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Safety Features Pay Off

Safety features play important role in saving lives

Seat belts, air bags and other automotive safety features have saved 329,000 lives since 1960, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Safety Features - Seat Belts

"Of all the safety features introduced since 1960, one of them - safety belts - accounts for more than half of all the lives saved," Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Tuesday in an address in Dearborn.

Besides seat belts and air bags, the agency evaluated child safety seats, energy-absorbing steering columns, improved roofs and shatter-resistant windshields but did not include side airbags and electronic stability control systems, though Runge said they held promise.

All the safety features were mandated by federal law, except for the redesign of instrument panels to make them less harmful during impact.

According to the study, the number of lives saved annually from safety devices increased from 115 per year in 1960 to 25,000 a year in 2002.

In 2003, the number of U.S. road accident fatalities dipped for the first time in five years, to 42,643 from 43,005 in the previous year, Runge said, and the death rate per miles fell to a 29-year low. The data for 2004 are not yet available.

The agency now is shifting its regulatory and oversight focus from crash protection to zavoidance, through the use of advanced electronics and sensors that can warn drivers when they are leaving a travel lane, backing into an object or even falling asleep.

In the future, "the biggest return on investment will be the accelerated development and deployment of crash-avoidance technology," Runge said.

He cited data suggesting that electronic stability control systems, aimed at keeping vehicles on the road and preventing skids, sharply reduces rollovers and fatalities in single-occupant crashes. At the North American International Auto Show, "I was delighted to see the proliferation of ESC," Runge said.

In his speech, Runge praised automakers and suppliers for their voluntary efforts to improve auto safety. ""The industry should be very proud of what it has accomplished," he said.

Two years ago, Runge declared war on the SUV, saying he wouldn't buy a poorly rated SUV for his own children, citing their propensity to roll over. But Runge softened his criticism Tuesday, citing the rising number of SUVs that now earn top, four-star safety ratings.

NHTSA said government-mandated safety features added $839 to the price of an average passenger car and $711, on average, to the price of a light truck in 2001, compared with prices of vehicles built before 1968.

But Runge said he believed customers could be persuaded to pay for new safety features coming to the market. "If we can get ink on the fact that safety technologies are a good bargain, we'd have a better take rate," he said.

(Source: Detroit News)