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Auto Safety Starts in the Showroom

Auto safety is not limited to defensive driving on the road. Purchasing a safe vehicle can reduce accidents and injuries. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety recommends looking for the following safety factors when choosing your next vehicle:

Vehicle structural design is the starting point for protecting you in a serious crash. A good structural design should have a strong occupant compartment, or safety cage, and front and rear ends designed to buckle and bend in serious crashes to absorb crash forces. It's important for these crush zones to keep damage away from the safety cage because, once this cage begins to collapse, the likelihood of injury increases rapidly. If it's effectively designed, a longer crush zone lowers both the likelihood of damage to the occupant compartment and the crash forces inside it.

Vehicle size and weight are important characteristics that influence crashworthiness. The laws of physics dictate that, all-else being equal, larger and heavier vehicles are safer than smaller and lighter ones. In relation to their numbers on the road, small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars.

Restraint systems - used in combination, they provide maximum safety. Look for belts that have shoulder strap adjustments to accommodate people of varying heights. Lap belts should fit low and snug across the pelvis.

Head restraints are required in the front seats of all new passenger vehicles to keep your head from snapping back, injuring your neck in a rear-end crash. But all head restraints aren't the same. Some are adjustable while others are fixed. Head restraints also vary in height and how far they're set back from the head. To prevent neck injury, a head restraint has to be directly behind and close to the back of your head. Make sure the ones in a car you're considering for purchase can be positioned this way. And if the restraints are adjustable, make sure they lock when adjusted. Some don't, which means they could be pushed down in a crash.

Crash Avoidance Shopping for a vehicle with features intended to prevent crashes in the first place may seem as important as looking for vehicle features to protect you when a crash occurs. Basic crash avoidance features like brakes, lights, and turn signals are essential, but few of the more advanced features promoted for crash avoidance have demonstrated they reduce crashes. Automakers may tout features like traction control and four-wheel-drive to avoid crashes, and these may indeed improve performance on certain road conditions. But they have more to do with enhanced performance, faster starts, and cornering than with safety. There's no evidence they prevent crashes.

Anti-lock brakes now are widely available features. When a driver brakes hard with conventional brakes, the wheels may lock and cause skidding, loss of control, and long stopping distances on wet or slippery roads. Anti-lock pump brakes automatically, many times a second, to prevent lockup and enable a driver to maintain steering control. This also can mean substantially shorter stopping distances on wet and slippery roads but not on dry road.

Daytime running lights, activated by the ignition switch, typically are high-beam headlights at reduced intensity or low-beam headlights at full or reduced power. By increasing the contrast between vehicles and their backgrounds, making the vehicles more visible to oncoming drivers, these lights can prevent some other vehicles from running into you during the day.

For more information, visit the web site of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at www.iihs.org.

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