Automakers Discover That Passenger Safety Sells

CAROL GLASER was doggedly trudging from one car display to another, making careful notes. There were certainly enough cars to choose from at the annual Detroit auto show earlier this month, with glamorous fashion models, flashy murals, and slick brochures trumpeting the features of this year's newest from Detroit, Japan, and Europe. But the Ann Arbor housewife said she was ignoring the features the auto industry has normally used to sell cars: hot new styles, bigger engines, and power controls.

Instead, said Mrs. Glaser, ``Being the mother of two young children, what I really worry about in a new car is safety.''

That's the same sentiment motivating a lot of new car buyers these days, confounding the age-old auto industry adage that ``safety doesn't sell.'' For 1991, automakers have made an important discovery, says Jack Gillis, whose annual Car Book rates the safety of virtually every vehicle on the road.

``They have finally realized that consumers are concerned about safety,'' Mr. Gillis says. ``Those companies that emphasize safety are far better off in the current [market] climate.''

Confirms Chrysler Corporation president Robert Lutz, ``A consumer won't buy an ugly car just because it's safe, but safety is definitely saleable.''

Federal law requires that all passenger cars come equipped with some form of passive restraint for front-seat occupants. While airbags have been a standard feature on most European luxury imports for several years, United States and Japanese automakers initially opted for less expensive passive seatbelts. But Chrysler broke rank, offering more expensive - and, safety experts believe, more effective - airbags.

``Chrysler has definitely set the agenda,'' says Gillis. Other manufacturers have been rushing to follow its lead. Every month, more and more models are switching over to airbags. By the mid-1990s, they should be available as either an option or standard feature on virtually every car on the road.

Meanwhile, as production costs plunge, experts say antiskid brake systems (ABS) will also become an industry norm by mid-decade. ABS works much like a skilled driver, rapidly pumping the brakes if the tires slip on a wet or icy road, virtually eliminating skids and slides. ABS is already available as an option or standard feature on a variety of vehicles ranging from the plush Mercedes-Benz 500SL to General Motors Corporation's more utilitarian Saturn.

Another safety feature beginning to show up on some models is dubbed Traction Control. There are several variations of this concept. One version is similar to ABS, but it rapidly pumps the brakes to prevent a car's wheels from spinning while accelerating, rather than stopping on a slick surface. With a second version, the on-board computer will actually override the gas pedal, slowing the engine down momentarily until traction is regained. Several cars, such as Mitsubishi's new Diamante, combine both versions.

IN the months to come, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to hand down several major new safety regulations. One will force carmakers to improve the way their products protect passengers in side-impact collisions. Another set of new rules will affect light trucks, such as minivans and sport-utility vehicles. Even though they have become the vehicles of choice for many young families, light trucks don't have to meet many passenger car safety standards, such as the passive restraint standard.

This is one area where public demand could precede federal rules. Chrysler has just introduced an airbag option for its popular minivans, and other manufacturers are expected to follow.

In the past, the auto industry has frequently resisted new government safety standards, but with the current mood among consumers, such opposition has softened. In fact, some manufacturers are actively trying to exceed federal safety standards.

BMW and Audi both have developed seatbelt systems which tighten up automatically in the event of a crash. Reducing belt slack and pulling the passenger back into the seat can minimize injuries.

While Gillis says ``Cars are safer than they've ever been,'' everyone agrees the search for safer cars is going to continue.

At the Detroit auto show, Pontiac showed off a concept car that uses a rear-mounted video camera to improve visibility compared with a conventional rear-view mirror. Other prototypes use infrared vision systems to cut through fog or heavy rain, projecting clear images of the roadway on the windshield.

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