Epic Fail: Minicars Perform Terribly in New Crash Test

Minicars have some obvious advantages, especially for city drivers — they’re fuel efficient and easy to park (something we San Franciscans can appreciate). But, because they’re so lightweight, they also tend to be more vulnerable in collisions than larger cars. And, according to the latest small overlap front crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the structure of most minicars leaves much to be desired. In fact, only 1 out of the 11 models tested was deemed acceptable.

What’s a small overlap front crash test?

This test replicates a collision involving the front corner of the car while traveling at 40 mph. In a standard head-on crash test, much of the impact is absorbed by the car’s front-end crush zone. In the small overlap test, however, this zone is bypassed, which means the structure of the occupant compartment can collapse.

Though the small overlap test is fairly new (it was introduced in 2012), carmakers have made improvements in a number of size categories. So far, minicars don’t hold up as well.

Crash test results for minicars

The minicars tested were the Chevrolet Spark, the Mazda 2, the Kia Rio, the Toyota Yaris, the 2014 Ford Fiesta, the 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage, the Nissan Versa, the Toyota Prius c, the Hyundai Accent, the Fiat 500, and the Honda Fit.* The full list of results can be found here.

Only the Spark received an overall rating of acceptable in this test — though its structural rating was marginal, the vehicle controlled the movement of the dummy fairly well and had low measurements for dummy injury. Because the Spark also earned good ratings in the IIHS’s other safety tests, it was named a 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK. (The car does lack front crash prevention features, however, which are required for a vehicle to be named to the highest award level, TOP SAFETY PICK+.)

The Mazda 2, Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, and Ford Fiesta received marginal ratings overall. And the Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Versa, Toyota Prius c, Hyundai Accent, Fiat 500, and Honda Fit were deemed poor overall.

Of the 11 vehicles, the Fiat 500 and Honda Fit performed the worst. In both models, the structure severely infringed on the driver’s space and the steering column angled too close to the driver. They were also the only models that showed an increased risk of injury to the right leg.

Structure

When a car’s structure collapses, the potential for injury is high, and seats and safety features like airbags can also be displaced. All of the vehicles tested received marginal or poor structure ratings.

Restraints and kinetics

This category rates how well the vehicle controlled forward motion. In many cases, the dummy’s head failed to make contact with the front airbag, the side airbag didn’t provide adequate coverage, and/or the seat or steering column shifted. Only the Spark and the Mazda 2 were deemed acceptable in this category.

Leg and hip injuries

Injuries to the lower legs and feet tend to be an issue in the small overlap test. The Spark did better here than most. Injury measures for the left leg and foot were marginal for the Yaris and Accent and poor for the Mazda 2, Rio, Mirage, Versa, Prius c, Fiat 500, and Fit. The Fiat 500, Accent, and Fit also showed less than acceptable measures for left hip and thigh injuries.

Front crash prevention

None of these minicars, including the Spark, offer front crash prevention features, which can often prevent collisions from occurring in the first place.

Comparing safety ratings

When comparing crash test results and safety ratings, it’s important to stay within a particular weight class. Generally, a small car won’t provide as much protection as a similarly rated larger car. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to drive around in a big SUV, but it is something to consider along with fuel economy and convenience. And, of course, it’s just one more reason to drive safely!

*Ratings apply to both 2013 and 2104 models unless otherwise noted

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Driving Tips from Race Car Driver Natalie Fenaroli

It takes a lot to be a successful race car driver — nerves of steel, cat-like reflexes, and razor-sharp focus. We’ve always wondered if that makes them better drivers on the road, so we got in touch with 18-year-old Natalie Fenaroli, one of the most exciting young drivers in the racing world, for some answers.

Natalie started racing go-karts at the age of 5 and was the youngest female driver to win the Kid Kart National Championship at age 7. In 2008, she was profiled by Autoweek magazine as one of “Five of the Fastest Women You Will Ever Meet.” She’s the highest-finishing female in Mazda’s Teen Mazda Challenge and the only female to win a race in the history of that series. So, it’s safe to say she knows a little bit about driving. (Full disclosure: she’s also a family friend.)

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We caught up with Natalie at home in Kansas City, MO, just before Christmas.

How did you get started with racing?

When I was 4 years old, my dad heard an NPR story about how the brain works and how much children’s brains develop when they’re young. He wanted to hardwire my driving skills before I was 16, so he had me start driving go-karts just after my fourth birthday. I was very competitive (you can start racing once you reach the age of 5). A lot of professional racers start with go-karts. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to get started.

