IIHS Reveals the 7 Most Crash-Proof Cars

My window at Esurance overlooks one of San Francisco’s greatest streets — the Embarcadero. Stretching along the Bay from Fisherman’s Wharf to AT&T Park, it’s always busy with tourists, bikes, pedicabs, parking enforcement officers, and a stop-and-go stream of commuters on their way to the Bay Bridge. It’s an iconic stretch of road and a prime setup for a rear-end collision.

Fortunately, more and more vehicles are available with front crash prevention systems, and studies have shown they work. The Highway Loss Data Institute found fewer property damage liability claims for vehicles with forward collision warning systems and autonomous braking.

But, not all systems are created equal. Now that it’s clear front crash prevention technologies are effective, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has developed a new test program to see how various systems compare.

Crash prevention technologies

There are 2 main types of front crash prevention systems: forward collision warning and autonomous braking (autobrake). A forward collision warning system alerts the driver when it detects the vehicle is about to collide with the car in front. Though the system doesn’t cause the vehicle to slow down or stop, it’s sometimes combined with autobrake.

Autobrake systems are designed to prevent or reduce the impact of a rear-end collision by slowing down or stopping the vehicle if the driver doesn’t react in time. The higher-rated vehicles in the IIHS tests were able to brake for stopped and slowly moving vehicles.

How the IIHS rates crash prevention technology

Unlike their crash test program (which rates vehicles as good, acceptable, marginal, or poor), the Institute rates crash prevention technologies on a 3-tiered system of superior, advanced, and basic.

For these new ratings, vehicles were tested at 12 and 25 mph. The “superior” rating was awarded to vehicles that had autobrake and were able to avoid a crash or greatly reduce their speed in both tests. An “advanced” rating meant the vehicle had autobrake and avoided a collision or reduced its speed by at least 5 mph in 1 of the 2 tests. A “basic” rating meant the vehicle was equipped with a forward collision warning system that met National Highway Traffic Safety Association standards.

To get an NHTSA endorsement, vehicles are tested under 3 different scenarios (approaching a stopped vehicle, a suddenly decelerating vehicle, and a vehicle moving slower than the test car). The system must warn drivers of an imminent collision within a specified time in at least 5 out of 7 trials.

The IIHS’s most crash-proof cars

Of the 74 models tested (all 2013 or 2014 models), 7 received a superior rating: the Cadillac ATS sedan, Cadillac SRX SUV, Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan, Subaru Legacy sedan, Subaru Outback wagon, Volvo S60 sedan, and Volvo XC60 SUV. All had optional autonomous braking as well as forward collision warning systems.

The 6 vehicles that received an advanced rating are the 2014 Acura MDX SUV, Audi A4 sedan, Audi Q5 SUV, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Lexus ES sedan, and 2014 Mazda 6 sedan. All were equipped with autobrake and forward collision warning.

Some surprising failures

A few vehicles that tout their autobrake features did not perform well. The BMW 3 series and the Infinity JX SUV both received basic ratings — the BMW braked for a stopped car only if it first detected that car in motion, and the Infinity showed minimal braking at both test speeds. The Toyota Prius v wagon, which offers what Toyota calls a pre-collision system, didn’t qualify for an IIHS rating. It had very little speed reduction in the tests and didn’t meet the NHTSA standard for forward collision warning.

Know before you buy

Even a basic system can significantly reduce your risk of a crash, so check out the full list of IIHS ratings here. It could mean fewer fender benders in your future.

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Are Our Speed Limits Too Low?

When it comes to speed limits, how fast is too fast? And how slow is too slow?

U.S. states have been allowed to set their own speed standards since 1995, which means speed limits (and opinions about those limits) vary widely. But recently, the clamor for raising maximum speeds on highways has been getting louder. In 2012, Texas raised its maximum speed limit to 85 (the highest in the nation). Then, in August, Illinois passed a law raising its speed limit on rural highways to 70. Two Michigan senators are also currently proposing legislation that will boost speed limits on a variety of roads.

And just a few weeks ago, a video protesting the “artificially low” speed limits in British Columbia became an internet sensation both in Canada and America. The video, released by advocacy group Sense B.C., claims that low speed limits on highways actually create risk because the few drivers who obey the limit obstruct the safe flow of traffic. It goes on to suggest that revenue, not safety, is the real reason behind the limits. (Warning: this video contains occasional curse words, anti-government sentiment, and Canadian accents. Viewers, be aware.)

Currently, 34 states in the U.S. have speed limits of 70 or higher on at least some of their roadways. Are the limits in other states artificially low or a reasonable precaution? 

What is a safe speed anyway?

Interestingly, the drivers themselves determine this — most people will drive in a manner appropriate to the conditions and will ignore an unrealistically high or low speed limit. This is why, in the U.S., Canada, and other countries, limits are often set using the “eighty-fifth percentile” (the speed at or below which 85 percent of traffic is moving). Those who drive significantly faster or slower than this speed are more likely to crash.

In that case, should we have speed limits at all? Some roads, like much of Germany’s famed autobahn, have no limits. This may seem like a recipe for disaster, but when a German politician recently proposed 75 mph limits for the autobahn, his idea was met with scorn. The ADAC, a German and European motorists’ association, pointed out that only 11 percent of Germany’s serious accidents happen on the autobahn, even though it accommodates a third of the country’s traffic. The ADAC spokesperson didn’t say how many of those accidents were speed related, however.

Do lower speed limits save lives?

According to studies, yes. When the U.S. repealed federal speed limit controls in 1995, the result was a 3.2 percent jump in road fatalities over the next 10 years. But while the higher speed limits increased fatalities overall, some studies claim that higher speeds on interstates may have saved lives by drawing traffic away from more dangerous non-interstate roads.

Here’s one thing no one is debating: speed is directly related to the severity of a crash. According to the World Health Association, the risk of a crash resulting in a fatality is 20 times greater at 50 mph than at 19 mph. So, if you do get in an accident going 85 in Texas or 120 on the autobahn, it’s likely to be a bad one.

Is revenue the issue?

Driver advocacy groups like Sense B.C. claim that speed limits are often set artificially low so police can hand out more tickets. Assuming the eighty-fifth percentile is correct, drivers are naturally inclined to ignore unrealistic limits, so their chances of being caught speeding in those zones are much greater. Whether or not some limits are set too low intentionally is hard to say, but, along with the recent push to raise speed limits, there is also a movement in several states to outlaw speed traps. And Michigan’s state police have come out in favor of higher speed limits, saying speed limits that are too low put them in the position of ticketing responsible drivers.

Are higher speed limits in the U.S. inevitable?

It’s starting to seem that way, but there are also many advocates for keeping speed limits low. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) believes there’s an obvious safety trade-off with higher limits. “When speed limits go up, people go faster, and eventually that results in more crashes and more deaths,” said IIHS Senior Vice President Anne McCartt. Driving at higher speeds also takes a big toll on your fuel efficiency.

What’s your opinion? Are 55 and 65 mph speed limits archaic or do higher limits just give drivers a license to go too fast? Tell us what you think.

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