Motoring: So you think you drive one of the safer cars? - The industry's soft sell can sometimes hide the hard truth about safety, says Gavin Green

SAFETY, once a car industry swearword that only those weirdos at Volvo ever treated seriously, is now the most important single factor when buying a car, according to a recent survey of Time magazine's European readers.

Whether or not the survey reflects the outlook in Britain, there is no doubt that manufacturers have put safety first in trying to flog this year's cars.

The trouble with safety-related car ads is that it is almost impossible to separate flannel from fact. No public authority in the world can say definitively who makes the safest, and most dangerous, cars.

In some countries, including Sweden and the United States, some insurance companies establish a ratio between all accidents in a make of car and those that proved fatal. Your percentage chance of having a fatal accident in that car is then worked out. The Swedish study, by the insurance group Folksam, reckons you're least likely to be killed in a Saab 9000, but have a substantially higher than normal risk if you drive an older Nissan Micra (not the new model built in Sunderland), Renault 5 (1974-91) or Toyota Starlet (1985-90).

Most people, of course, judge safety on image. Volvo comes out well, because of its safety-centred ad campaigns and because its cars look like tanks; people assume that they must be safe.

But like most car safety ads, Volvo's are misleading. Its most recent showed a 440 saloon hanging from a single seatbelt but failed to mention that any car in the 440's class could have done the same thing: regulations insist that all seatbelts fitted to European road cars are capable of supporting 1.5 tons of weight - well over that of a 440.

The only official safety test done in Europe is a head-on crash into a concrete block at 30mph. Some cars must pass that test better than others, but the findings are not released. Not that they would prove that car A was safer than car B, only that it was safer striking a concrete block head on. As the Consumers' Association points out, a test involving a concrete block is artificial. 'Most cars hit soft objects - other cars, usually,' said a Which? spokesman. 'Also, drivers try to avoid each other, so the chance of running into something absolutely straight-on is slight. The old concrete- block test has led to cars which perform well in the test itself, but do poorly in a real accident.'

There is still debate among car engineers about the effectiveness of some high-profile safety measures. Most prominent is the side impact bar, current darling of the copywriters. The principle behind it seems sensible enough: a steel bar (or bars) in the doors should help resist the Transit van that's T-boned you.

Yet many car enginers are not convinced. A Mercedes engineer told me years ago that side impact bars did little to repel invaders. Their worth was further cancelled by a propensity to snap, which could grievously wound occupants. In heavy head-on crashes, they can also puncture nearby pillars, acting like bolts, jamming doors shut and trapping passengers. Firemen are particularly worried about this: some German rescue teams are finding that it is much harder to cut injured people free.

A senior Fiat engineer - and Fiat has Europe's largest safety research facility - also told me recently that the bars were of debatable value: 'They are more of a marketing exercise than an engineering fix,' he told me. Some manufacturers, he was suggesting, are cynically bolting on 'safety devices'.

Britain's Transport Research Laboratory has issued similar warnings, particularly against makers who have fitted side impact bars on to old designs, which is a common practice.

So what can you do to try to ensure that you buy a bastion not a breaker? There are two safety devices of undoubted value: the driver's airbag and anti-lock brakes (ABS). After the fitting of safety belts - probably the most important single reason for roads becoming safer, and now compulsory in Britain for both front and rear seat passengers - the airbag is the next big leap.

Many mass makers fit a driver's airbag to their cars, most notably Ford, which now includes them as standard on all models except the Fiesta. In simple terms, they cushion the driver's head and upper body in the event of a severe accident, greatly increasing the chance of survival and avoiding serious injury.

However, the worth of passenger-side airbags - usually fitted only to up-market cars - is more debatable. Never put a rearward-facing child's seat in a front seat of an airbag-equipped car. Equally, those of you who like put your feet on the dash be warned: if you crash, the airbag will probably break your back.

ABS brakes fitted as standard to most top-range cars, and often optional on mid-range models, have been responsible for the avoidance of countless accidents. So have recent improvements in tyre design and handling: cars are now much more manoeuvrable.

In the current promotion of safety, there's probably been too much talk about making your car resemble a tank and not enough about avoiding an accident in the first place. Cars that handle better, steer better, stop better and grip better have been just as responsible for the commendable drop in road deaths as cars that crash better.

The Transport Research Laboratory is now urging car makers to fit softer bumpers with a greater surface area in order to cut serious injuries to pedestrians. Some fairly minor changes, says the laboratory, would cut injuries by 21 per cent, and deaths by 7 per cent.

The laboratory's call highlights the absurdity of those big bull bars fitted to many 4 x 4 vehicles - the biggest-growing sector of the British car market. Most of these very pedestrian-unfriendly devices are fitted as 'after market' extras by dealers, and must provide nice little earners for the industry.

There is an irony here. The motor industry proudly tells the world how safety- conscious it is by fitting side-intrusion bars. At the same time it bolts bull-bars on to the front of big off-roaders. Would the side-bars stop a thump from the bull- bars? Assuredly not.

(Photograph omitted)

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