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More Vehicles Make Top Marks on Safety

There are numbers in safety.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported Tuesday that 72 vehicles for the 2009 model year received its top rating for protecting occupants in a crash. The total is more than double the number of vehicles named "top safety picks" last year. And a similar report for the 2007 model year included just 13 top-rated vehicles.

With so many cars performing well in crash tests, the Insurance Institute, a research group funded by the insurance industry, says it is looking for ways to make its tests more difficult.

For consumers, the longer list of top-rated vehicles means buyers have a wider range of choices. Indeed, the group says this is the first time every category of vehicle except one has been represented by at least one top-rated model. The only exception was the micro-car category, which the group created to accommodate the tiny two-seat Smart Fortwo. But the Smart narrowly missed getting top marks because its seats and head restraints provided inadequate protection.

Ford Motor Co. and its Volvo unit combined for 16 vehicles in the top-rated group. Honda Motor Co. and its Acura luxury division had 13. The Honda Fit was the first vehicle in the minicar category to be a top pick. Volkswagen AG and its Audi unit had nine models on the list, General Motors Corp. had eight, as did Toyota Motor Corp. and its Scion unit. Subaru, a unit of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., had four, as did Hyundai Motor Co. and its Kia unit. (For the full report, go to www.iihs.org.)

To receive the top rating, vehicles have to be available with electronic stability control and get a top score of "good" in front-, side- and rear-impact crash tests. Possible ratings in each category include good, acceptable, marginal and poor. They must also offer electronic stability control, either as standard or optional equipment.

Stability control uses sensors to detect when a vehicle is traveling away from its driver's intended path. Typically, the system manipulates the brakes and throttle to restore traction, slow the vehicle and help the driver regain control. According to the Insurance Institute, electronic stability control cuts the risk of a fatal single-vehicle accident in half and lowers the risk of a fatal rollover crash by as much as 70%.

Frontal and side impacts accounted for about 75% of the 28,896 vehicle occupants killed in crashes last year. Rear impacts are rarely fatal, though they often result in injuries like neck strain.

The main reason for the rapid improvement is that car makers have been working aggressively to turn safety into a selling point. For many car buyers, crash-test performance has moved ahead of creature comforts, styling, and horsepower on the list of must-have features.

Seeing safety as an opportunity to set their products apart from rival brands, car makers have been making changes to their vehicles' safety systems in order to improve crashworthiness. Several models that didn't make the list last year underwent design changes that helped their ratings this year. There are also vehicles that received top ratings this year in categories that weren't represented in last year's top picks.

"It's really amazing how quickly manufacturers have moved on safety in the past two years," says David Zuby, the Insurance Institute's head of vehicle research. "We are looking at things we might do to make the criteria more stringent."

Among the possible changes include making frontal crash tests more severe and rating the strength of vehicles' roofs, which can help protect occupants in rollover crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that sets federal auto-safety standards, has already toughened its standards, which will apply to passenger vehicles starting in the 2010 model year.

 
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