Why Your Car May Be Less Safe Than You Thought

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The 2014 Nissan Altima sedan is pretty much the same as the 2013 model, with one notable exception: It will no longer receive top marks from an influential safety-ranking organization.

That’s not because there’s anything wrong with the Altima. It’s because the safety group, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has raised the standards cars must meet to earn a “top safety pick +,” the institute’s highest score. The 2013 Altima earned that score, allowing Nissan to tout the designation in ads. The 2014 Altima that’s on sale now merely earns a “top safety pick” (without the +), lowering it to the institute’s second safety tier.

Here’s what changed: Starting with the 2014 model year, IIHS requires cars earning its top score to come with costly new “crash-prevention technology” as standard or optional equipment. The technology includes sensors and software that can tell if vehicles in front or back are too close, then sound an alert warning the driver. Some systems even activate automated braking, which will slow the car when there’s a risk of collision with no driver involvement at all.

Gee-whiz technology

Such gee-whiz technology, however, is relatively new and still more common on expensive luxury makes than on more-affordable vehicles. When offered as an option — which is good enough to qualify for the top IIHS ranking — it may be so expensive that few buyers will purchase it. That could leave some buyers checking out safety rankings wondering how a car’s  rating could decline from one year to the next.

The IIHS change, for example, has bumped half-a-dozen vehicles down a notch on the group’s rankings, while a new crash test IIHS began performing last year has knocked dozens of vehicles out of the group’s second safety tier. Overall, 130 models earned one of the top two scores in 2013; in 2014 only 39 models will qualify.

IIHS, a nonprofit funded by the insurance industry, is known for aggressively pushing new safety technology and issuing poor scores to browbeat automakers into following its standards. It usually works. In 2009, for instance, the group began testing the roof strength of vehicles, which affects crashworthiness in a rollover. Popular models such as the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V earned a “marginal” rating, while the Kia Sportage was “poor.” As those vehicles came due for redesigns, engineers made sure they performed better on the roof test, and all three now earn a “good” rating, the highest in that category.

Automakers sometimes complain when a car’s IIHS ranking is downgraded, with no actual change to the car itself. And they point out that the IIHS is motivated, at least in part, by insurance-industry efforts to save money on claims for crashes. Still, improvements in auto safety obviously benefit everybody, and the gains have been considerable. The motor-vehicle fatality rate ticked up in 2012, but it’s still close to the lowest level on record. A push for better safety systems is part of the reason, along with broader seat-belt use, better awareness of the risks of drunk driving and lighter, more-efficient vehicles that cause less damage in a crash.

Punishing automakers

The new technology IIHS is pushing is in the vanguard of automated systems that may someday lead to driverless cars. But for now, the upgraded ranking requirements indirectly punish automakers that don’t yet offer technology few drivers are willing to pay for anyway. In addition to the Altima, other cars losing the top IIHS designation include the Volkswagen Passat, Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Kia Optima and Acura TL. Yet all those models score well in other IIHS tests and in government crash tests.

About half the vehicles earning the top score for 2014 have a starting price above $25,000, including several luxury makes such as the Infiniti Q50 and the Volvo S60 and S80. On cheaper cars, the crash-avoidance technology is typically an expensive option. The cheapest Honda Accord starts at about $22,000, for instance, but to get one equipped with collision-avoidance technology you have to spend at least $28,000. The Mazda 3 starts at about $17,000, yet to get the technology IIHS favors, you have to first choose the costliest trim line, then add a $2,600 option package bringing the total to nearly $30,000.

Studies show collision-avoidance systems do improve safety, but other evidence shows many car buyers would rather spend extra for performance, convenience or entertainment options than for safety gear. IIHS clearly hopes to persuade more automakers to offer the latest safety gizmos, which might bring down the price, making it more appealing to buyers. Until then, buyers focusing on safety rankings may have to ask themselves if average is good enough.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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