Panel Discusses Impact of Safety on Consumer Choice During SAE International's Government/Meeting; Educating the Consumer about Safety Issues Also Is Hot Topic
February 1, 2010

A panel held during last week's SAE International annual government/industry meeting in Washington, D.C., brought together several safety experts who agreed that safety affects consumer choice when it comes to decisions involving their cars.

The panel included Dave Zuby, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), who discussed not only the types of ratings the insurer-funded IIHS provides, but also their importance to consumers.

The SAE Government/Industry Meeting was held in conjunction with the Washington Auto Show. Though the popular auto show in its early years was held during the week between Christmas and New Year's, to attract a large consumer basis, it has moved to late January in recent years in hopes of impacting the nation's lawmakers.

"Our effort is one way [insurers] can be seen working to control what's going on on the highway," Zuby said.

He also pointed out that one of the institute's main goals is to "keep highway safety in the public eye."

The IIHS offers four different ratings, including front crashworthiness, side crashworthiness, roof strength, and rear crashworthiness. The group recently began rating bumpers as well. The Auto Glass Replacement Safety Standard Council's board visited the IIHS's test facility in Ruckersville, Va., last March. (CLICK HERE for related story.)

In addition, the group creates lists each year of the top safest cars and trucks on the road, known as its "Top Safety Picks."

"We change the criteria each year to keep this list meaningful," Zuby said.

Crash avoidance systems-a popular topic among industry participants, due to their impacts on a vehicle's glass system-also were a popular topic.

"It's still not clear from the real world how the systems manufacturers are putting into cars are going to work," he said. Currently, he pointed out, only two of the vehicles on the 2009 Top Safety Picks list have forward avoidance ratings-so for now, he said, this will not play a prominent role on the list.

Dean McConnell of Continental Automotive Systems NA addressed another important topic, educating consumers about safety. McConnell noted that while educating the consumer is important, educating the industry is just as important.

"What we believe based on experience is that marketing of safety equals education on all levels-not just consumers," he said.

McConnell offered a look at the history of auto safety, from the first traffic fatality in 1899, to the first airbags in 1974, to 2003, when the first collision avoidance system appeared. In 2012, he noted, the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) will require Electronic Stability Control on all light vehicles. He also predicted that vehicles that drive themselves are not far into the future.

"I'm not saying we're ready for autonomous vehicles, but the technology is there," said McConnell.

And this is where McConnell said consumer education becomes most important.
"There are a lot of misconceptions out there and our goal is to turn those into real understanding," he said.

He pointed out, for example, that before some of the technologically advanced systems, such as Volvo's CitySafety program, which monitors surrounding traffic, become widespread, the public needs to be educated.

"We've learned from ABS systems and from airbags that if people don't know how they work, some value is lost," McConnell said.

However, once this happens, he hopes that soon the available systems will become economical for the average consumer.

"Our vision is to have safety systems that are affordable to everyone," he added.

David Champion of Consumer Reports noted that though consumers may view safety as important, sometimes, there are too many sources.

"There are many different sources and sometimes all those factors can be quite difficult for the consumer to understand," Champion said.

Champion also touched on an interesting area for car development and how various safety measures can impact a vehicle's overall safety.

"A car is a compromise-any safety feature you add could take away from another area," he said. "For example, we don't want roof strength to be implemented to the point that it hinders your ability to see out of the car."

And, finally, he questioned some of the latest safety mechanisms.

"Are we making the cars so good that we're taking away the inherent conscience needed to drive the cars?" he asked.

The SAE Government/Industry Meeting was held at the Washington Convention Center in conjunction with the Washington Auto Show last week. Stay tuned to™ for a detailed look at the Washington Auto Show.

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