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IIHS lists the safest cars of 2013 – with a new twist

Nick DiUlio

Here’s a well-known fact that we don’t often like to think about: Cars sometimes crash. That’s why when it comes to buying a new vehicle, safety often is more important to consumers than anything else (not to mention the wonders it does for insurance rates).

The nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has made it easy for drivers to gauge a vehicle’s safety by compiling its 2003 list of the safest new vehicles. But this time the rankings, come with an extra feature.

In addition to releasing its Top Safety Picks of 2013, the IIHS has added a new wrinkle to the list. It’s called the Top Safety Pick+ award. Experts say it’s probably going to have a serious effect on the auto industry and the way people shop for cars.

The rankings

With the Top Safety Pick+ award, the IIHS now rates cars as good, acceptable, marginal or poor in five categories: 

• Moderate overlap frontal crash (where 40 percent of the vehicle hits a barrier 2 feet tall).
• Small overlap frontal crash (which duplicates what happens when a vehicle strikes a tree, light pole or other vehicle with its front corner).
• Side impact and rollover.
• Supplemental evaluations of its seats (which determines how well car seats hold up in a crash).
• Head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

To qualify for its new Top Safety Pick+ status, a vehicle must receive “good” ratings in at least four of the five evaluations and can have no less than an “acceptable” grade in the remaining test.

So far, the IIHS has tested 29 different 2013 vehicle models with its new small overlap test and awarded the Top Safety Pick+ accolade to 13 of them. The winners were:

• Acura TL.
• Dodge Avenger and its twin, the Chrysler 200 four-door.
• Ford Fusion.
• Honda Accord two-door.
• Honda Accord four-door.
• Kia Optima.
• Nissan Altima four-door.
• Subaru Legacy and its twin, the Subaru Outback.
• Suzuki Kizashi.
• Volkswagen Passat.
• Volvo S60.

These models are all midsize, moderately priced cars, with the exception of the Acura TL and Volvo S60, which are considered midsize luxury cars.

Why the changes?

The update to the IIHS crash test regimen was first introduced in mid-2012, when the IIHS added the small overlap frontal-crash test to the four it already was using.

In the test, 25 percent of a car’s driver-side front end strikes a 5-foot-tall barrier at 40 miles per hour. A crash-test dummy representing the body of an average adult man is belted in the driver’s seat. It’s a more through and demanding test than ever has been performed on new vehicles.

According to Carroll Lachnicht, features editor of the automotive website, the IIHS is the first organization in the world to carry out this test in evaluating crash safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not include the test in the federal government’s five-star safety rating system, although Lachnicht and others expect it to be added in the near future.

The goal, Lachnicht says, is to further reduce the death toll from this particular kind of frontal crash. According to the IIHS, about 10,000 people a year die in frontal crashes of all types. What’s more, small frontal overlap crashes may account for nearly one-fourth of the frontal crashes that result in serious or fatal injuries to drivers and front-seat passengers. That’s because this part of a vehicle isn’t well protected by existing crush-zone structures (or crumple zones) meant to absorb the energy from impacts.

“I think (this test) goes a long way toward what carmakers and the IIHS are constantly trying to do, which is make cars safer for everyone,” Lachnicht says.

What’s new?

According to IIHS President Eric Lund, the new test has prompted automakers to improve designs to better protect passengers in small overlap crashes.

According to the IIHS, Honda engineered both versions of the Accord to do well in the test. Ford and Nissan made structural changes to 2013 models already in production. And Subaru and Volkswagen changed air bag control modules on the production line so side curtain air bags would deploy for improved head protection.

Safer car = cheaper insurance

Generally speaking, car insurance is going to be cheaper if you’re driving a safer car. But, California insurance agent Jeremy Schaedler says, there are exceptions.

“A vehicle being listed as a Top Safety Pick may only be telling only one side of the story when it comes to insurance rates,” Schaedler says. “Many vehicles that are very safe for its passengers are also very dangerous to other vehicles on the road in the event of an accident — think large SUVs.” 

The opposite often holds true for small cars, Schaedler says. Insurance rates are determined, in part, by how much damage a vehicle may sustain in a crash.

“Because of these trade-offs, it would be very difficult to assume vehicles that are historically safe for passengers would also have lower overall insurance rates as a rule of thumb,” Schaedler says.

However, car insurers pay close attention to safety rankings like the ones compiled by the IIHS, says Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania.

Lynch says many factors go into setting someone’s car insurance premium, including the age of the driver, annual miles driven, and the make and model of the vehicle. These factors are compiled into something called an insurance symbol manual. These symbols are used by insurers to set premiums for coverage on specific vehicles and drivers.

Safety lists like those produced by the IIHS eventually will be incorporated into the symbol manuals, Lynch says.

“If you’re driving a safer, lower symbol car and you have a great driving record, you will benefit from the most favorable rates and, therefore, lower premiums,” Lynch says. “Bottom line — a Corvette in the hands of a young person is now, and always will be, a bad idea and cost-prohibitive.”


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