Auto Focus

Can You Put a Price Tag on Safety?

When it comes to in-vehicle safety technology, yes, you can. But first fleets need to look at the bigger picture.

Fleet managers and owners have to make some tough choices when it comes to safety options for fleet vehicles, especially with the myriad of new — and expensive — advanced safety technologies. Do you opt for the extra set of airbags or the lane departure warning system? With strained budgets, is either of them “worth it”?

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), the research arm of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), just released a study on the effectiveness of safety technologies in vehicles, particularly high-tech crash avoidance systems such as adaptive headlights, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, park assist and forward collision avoidance systems. HLDI analyzed insurance claim frequency for damage and injuries in vehicles equipped with those features as options, and those without, in model years 2000 to 2011. The results show that not all safety systems protect equally — and for some, the benefits are questionable.

Forward collision avoidance systems and adaptive headlights were “clear success stories” according to HLDI, while lane-departure warning systems appear to hinder, not help avoid crashes. Park assist and blind-spot detection systems require more study, as the data does not indicate an effect one way or another.

In the case of lane-departure warning, the data does not reveal exactly why those systems appear to be ineffective, says Russ Rader, senior VP of communications for the IIHS. And in regards to studying crash avoidance technologies in general, “It’s still very early,” he adds. “What we are hoping to do with this research is to give consumers and fleet owners some guidance on which technology is worth the investment and which systems may not be.”

In general, and independent of the study, research shows that the No. 1 most effective safety system is electronic stability control (ESC), according to Rader. (The government has determined that ESC is so effective, in fact, it comes standard on all 2012-MY vehicles and beyond.)

The second most effective feature is a forward collision avoidance system, which alerts the driver if the vehicle is gaining on the traffic ahead of it so quickly that it is about to crash. Some of these systems are able to brake the vehicle on its own if the driver doesn't respond in time. Rader also mentioned the effectiveness of adaptive headlights, especially for fleets that do night driving.

But what about the flipside of advanced technology, in-vehicle entertainment and communications systems? There has not yet been a study on how those systems affect crashes, according to Rader. However, “We do know that as all this communication and information technology has been coming into vehicles, we haven’t seen crashes go up,” Rader says. “It doesn’t mean those things aren’t distracting, but so far they don’t appear to be adding to the overall distracted driving problem.”

So, you can put a price tag on safety. And as a fleet administrator, you have to. The reality, however, is that light-duty fleets generally do not opt for safety tech. Adaptive headlights cost $800 per vehicle to illustrate why that might be the case.

Is there a good first step, then, to guide the safety decision-making process? One valuable data set for fleets is insurance losses by make and model, which show an aggregate of actual insurance loss experience for injury, collision and theft. This data is a good indicator of how costly it is to insure a particular vehicle, class of vehicle or body style.

But pertaining directly to safety, “The thing for fleets to look at is the crashworthiness of the vehicles [automakers] are putting out there,” Rader says.

When the IIHS released its first Top Safety Picks ratings in 2006, 11 vehicles made the list. In 2012, the list grew to 120 vehicles. “Each time the Institute has implemented a new, more stringent test, the automakers have engineered those vehicles to meet that test,” Rader says. “That means more choice of vehicles that afford good protection in the most common kinds of crashes.”

“But crash tests don’t tell the whole story,” Rader continues. As well-contented small vehicles come to market in increasing numbers, fleets now have a choice to put their drivers in more fuel-efficient vehicles that would still perform up to the fleet application and satisfy the driver. But this trend has safety implications. “Generally smaller, lighter vehicles have greater injury losses than bigger, heavier ones,” Rader says.

How about an extra set of airbags on the small car to compensate? Rader’s advice is unequivocal: “Airbags don’t overcome the laws of physics.”

The good news is that the number of crashes is going down. In fact, crash rates based on miles traveled is at a historic low, according to Rader. When it comes to safety and cars, the phrase, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” does not hold true. It’s clear that the land boats of yesteryear were not any safer. This is very good news.

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris Brown is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. Through these publications, online newsletters, trade events and associations, Chris covers all aspects of the fleet world, including fleet management, manufacturer fleet activities, the fleet leasing industry, vehicle remarketing, rental industry news, car rental taxation and legislation.

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