumpeting their value.

Government testing and ratings systems took this approach one step further. When Mercedes-Benz introduced a car body designed with "crumple zones" that cushioned an impact's blow to passengers in 1963, the company enjoyed a reputation for unparalleled safety.

After NHTSA began crash-testing cars by slinging them into a concrete barrier at 30 miles per hour and publishing the results, crumple zones quickly spread throughout the industry. Now the only cars on the road built without such a safety structure are large SUVs and pickups.

The agency duplicated the approach in 1997, after finding that SUVs were much more prone to dangerous rollovers than cars and that more of them were being sold to families as replacements for cars. Instead of testing, NHTSA published star ratings based on a mathematical formula taken from a vehicle's width (at the wheels) and its center of gravity. The findings published this week represent the first time the agency has added testing to its formula and published the results as a probability of rollover in a single-car accident. On average, SUVs are twice as likely to roll as other cars. Some of the most popular SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer and Escape fared the worst.

Airbags inflate, and proliferate

Competition, led by a few automakers with a reputation for safety to uphold - and a few with poor reputations to overcome - has spread the safety focus throughout the industry. Airbags proliferated throughout the interiors of luxury cars, turning interiors into padded rooms after an accident, says Patty McConnell, owner of Old Dominion CARSTAR Collision Center, in Eugene, Ore. While only two front airbags are mandatory, many cars also have two side-airbags in the front seats, two side-airbags in the back, and head-curtain airbags over the side windows.

While SUVs have been getting safer over the past few years, they are also getting more popular, limiting the nation's overall safety gains. Also limiting overall safety improvements was an increase in motorcycle sales and a 12 percent increase in motorcycle deaths in 2003.

SUV buyers still feel safe. "You can't over come the laws of physics and mass," reasons Rich Sampson, a Chevy Suburban owner in Winchester, Mass. "If somebody hits me ... I'm going to be better off."

The next hurdles to jump

Even with accident rates down, there are still improvements to be made. "We're not there yet until the level is zero," says Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for NHTSA.

NHTSA's next priority is minimizing the damage SUVs and trucks cause to smaller cars in accidents between the two, known as "crash compatibility." This will involve doing more focused testing of side crashes, installing head-curtain airbags in more small cars, and rounding off and softening the stiff upright grilles of SUVs and trucks.

Many of these changes will dovetail with new European regulations designed to benefit those who aren't even in the car - pedestrians. Hoods designed to absorb pedestrian impacts will debut in some 2005 models in the US. And in Europe, some cars will even have exterior airbags.

One area that hasn't caught lawmakers' glare is driver skills, though driving enthusiasts have steadily urged behind-the-wheel clinics and stricter testing.

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