Special Report on the Motor Show (9): Bags of new ideas for giving priority to safety: New seatbelts, airbags and anti-skid control are all designed to reduce injury to motorists. Anthony Lewis reports

SELLING safety has never been easy. A recent national survey by Renault among 1,000 women drivers put safety second to reliability as the most important quality in a car, and anti-lock brakes were rated as by far the single most important feature, with power steering and seats second and third.

The safest part of a car is the driver, and if the driver is sitting comfortably in a well-planned interior, he or she will be able to concentrate totally on driving, says Vauxhall, which puts ergonomics high on the priority list.

At Ford the view is that safety will sell cars. 'It's the right thing for us to do for the public,' says Deborah Saybold, the UK programme manager on the Escort and Orion. She identifies the main areas of development as the more widespread use of airbags and improvements in seat design and how seatbelts work.

Seatbelts that pre-tension - actually pulling the occupant back in his seat rather than just stopping him from being thrown forward - are becoming more common. A three-point belt in the centre of the rear seats instead of a lapbelt has been standard in Volvos since 1990.

Built-in safety - making the passenger cage stronger, for example - was a vital part of the revamping of the Escort, which went on sale at the beginning of the month. Ms Saybold says: 'We want to keep improving the safety of our cars independent of what the competition is doing. We want to lead the market in safety.'

The restyled Escort, Britain's best-selling car, gets side-impact protection bars - horizontal bars fitted inside the doors - which were part of the new Vauxhall Astra package when it was launched a year ago, and have now been extended to the Cavalier and Calibra, the best-selling coupe.

There is little doubt that Britain's two leading manufacturers are keen to be seen giving priority to safety. But as Ms Saybold admits, educating the public is a lengthy process. In the United States, most people want airbags in their cars now that early doubts about them blowing up at the wrong time have proved groundless.

Last month Vauxhall announced that a driver's airbag would be available as an option on all Astras and Cavaliers from the New Year. A similar announcement from Ford is imminent.

The Volkswagen Vento, which makes its UK debut at the Motor Show, becomes the first car in its class to offer both a driver's and front-seat-passenger airbag as an option. VW uses a smaller Euro- standard airbag of 35 litres for the driver whose position in the car is fairly restricted, but a slightly larger bag for the passenger, whose position cannot be predicted.

Improving the design of seats to stop occupants submarining (sliding out under a belt) is another area of progress, and rear-seat passengers have not been forgotten. 'There's potential to improve the seat design again and of course we could have airbags for rear-seat passengers as well,' says Ms Saybold. She even raises the possibility of airbags fitted into the doors for side impact protection - eight airbags in all.

These are all passive measures designed to stop people getting hurt in an accident. Great emphasis is also being placed on active safety, helping drivers to avoid accidents. After anti-lock brakes comes anti-skid control, which works by using the brakes to stop a wheel spinning so that drive is automatically transferred to the wheel with most grip. Some systems automatically cut engine power until grip is restored.

The VW Vento has TCS (traction control system) which does not cut engine power - a decision taken on the grounds that drivers would find it disconcerting if power was suddenly restricted while they were trying to cross a slippery road junction in a hurry.

Devices like these will become commonplace on more expensive cars and slowly filter through the range as they become accepted.

Experience elsewhere shows that the more expensive the car, the more likely the buyer is to specify safety options. John Evans at Mercedes-Benz says that when the company halved the price of driver's side airbags a year ago, there was a measurable take-up of the then pounds 721 option. Mercedes will fit airbags and anti-lock brakes as standard on all cars built from this month. Some will also have front-seat-passenger airbags as standard. The company has just fitted its one millionth airbag to a car, 12 years after introducing them.

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