What type of racing are you doing currently?

I’m currently racing a Spec Miata — it’s the race car version of the Mazda Miata. I moved to cars from go-karts when I was 14.

The National Auto Sports Association partners together with Mazda for the Teen Mazda Challenge [which I took part in last year]. It’s a race within a race — drivers between 13 and 22 are scored separately. It’s supercompetitive; at one point there were 30+ cars on the track.

How do you anticipate what other drivers might do on the track? And how does that ability help you on the road?

It’s a matter of time and practice and observation. I’m always conscious of what’s going on around me. Awareness — knowing where all the cars are around you at all times — is really, really important.

In karting school, I learned “with distance comes comfort.” Don’t focus on just what’s right in front of you. You don’t need to be right on someone [like I would be in a race]. It’s easier to be aware when you’re further out.

When you got your drivers license at 16, did you ace your driving test? 

I did not ace my driving test [laughs]. I might have missed a few points, like when I was parking on a hill and had to turn my wheels in. But I wasn’t close to failing.

How do you avoid a collision or obstacle?

It’s more of an instinctual thing for me. I have pretty darn good reflexes after driving for so many years. So, I have an instinctual reaction when something happens.

How do you deal with bad weather or a hazard like oil on the track?

It’s definitely anticipation. If it’s wet or there’s oil on the track, I immediately start running through scenarios: how will I react, how will others around me react? And I adjust accordingly.

How do you maintain your focus for the entire race? What’s going on in your mind?

You can’t not focus at the track. When I’m on the road, to keep focus, I will practice where people are around me. I make a game of staying aware. I’m a huge advocate against texting and driving.

When you’re on the road, do you ever wish you could be going faster?

No, on a regular road I don’t need to go fast because I can do that at the track.

My dad made it clear that the track and the road are very different places. Those behaviors belong on the racetrack, not on the road.

How can you tell when your car needs maintenance, other than relying on gauges? Is it the way the car starts to handle?

My race car has pretty standard gauges: gas, RPM, oil pressure, water temperature. Tires are one of the most important [features] of the car. I can definitely tell when the tires are going away. By the end of the weekend, there’s a noticeable difference. The car will break loose differently in the corners.

My own car is a MINI Cooper. I always check the tire pressure and oil to make sure the car is running well. It will last longer and be a better car if I maintain it.

What’s the biggest challenge of driving in the real world?

When I first started driving, I wasn’t used to cars coming at me from the other direction. I would stay very far to the right because I was scared of the oncoming traffic.

Now, the challenge is paying attention. It’s so easy to be distracted by thoughts about homework [or other things going on].

Do you think racing makes you a better driver on the road?

Yes, I would definitely say it does. [Racing has given me] really good instinctive skills and additional awareness, which makes me a more courteous and safer driver. The original plan worked out well!

What piece of advice would you give drivers in the real world?

Just drive. You’re in the car to drive.

You should find pleasure in getting to drive a car. If you enjoy it, you’re more likely to be focused and keep a calm mental state.

I learned a long time ago: it doesn’t help to drive angry. That’s when you make mistakes. When something happens, you have to let it go because you have something else coming. If someone cuts me off, I don’t dwell on it.

Natalie’s top driving tips

Here’s a quick rundown of this racer’s best recommendations:

  • Stay conscious of where other drivers are around you
  • Don’t tailgate — it’s easier to be aware when you’re further out
  • Don’t text and drive
  • Save speeding for the track
  • When conditions are poor, try to anticipate how that might affect you and other drivers
  • Don’t drive angry — that’s when you make mistakes
  • You’re in the car to drive, so enjoy it and stay focused

Keep an eye on Natalie Fenaroli

Natalie is definitely a driver to watch (she spent last weekend being interviewed and photographed by the Wall Street Journal). You can follow her career on her website and Facebook page — and you can follow her excellent driving advice anytime you’re behind the wheel.

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5 Ways to Fight the Winter Blues

The holidays are over, spring is months away, and all you feel like doing is sitting around in your pj’s, watching TV, and eating leftover peppermint bark. Welcome to the winter blues.

We can’t make the days go faster, but we can offer some ways to fight the seasonal sag in your spirits. Here are some tips to help improve your outlook.

