An interview on Minivan and Airbag Safety with Phil Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor from Edmunds.com.
Minivans have traditionally enjoyed a reputation for being safe vehicles for your family. Why do you think minivans, as a model rather than individual makers, have recently had a set back in safety ratings?
Let’s not panic and say that across the board “minivans are not safe”. It’s not that minivans are suddenly not safe. They haven’t started becoming less safe; the market place has changed. Other vehicles have improved. Also, they are devising more aggressive tests. The test that you all are referencing is called the small overlap crash test, and it’s one of the strictest safety tests we've ever seen. The tests are up-ing their standards, and improvements are being made in other models that minivans have not yet caught up to.
What are the makes that did poorly in recent tests?
The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) rate vehicles on a system of:
G = Good
A = Acceptable
M = Marginal
P = Poor
The Chrysler Town & Country, Nissan Quest, and the Dodge Caravan tested as "Poor."
In what categories did they fail?
Remember, the small overlap crash test is one of the strictest safety tests we've ever seen. It mimics a crash where just the front corner of a vehicle hits another car or a tree or telephone pole. 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall fixed object at 40 mph, meaning the collision misses both frame rails.
To earn the top rating of good, automakers need to focus on overall crash protection. A fail means that the occupant compartment failed to resist intrusion, safety belts didn't prevent a driver from pitching too far forward and side curtain airbags didn't provide enough forward coverage to cushion a head at risk of hitting the dashboard or window frame or things outside the vehicle. Collapsing structures can knock front airbags and seats out of position, exacerbating the problem.
What are the makes that performed well in recent tests?
The Toyota Sienna tested “acceptable” and the Honda Odyssey tested “Good”.
What gave them their higher rating?
Basically, if the cabin can stay intact, and the safety belts and airbags are not compromised, the vehicle should pass.
Would a consumer want to drive a vehicle with anything but a “G” rating?
There are a number of factors in choosing a vehicle. You can look for a five star rated car in safety, but if you have a big family and are looking for and additional 3rd row seating to fit your family, you are going to have to settle for a lesser safety rating. 3rd rows are not as safe as traditional sized minivans. It’s a trade off. You have to balance the crash test against other features.
How do airbags work?
Airbags were created as a supplemental restraining system to go with your seatbelt. Fabric bags inflate rapidly to protect you from the harder parts of the car and to help keep you in the car. A chemical reaction inflates an airbag in 1/20th of a second at 200 – 300 MPH, depending on the brand. It deflates just as fast. Sensors that detect a prescribed force of impact trigger it. Basically, if you wouldn’t be able to drive away from the accident, the airbag deploys.
How do airbags potentially hurt drivers and passengers?
Airbags have caused bruises and abrasions, broken noses, glasses pushed into faces, broken necks, even decapitation. When airbags are working properly there should be no injuries at all. Most people are injured because they are not seated properly. Children should not be in the front seat. Passengers should also be belted properly. Too many people take their shoulder belts off and there’s nothing to prevent them from moving forward into the airbag. Also, people need to make sure they are seated as far away from the steering wheel as possible while still being able to reach the peddles. A good rule of thumb is to have at least one sheet of notebook paper between you and your steering wheel. Also, hold the wheel at 7 and 4 instead of 10 and 2. People have actually been punching themselves with their own fists when their hands are at 10 and 2.
How can you make sure your car’s airbag is safe?
It's important to remember that recalls happen all the time for any reason, and what we've noticed is that many consumers can become tone deaf to recalls. This is a particularly problematic situation when it comes to owners of used cars. The car manufacturers can only do so much to track you down. The best way to protect yourself is to check your VIN on SaferCar.gov or check the recall bulletins on Edmunds.com or other information sites.
Cars are safer now than ever. Vehicle manufacturers have actually increased the amount of recalls they release, not because vehicles are unsafe, but because they're being more proactive.
How can consumers protect themselves and their families when buying a minivan?
Look at crash test ratings and read reviews. You can go to forums where you can read posts from people about their experiences in accidents and compare their situation in relationship to you. For example, were they in an accident because of snow in Vermont when you live in Florida? Again, Edmunds.com, SaferCar.gov, or IIHS.org are the gold standards in research for the safety of vehicles.
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