- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

When it comes to cars and trucks, sometimes what consumers don’t know can kill them.

As automakers roll out their 2006 model lines, two safety systems — air curtains and electronic stability control — are becoming more prevalent as standard equipment on moderately priced vehicles. But as these safety features are becoming more accessible to those with more modest budgets, the question is: Do consumers care?

Maybe not so much, if a recent online Consumer Reports survey of almost 7,000 consumers is representative of the broader public. That survey found that consumers are more hooked on entertainment and comfort and convenience items than they are on safety features.

The only safety feature that made the survey’s top 10 was anti-lock brakes. Consumers ranked CD players, cruise control and power outside mirrors as more important than electronic stability control or air curtains.

Air curtains are low-pressure air bags usually mounted in the roof that deploy downward in a crash to cover the front and rear side windows to try to prevent head injuries.

Electronic stability control tries to correct skids. It is important to have on sport utility vehicles because sliding sideways can cause these top-heavy vehicles with their high centers of gravity to “trip” on a curb or soft earth and then roll over.

While these safety features are not unusual to find on premium and luxury vehicles, last year Honda announced it would make advanced safety features, such as air curtains and electronic stability control, standard equipment on its mainstream Honda and Acura cars and trucks before the end of 2006.

More recently the Korean automakers have started using safety to sell their products.

Hyundai Motor Co. announced that the 2006 Sonata sedan, which starts at $18,495 (including the destination charge), would have air curtains and electronic stability control as standard equipment. Hyundai executives have said that all new Hyundai models will come with head air curtains, including its least expensive model, the Accent. In addition to the new Sonata, electronic stability control will be standard equipment on the new Azera sedan, a new minivan and a redesigned Santa Fe.

Kia’s all-new Rio features six standard air bags, including air curtains. And Hyundai-owned Kia Corp. announced that its entire vehicle line will have air curtains by the end of this year.

The Big Three are making air curtains available, but often as optional equipment for which they are charging extra.

The Big Three have been concentrating more on electronic stability control, which makes sense because they sell a tremendous number of sport utility vehicles, have a greater propensity to roll over.

Real-world results of crash tests and studies done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have shown the effectiveness of these technologies.

An IIHS study showed that all single-vehicle crashes, those that result in deaths and those that don’t, could be reduced by 40 percent by equipping vehicles with electronic stability control. A single-vehicle crash is one in which the driver loses control of the vehicle.

In vehicles equipped with electronic stability control, a NHTSA study reported a 35 percent reduction in the risk of all single-vehicle crashes (fatal and non-fatal) for cars and a 67 percent drop for sport utilities.

Air curtains make a major difference, too. An IIHS study showed that this protection in a side impact reduces the risk of dying by about 45 percent.

Speculating on the survey’s meaning, Consumer Reports’ Rob Gentile said: “When consumers choose what they think is a safe vehicle, maybe they think they’ve done their job and don’t have to worry about equipping it for safety. In other cases they may not be aware of how important these safety technologies are.”

In the past, Consumer Reports had emphasized choosing a car with a good track record for safety, Mr. Gentile said. “But over the last few years we’ve tried to say don’t stop there. Look at the equipment. I think it’ll happen over time.”

The survey did hint that consumers may be moving in that direction when asked which features they wanted in their next vehicle. While only 16 percent of people responding had electronic stability control, 35 percent want it in the future. Only 10 percent had air curtains, but 50 percent want them.

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