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Originally published Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Getting up to speed on car safety

Dangerous drivers make owning a protective car a priority.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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How safe is the car you drive? When I wrote last week about two recent fatal car collisions, that question occurred to me.

The only thing that matters more is how you drive.

Everyone who drives or rides has to share the road with other people, which can be a problem, because in most crashes, human error is to blame. You never know when you are going to cross paths with someone who is distracted, aggressive, tired or otherwise impaired, or just a generally poor driver.

A few days ago, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released data it gathered in 2011 on distracted driving. It said, “at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010.”

Other data from the agency found that “more than 3,300 people were killed in 2011 and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.”

We can’t do anything about other drivers, but you and I can try to avoid being the person who causes a collision, and we can put ourselves in cars that provide us a reasonable degree of protection.

I didn’t think much about safety with the first cars I bought, but 21 years ago, when our son was born, my wife said it was time to get a safer car. We bought a station wagon and it proved to be a smart choice.

One evening, my wife was on her way home, driving down Rainier Avenue South in the rain. A drunken driver in a huge boat of a car came flying from the opposite direction, crossed the centerline and slammed into the wagon, totaling both cars. The drunken driver died, but my wife survived. Police and medics who freed her from the wreckage said she would have been dead, too, if she’d been driving most any other car.

So now, safety is our first criteria.

When I wrote about the recent fatal car crashes, I spoke with Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A few days later I called him again and asked an admittedly unanswerable question: “What’s the safest car a person could buy?”

Rader said that the crash tests the Institute does, and those done by the NHTSA, are based on the most common kinds of crashes. They’re a useful guide, but every accident is a mix of more factors than any test could capture.

“If you could choose the type of crash you were going to be in,” he said, “you could choose the best vehicle for that, but you can’t.” So use the data to pick a vehicle that does well in multiple circumstances.

And that would be? A midsize sedan that does well in all the safety tests, he said, or a newer model SUV or minivan, if they tested well. Yes, size matters. But so do a lot of other features, such as maneuverability and sightlines.

The NHTSA held a symposium in 2011 to get expert opinions on the effect of size and mass on vehicle safety. I read some of the material, and most presenters agreed with Rader that there are way too many variables in a crash to allow for absolute answers about safety.

Hitting a tree is different from hitting a smaller car, which is different from hitting a car the same size as yours, which is different from hitting a larger vehicle. The point of impact matters, as does the speed at the time of the collision.

But they also noted the vast improvements in car safety, especially over the past two decades. Indeed, car-collision fatalities have been going down since the late 1970s.

Car safety is continually improving now because it matters to the companies that make cars, and it matters to them because it matters to buyers. That hasn’t always been the case.

A person doesn’t have to be that old to remember when cars didn’t even routinely come with seat belts. Or to remember when Ralph Nader was a young guy who wrote a book titled “Unsafe at Any Speed.” That was back in 1965, when hardly anyone was interested in automobile safety — certainly not manufacturers. Nader and other safety proponents pressured the federal government to address safety.

The creation of the NHTSA was a result of that effort and, in 1972, it began informing consumers about car safety. These days, manufacturers compete on safety ratings the way they compete on style or comfort or fuel economy.

There are many desires to balance in buying a car. While smaller usually means more fuel efficient, and larger offers more protection, price can sometimes be the driving factor. It’s very individual in the end.

I asked Rader what he drives, and his answer was a BMW 3 Series from 2000. He chose it partly based on its safety-test results, but also said it’s time for a newer car.

Rader expects crash safety to continue improving, but said the next frontier is avoiding crashes altogether, using a variety of tech-based features such as electronic stability control and lane-departure warnings.

Someday self-driving cars may take people out of the equation altogether. Until then, most accidents could be avoided if each of us drove as if lives depended on us. The safest car is the one free of human error.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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