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The most overrated (and underrated) car safety devices

Chris Kissell

overrated underrated car safety devicesToday’s cars are built to be safer than ever before. Some technologies try to prevent accidents before they occur, while others better protect passengers and occupants when a crash does occur.

Advanced safety features also can net you a break on your car insurance premium. Check with your insurance provider to see whether you can get discounts for having these safety devices.

However, in real-world crash situations, some of these technologies appear to be more effective than others.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has looked at several of these new safety features.

Based on IIHS findings, has compiled the following list of five safety devices that are either “overrated” or “underrated.”

OVERRATED: Hands-free cellphone devices

Hands-free cellphone devices have been touted as a godsend, a way to keep drivers from becoming distracted when talking to others on the phone.

In fact, 12 states and Washington, D.C., have banned the practice of using a hand-held device to make cellphone calls while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

However, the reality of hands-free cellphone use has not lived up to the promise.

More than 30 studies have failed to find a clear safety benefit to using hands-free devices, says David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council.

The bottom line: You should never talk on the phone when you are behind the wheel.

“The driver needs to be 100 percent focused on the dangerous and sometimes challenging task of driving,” Teater says.

UNDERRATED: Electronic stability control

Electronic stability control (ESC) is technology that helps prevent vehicles from skidding sideways or losing control.

With ESC, a network of sensors and a microcomputer monitors a driver’s steering. When necessary, ESC applies braking and adjusts engine power to keep the vehicle on track. The goal is to prevent life-threatening rollovers, especially in situations where a driver steers hard in one direction, or tries to steer on a slippery road.

IIHS studies have found ESC reduces fatal single-vehicle crash risk by 49 percent, and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by 20 percent. ESC is especially effective at preventing rollovers, reducing them by 72 percent for cars and 75 percent for SUVs.

Some insurers offer specific discounts for ESC, while others are including it in their basic rating system.

For example, Farmers has folded the discount into its overall rating technique, which also looks at variables such as the make, model and year of the vehicle, says Luis Sahagun, Farmers director of media relations.

OVERRATED: Anti-lock brakes

Anti-lock brakes prevent drivers from skidding when the brakes are applied strongly on wet or icy roads. The technology tracks the speed of each wheel. If a wheel starts to lock during braking, the brake pressure is reduced, allowing the wheel to turn again.

According to IIHS, anti-lock brakes don’t perform as well in real-world conditions as they do on the test track. Studies by the HLDI have found the frequency of insurance claims for cars with anti-lock brakes does not differ from cars that do not have the technology. The insurance cost of crashes also did not differ between the two groups of vehicles.

Many insurers consider anti-lock brakes to be a good safety feature. For example, Allstate offers a 10 percent discount for cars with anti-lock brakes.

“Based on the vehicle identification number, we can determine the discount automatically for the customer,” says Justin Herndon, an Allstate spokesman.

UNDERRATED: Daytime running lights

Daytime running lights are headlights that remain on whenever you drive your car, day or night. They’re supposed to make it easier for other drivers to see your vehicle, thus preventing head-on and front-corner collisions.

And indeed, this is one technology whose promise has been fulfilled. Nearly every published study has found the daytime running lights reduce daytime crashes, according to IIHS.

The organization says multiple-vehicle daytime accidents account for about half of all police-reported crashes in the United States. A 2002 IIHS study found that such accidents declined 3 percent in nine U.S. states shortly after the introduction of this technology.

But while Canada and many European countries now require daytime running lights in all new vehicles, no U.S. state has a similar law.

Some car insurers offer discounts for drivers of cars with this technology. For example, a car with factory-installed daytime running lights might earn a 3 percent discount on certain coverages at GEICO.

UNDERRATED: Side air bags

It’s well-known that air bags save lives. Through Jan. 1, 2009, frontal air bags had saved more than 28,000 lives in the U.S. since their introduction in the 1970s, according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

However, the particular effectiveness of side air bags may come as a surprise to some drivers.

Frontal air bags cut deaths in frontal crashes by 29 percent, according to IIHS. But the numbers are even better for side air bags that protect the head. Such devices reduce the risk of death in driver-side crashes by 37 percent for drivers of cars, and 52 percent for drivers of SUVs.

Side air bags that protect only the torso reduce death risk by 26 percent for car drivers and by 30 percent for SUV drivers.

About 25 percent of fatal passenger car crashes — and one-third of deaths among children in car seats — result from side-impact events, according to the NHTSA.

Many car insurance companies offer air bag discounts. For example, American Family Insurance offers discounts that range from 10 percent to 30 percent.

“Because the severity of the injury is reduced, the average cost per claim is also reduced,” says Steve Witmer, an American Family spokesman. “So customers are able to receive a discount.”

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