Consider These Vehicle Safety Facts Before You Purchase Another One

Al Jacobs

Shortly after 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 11, Long Beach police officers responded to a report of an auto collision on Obispo Avenue, south of Broadway. One of the drivers, in critical condition and transported to Memorial Hospital, died of his injuries. For most residents of Long Beach the incident was largely unnoticed, as their lives go on unaffected by the misfortune of others.

As is so often the case, the lone fatality proved not to be a nameless, faceless non-entity. He was Sean Belk, 36, a talented musician, writer and photographer who was a reporter for the Beachcomber covering stories about government, business and development.

At the young age, you’d expect him to excel in his craft and engage in his hobbies for many more decades … but that wasn’t his fate.

The circumstances of this auto mishap deserve to be described, for the events seem somewhat unusual. Sean, in his Kia Soul, a subcompact crossover SUV – or Mini Multi-Purpose Vehicle (Mini MPV) – was driving south on Obispo, with a Chevrolet Silverado cable TV truck stopped toward the center of that same short and narrow street, only a block long.

The truck faced north with its flashers and headlamps reportedly on.

Some in the area heard a “speeding car” (not believed to be Sean’s) traveling on Broadway and then a loud crash, and concluded the fast car could not have turned that corner onto Obispo – where the accident happened – at the speed it was heard going.

A theory is that Sean, after getting groceries, could not find parking on Obispo north of Broadway partly because of the busy Friday night restaurants and valets, and then crossed Broadway to find parking on Obispo south of Broadway. Perhaps he accelerated momentarily while crossing to avoid getting hit by the speeding car and before he knew it, there’s a truck stopped toward the center of the Obispo side-street he was entering.

The truck driver was reportedly picking up a co-worker. It’s unknown exactly what happened and an investigation is ongoing.

More than a simple tribute to a talented individual who passed on long before his time, this article will now be crafted to serve what I hope will be a useful purpose. Sean had a very small car and this possibly played an important role in the event which transpired.

You might note a Kia Soul’s curb weight, depending upon its year, can be as low as 2,560 pounds. The majority of vehicles with which it shares the road log in with far heavier curb weights.

A few examples: Ford Explorer 4,443 to 4,901 lbs; Cadillac Escalade 5,578 to 5,856 lbs; Chevrolet Tahoe 5,355-5,602 lbs; Toyota Sequoia 5,695-6,000 lbs. It seems reasonable when two objects collide, the lighter of the two will fare less favorably. I specifically recall a line from the 1972 movie “Man of La Mancha,” where James Coco, in the role of Sancho Panza, declares: “Whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it’s going to be too bad for the pitcher.”

I’ve since taken a closer look at the studies and statistics to see how the light-weight cars and subcompact SUVs stack up in the category of safety. After viewing a number of internet sites purporting to discuss the subject and giving ratings on the vehicles most favored, I realized many of the analyses I reviewed were nothing more than thinly disguised advertising by particular manufacturers pitching their products.

This is obviously not the way to judge safety. I finally came upon a presentation whose recommendations I trust. It’s the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a U.S. nonprofit organization funded by auto insurance companies, established in 1959 and headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

It works to reduce the number of motor vehicle traffic collisions, the rate of injuries, and the amount of property damage in the crashes occurring. It carries out research and produces ratings for popular passenger vehicles, as well conducts research on road design and traffic regulations. The following comments and conclusions are largely based upon their extensive findings.

First, let me report that what seemed reasonable at the onset is correct: Bigger cars are safer than smaller ones. However, when we get down to specifics, it becomes more involved. New small cars are safer than ever, but new larger, heavier vehicles are still safer than small ones. Simply stated, bigger and heavier is safer than smaller and lighter.

As large vehicles weigh more, with longer hoods and bigger crush zones, they possess an advantage in frontal crashes. In its studies, the IIHS finds a heavier vehicle will typically push a lighter one backward during the impact. As a result, there’s less force on the occupants of the heavier vehicle and more on those in the lighter vehicle. The organization’s fatality data bears this out.

They’ve determined the lowest 2015 death rate by vehicle type is for very large SUVs: 13 deaths per million registered vehicles. The highest is for mini cars: 64 deaths per million registered vehicles. These are the facts; they can’t be stated more clearly.

Also, in general, older vehicles are not as safe as newer ones. Some people contend older cars resemble tanks, making them safer than new cars. It’s not true. A large 10-year-old vehicle without side airbags or electronic stability control (ESC) will not fare as well in an accident as a small vehicle from today equipped with modern safety equipment and collision avoidance technology.

ESC greatly reduces the chance of a vehicle rollover – this is particularly important for top-heavy trucks and SUVs. However, not everyone is able to buy new. So if you’re shopping for a used car, check for side airbags and ESC, often offered as optional features on smaller and non-luxury vehicles.

It’s now time to focus on factors other than collision impact, as safety is a multifaceted quality. A number of facts not readily apparent deserve to be pointed out. Perhaps one of the most important is lighter cars are better on taking bad roads because their weight does not force them down into the ditches. Many hardcore off-roaders work to make their vehicle lightweight. If it is an SUV, the longer suspension travel may give it an advantage, but increased weight is never a favorable factor while taking on bad roads.

Another belief to dispel is that in regular cars, weight is the deciding factor of traction. There are a number of other factors including the condition and pressure of the tires as well as weight distribution. Normal cars never reach high speeds where they will need extra downwards thrust, created by the aerodynamic characteristics of a car, to get traction.

Lightweight high-performance vehicles incorporate special design features producing extra thrust to provide more grip to the vehicle. So heavy doesn’t mean it grips better. And while we’re dispelling misunderstandings, cast aside your belief a heavy car automatically means safety. In fact, heavier cars have quite a few disadvantages due to their excessive weight.

The heavier cars cannot change direction as quickly as the lightweight cars due to momentum. The same reasoning also relates to the ability to bring the vehicle to a stop. Due to the added weight, the brakes must work more to slow and stop it, thereby increasing the braking distance. As previously mentioned, the safety of the heavier cars depends totally upon crumple zones and safety equipment the vehicle is carrying and not the weight itself.

Finally, as innovative modifications are rapidly improving, the automotive market is benefiting from safety advances. Starting in the 2012 model year, for example, ESC became mandatory in all vehicles. Carmakers also installed more airbags and strengthened the roofs of SUVs and trucks, which sometimes lacked sufficient roof strength to protect occupants in a crash. Seatbelts work with the airbags, so it’s always important to wear the seatbelt.

Most recently, active safety technology has brought automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning systems to many cars, preventing them from getting into accidents in the first place. As a consequence of these changes, every vehicle size category saw a substantial decrease in deaths over these past 10 years. Perhaps the time will arrive when there’ll be few, if any, victims that ever make the evening news … we can only hope so.


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