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Car safety: Thank a rich guy

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CarInsurance.com

Rich guy in carYou'll have to work pretty hard to crash the newest Lexus.

The company's flagship sedan arrives in the fall with a "pre-collision system" that hits the brakes for you if it senses an impending frontal impact at speeds under 30 mph. Those who've driven it are impressed.

And those shelling out north of $60,000 for a new LS460 are likely to be happy to buy this cutting-edge feature. But should every car have the same kind of technology?

The average consumer has an auto accident of some kind every 10 years, according to Allstate, and files a collision claim about every 18 years. (See "Here's how many accidents you'll have.") But you can't predict whether you'll be involved in a fender-bender or a rollover, or whether your safety dollars will be put to good use.

That means, as you shop for a car and consider possible safety options, you're effectively putting a price on your own life.

Safety, sure -- but discounts?

New technology always brings ethical questions, says Steven Mason of The Brand Mason, an ethicist who helps companies with branding.

"Economists can easily put a price on a life," he says.

For example, for the 12.8 million cars sold in 2011, if a safety feature were required in every new car at a cost of $1.28 billion and saved 100 lives, it would cost $12.8 million per life saved, Mason says.

Your share of that could be well worth the expense if you're involved in an accident where it saves your life. But if you trade in the car without a scratch years later, is the money wasted?

You get some of that money back, of course, in a safer car's improved resale value. The car's safety record may have helped its insurance rating. (See "How a car gets a bad reputation.") And while the safety feature itself may have brought you an insurance discount, you shouldn't always count on that, says Bob Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America.

Hunter takes the wider view.

"If it doesn't make rates go down, it tempers rate increases" because of fewer crashes, Hunter says.

The rich driver is a guinea pig

Air bags were expensive once. Now you cannot buy a car that has less than four.

"Safety systems start out being very expensive," says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "That's why they start out in luxury cars."

But costs drop as technologies work through a fleet of cars. Luxury cars serve as a proving ground to sort useful features from merely expensive gadgets. For example, recent data show that high-tech headlights that "steer" around corners save lives, but lane-departure warning systems so far do not.

Innovations that have become standard -- such as anti-lock brakes -- can be building blocks for other improvements such as electronic stability control, Rader says. Electronic stability control, which prevents cars from losing traction in an emergency maneuver, was first an option in cars in 1995 and is now required by the federal government on all cars. (See "The biggest safety innovation since the seat belt.")

Crash-avoidance systems are costly, either attached as standard equipment to a very expensive car or as part of a $2,000 to $4,000 technology package on some less expensive models.

While the cost of the next generation of many crash-avoidance systems could drop to $500, according to the 2012 Crash Course report by CCC Information Services, 30 years could pass before most vehicles on the road have them.

Where to put your dollars

Ultimately, technology such as autonomous cars could eliminate virtually all traffic fatalities. (See "Will robot cars cut your premiums 80 percent?") But many less ambitious technologies will arrive before the idiot-proof car does, underwritten by those willing to write an early-adopter-size check.

The Highway Loss Data Institute projects that as many as one in three fatal crashes could be avoided with new features such as rear-view cameras, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning and forward-looking radar. Simply buying a car so equipped may make some feel safer behind the wheel, Mason says, even if the safety features go ignored.

"The marginal benefit you get from technology versus the actual benefit is almost always going to be less because people get lazy," he says.

Some advances may be invisible to the naked eye but costly nonetheless.

For example, carbon fiber -- used to replace steel -- can absorb more energy in a crash, but it would cost at least $2,000 more per car, says Greg Rucks, a consultant at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Its research has found that lighter vehicles ultimately could be safer than heavier ones.

For his money, Rader says he'd want the latest safety equipment when buying a new car, if he could afford it.

"We don't know if some of those features are going to work in the real world, but they can't hurt," he says.

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1 Responses to "Car safety: Thank a rich guy"
  1. Greg Rucks

    Greetings, Aaron. I enjoyed the story, but I have a correction. I was the interviewee quoted for the assertion that carbon fiber "would cost at least $2,000 more per car." While it is strictly true that carbon fiber is more expensive than steel, what matters is the cost of the vehicle. People buy cars, not particular quantities of raw materials. During the interview I emphasized that if all the manufacturing-cost-saving benefits imparted by carbon fiber are taken into account, including reduced fixed and nonmaterial variable manufacturing costs, powertrain downsizing, and other structural downsizing in mass-related components such as brakes, the additional cost of the carbon fiber is substantially offset. Further cost benefit results from the fuel saving realized by the customer due to lighter weight and thus improved fuel economy. Our latest analysis indicates that carbon-fiber-based vehicles can approach parity with steel-based vehicles once the full suite of these system benefits is accounted for in the total cost picture. Thank you Greg Rucks Consultant Rocky Mountain Institute

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