5 ways to say goodbye to the winter blues

Reset your body clock

Winter means fewer hours of daylight, which can upset your body clock and disrupt sleep (which, in turn, can contribute to depression). If you’re feeling tired during times of the day when you’re usually alert, you’re probably being affected. To help get your clock back on track, make sure to get at least 20 minutes of sunlight a day or buy a light box that simulates daylight. On days when you don’t need to set an alarm, allow yourself to wake naturally. Being better rested will boost your mood and help prevent you from nodding off behind the wheel.

Stay social

It’s tempting to stay home and hibernate through the winter, but you’re missing out on a key component of cheer. Social interaction (the face-to-face kind) is one of the best ways to fight depression. Put a couple of social activities on your calendar each week and make sure to stick to your plans.

Get moving

Winter is filled with built-in reasons not to exercise: it’s dark, it’s cold, it might be raining or snowing. Resist these excuses. Research has shown a very strong connection between exercise and mood, and you could start to feel the benefits in as little as 5 minutes. Make regular exercise a habit, and when you’re tempted to blow it off, remind yourself how good it makes you feel. If you can switch to an activity that takes advantage of the winter weather like skiing or snowshoeing, all the better, but even a brisk walk or a workout DVD at home will do the trick.

Treat yourself right

A bit of pampering can make you feel better by raising levels of mood-lifting hormones like serotonin and dopamine. According to a recent study, coffee can lower the risk of depression, so go ahead and indulge in a second cup. A nibble of dark chocolate will release your endorphins (natural feel-good chemicals). Adding a cinnamon stick to your tea can increase your alertness. Or treat yourself to a massage, which boosts serotonin while decreasing levels of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. And if you’ve been waiting to buy a new car, now’s the time to go for it — low showroom traffic during the winter means you can often get a great deal, and that’s bound to make you happy.

Think spring

It may be January outside, but you can make it May inside your head. Start thinking about your springtime gardening plans — maybe this is the year to plant that heirloom vegetable or put in a deck. Check out a garden show to get the ideas blossoming (late winter is prime time for these events). If you don’t have a garden, or a green thumb, buy a bouquet of colorful flowers for your desk (studies show fresh flowers reduce anxiety). And why not start making plans for your spring or summer vacation? It’s hard to be depressed by winter when you’re looking at pictures of seaside resorts or scenic campsites.

If you end up tackling that home-improvement project, buying a new car, or going on that awesome summer road trip, you’ll want to make sure your homeowners and auto coverage is up to date. Get started with a quote today.

Do you have any tips for beating the winter blues? Share them below.

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Trading My City Shoebox for a Suburban Mansion: Why I Chose to Rent a House

Unless I win the lottery, I’m probably going to be a renter for life. I suppose that’s the trade-off for residing in the beautiful and temperate, but obscenely expensive, Bay Area. For years, I lived in apartments — first with a roommate, then on my own, and then with my husband. Eventually, the pull of having outdoor space led us to rent a house in the ‘burbs, a fact that simultaneously evokes horror and jealously in my city-dwelling friends.

From a leasing standpoint, there’s not a ton of difference if you rent a house or an apartment. But there are some other things to consider if you’re thinking of making the switch.

How much it costs to rent a house

Obviously, depending on where you live and how big your rental space is, your rent is going to vary. In my case, by moving outside the city, I was able to upgrade my digs without upgrading my rent. But there may be other associated costs that come with living in a house.

Utility bills. The bigger the space, the more it costs to heat. Plus, you may be on the hook for gas, water, garbage, and other fees. Though apartment renters sometimes pay these fees as well, they’re often split between the tenants or covered in the price of the rent.

Appliances. Something to consider when renting a house or apartment is whether the appliances are included. Houses usually come equipped with washer/dryer hookups, but not necessarily the washer and dryer themselves. In our case, they were provided, but we’re responsible for replacing them if they break down.

Extra stuff. If you upgrade to a bigger space, chances are you’ll need more stuff to fill it. If you now have a guest bedroom, you’ll likely need a guest bed or futon. If you have a backyard, you’ll absolutely need a hammock. And if you have a sports-loving spouse, you may decide you want a second TV. It adds up.

Cars. I spent years in the city without a car. Once I moved to the suburbs, however, there was no way around it — I needed a set of wheels. And with wheels come maintenance, car washes, and insurance. But this is where houses have apartments beat (at least around San Francisco): parking. Not only can I park for free in my garage, but I also don’t have to worry about getting a street-cleaning ticket if I park outside the house. For some renters, this can save hundreds of dollars each month.

What features you’re looking for

We all have different requirements when looking for a home. I wanted no shared walls, a second bathroom, and a backyard … all within close range to public transportation. But that meant I had to give up living in the city with all its tantalizing restaurant options and easy-to-walk-to bars.

Whether you’re buying or renting, you’re pretty much always going to have to compromise on something. So make a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves and then determine if you’re more likely to get those items with an apartment or a house.

Location. If you live in a major city, it can be hard to find houses close to the action (at least affordable ones). So, if you like to be in the center of things, an apartment may be the way to go. But if you have a family or a disdain for crowds, the suburbs ain’t so bad. And Costco is SO much easier to get to!

Space. Along with square footage, consider what else the space provides. Do you need a workshop or home gym? Then look for a house with a garage. Are you sick of unintentionally eavesdropping on your neighbors? Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to shared walls. Just remember, the bigger the space, the more there is to clean!

Amenities. Different properties have different amenities. You’re not going to find a 24/7 doorman in a single-family home. Likewise, a large apartment complex may come equipped with a gym or well-maintained communal spaces. For me, a house provides privacy, which is the most important amenity of all. Choose what’s best for you.

The emotional toll

We love our house. Our furniture fits perfectly, I’ve landscaped the backyard, and we’ve developed relationships with our neighbors. But the fact remains that it’s not our house. If the owners decide to sell, we have to pick up and start over again somewhere else. I never felt that way in my apartments —they always seemed temporary no matter how long I actually lived in them.

If you’re looking for a place to lay down roots, but can’t afford to buy, a house is a nice option. Just talk to the landlord first to see what their long-term plans are for the home. Is it an income property or are they simply biding time until the market improves? If you like a change of pace every few years, it may not matter, but if you’re looking to grow attached, know ahead of time what you’re getting into.

Renters insurance

And when you do find the perfect place, make sure you’ve got the perfect renters policy to go with it. Whether you choose a house or an apartment, your renters insurance can go a long way in protecting the stuff that fills it (and even the stuff outside of it).

Happy house (or apartment) hunting!

Related links

8 things to look for when apartment hunting
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Insurance Fraud: Taking a Closer Look at Car Fires and Theft

People often think that we don’t have real people working behind the scenes at Esurance because we’re a company born online. But that’s simply not the case. In fact, we have over 3,000 associates around the country who do everything from figuring out insurance rates to writing blog posts (that’s me!) to answering your insurance questions. And, of course, we’ve got a dedicated claims team to help you out if you ever have an accident.

Then there’s the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), our team of crack investigators who fight against all types of insurance fraud. I told you a little about what they do in yesterday’s post. But, with the recent launch of our specialized fire and theft team, they now have even more expertise at their fingertips.

I spoke to Geoff Keah, an SIU manager, and he explained how it works.

Why launch a fire and theft unit?

The simple answer is to streamline the process. Since Esurance already had a team of claims adjusters dedicated to fire and theft, it made sense to create the SIU team to investigate the fire and theft claims that seem a little … er … suspicious.

There are several benefits to having a whole team devoted to investigating fire and theft fraud. For one, it allows the investigators to become specialists in their area — and that means better fraud detection. Secondly, the smaller group makes it easier to build a rapport between the claims adjusters and the SIU members, leading to better intel. And finally, because we have SIU members in offices around the country, the specialization ensures that we handle these cases consistently between offices.

Training for fire and theft specialists

You can’t become a specialist without some education, so Geoff wanted to ensure that the new team would see it all. In November, he brought claims and SIU investigators together for their inaugural fire and theft training.

The training, which covered things like best practices and how to take recorded statements, culminated in a controlled live burn exercise. During this exercise, multiple vehicles were set ablaze so attendees could see the differences between accidental and incendiary, or intentional, fires (check out the pictures below). While we’d love to go into more depth about how to tell the difference, obviously we can’t give away trade secrets. Suffice to say, would-be fraudsters leave behind plenty of evidence.

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SIU and law enforcement fight insurance fraud together

Because SIU teams work so closely with law enforcement, it makes sense that they’d also train together. So when local law enforcement decides to set up a burn training session with their officers, they ask insurance companies to donate their salvaged cars and invite their investigators to join the training.

The fire department also gets in on the action, donating their engines for fire suppression and giving their newer firefighters a chance to practice extinguishing fires.

Everybody wins! (Well, except for the fraudsters.)

About Geoff Keah

Geoff is a past president and a current board member of the North Texas Fire Investigators’ Association. He also has contacts in local law enforcement as well as SIU teams at other insurance companies.

Related link

Read up on fraud and our Special Investigations Unit