Test Time

There was a time when 'buckle up' was the most salient safety advice available. Not anymore. Luckily, the market is flooded with devices to improve driver safety, although it is sometimes difficult to determine where to begin outfitting a vehicle for optimizing accident prevention. This process, a convolution of mandates and standards, coupled with application-specific devices and components, can make for a confusing implementation program. Still, there are some options that you may not realize are absolutely critical to your fleet's safety.

Ask the Experts

David Zuby, VP of vehicle research for the Insurance Institue for Highway Safety (IIHS) has some recommendations for a proactive fleet to get on the right track in spec'ing. The IIHS is an independent non-profit organization that researches crash data in an effort to lower the rate of roadway fatalities.

"There are some people—even in the safety industry—who put, what I would say is, too much emphasis on crash avoidance, thinking that someday in the future, all crashes can be avoided," Zuby says. "I would say that's probably unlikely, so that's why I would recommend not trading off crash protection to get crash avoidance features. Especially since there are choices on the market that offer both."

NHTSA Takes OEMs to Task

Crash protection features—such as front and side airbags, safety belts and body design—seem like a no-brainer: who doesn't have this covered? Turns out, not all new vehicles are equipped with side curtain airbags, a feature that can reduce side-impact vehicle fatalities dramatically.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the US Department of Transportation, is intimately involved in the process of ensuring the government mandate crash protection and crash avoidance features in new vehicles. While side airbags are not currently required, NHTSA has recommended that certain side impact standards be adopted by automakers. The way these automakers meet the requirements does not currently demand a specific technology, such as side airbags, although side airbags are something IIHS suggests are "very effective in preventing injuries and deaths," according to Zuby.

NHTSA has been getting a lot of media attention in regards to their most recent campaign. Their latest efforts have been in spearheading an effort to require OEMs to build electronic stability control (ESC) systems into their new passenger vehicles by 2012.

According to a recent press release, NHTSA claims required ESC could save over 10,000 lives every year, mostly in single-vehicle accidents with the likelihood of rollover. According to their report, "NHTSA estimates that the installation of ESC will reduce single-vehicle crashes of passenger cars by 34 percent and single-vehicle crashes of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) by 59 percent, with a much greater reduction of rollover crashes."

The IIHS includes ESC in its advisements as well. "Generally, we would recommend choosing cars that offer both crash protection, and features that may help drivers prevent crashes, like ESC," Zuby says. "There are a lot of cars out there that offer both good crash protection and electronic stability control, so I would say that you don't want to trade one for the other."

Control Yourself

Paul Mercurio, marketing manager, chassis systems division for the Robert Bosch Corporation, sees ESC as one of the most important elements in a solid safety program.

"It's very beneficial in protecting the driver and the passengers in a panic situation," Mercurio explains. "Most likely these things are going to occur when you're driving down the road and you least expect it, and something pulls out in front of you; something falls off a truck—something that causes you to make a much more severe maneuver than you would expect to do."

A standard ESC system allows for the vehicle to take over and brake individual wheels when it feels as though the driver has lost control. According to Mercurio, "ESC is best suited to keeping the vehicle in control by following the driver's command, and going where the vehicle is pointed—obviously where the driver's intention is at that time."

Another optional Bosch safety feature is what the company calls "hill descent control." According to Mercurio, this is optimal for off-road applications in slippery conditions or loose road surfaces. With hill descent control, the vehicle is able to detect the level of incline and acceleration rates to help determine whether the brakes need assistance in helping the driver regain control. "It's applying the brake at really low pressure to keep a very constant deceleration rate as the vehicle is going down the hill, holding it to a very small speed range that can be pre-set," he explains. "Maybe you're accelerating faster than you want to. If something comes up where you have to brake again quickly, this provides very steady deceleration rather than the car 'getting away from you.'"

Mercurio suggests that, from a maintenance standpoint, standard ESC and optional hill descent control will not change service intervals on brakes: "It's not something that's going to significantly make a big impact on brake lining wear or something like that. It's not going to drive any higher maintenance rates or costs."

Lighting the Way

Some of your safety spec'ing options are a bit more basic. According to Fred Snow, vice president of lighting manufacturer Hella's aftermarket division, people often underestimate things like good headlights and taillights in maintaining a consistent level of safety. Hella has been proactive in the market in its lighting ventures, attempting to blend audio and visual warning systems into a more comprehensive and safe product line.

"What we have that is unique is in some of our LED beacons," Snow says. "We've come up with a new system that is specific to us, where the LED kit can be set with the dim switch, so it has this operation: when you put the vehicle in reverse, the beacon actually changes its flash pattern. So that will give visible indication that the vehicle has changed to be coming in reverse."

The idea behind this is twofold. One major benefit is that the warning system can function in a loud environment, such as at a construction site, where relying strictly on audio warnings isn't enough. Another is to combat the potential problem that, perhaps, backup alarms are so commonplace that people stop noticing them. "There are so many in the marketplace and people are so used to them that maybe when they hear a backup alarm, it doesn't get the attention that maybe it deserves," Snow says. "It's an important aspect of any warning device to not only know, 'hey, there's something I need to be careful of,' but also, 'where is it?'"

Hella's headlight and taillight line also offers enhanced safety, focusing increasingly more on LEDs. "They illuminate much quicker," Snow says. "At 60 miles per hour, that can mean 10 or 20 feet in distance, in the amount of time it took for an incandescent bulb to illuminate. That's added safety, along with the other benefits of LEDs—they last longer and are more vibration resistant."

A Shining Star in Safety

GM has made its own attempt to incorporate a safety system into its vehicles that covers any number of potential scenarios. GM's OnStar system is a GPS- (global positioning system) based driver interface that allows the user access to routing features, as well as accident response mechanisms and a 24-hour operator service.

Fritz Beiermeister, director of business sales and marketing for GM's OnStar division, explains some of the specifics: "What OnStar does is, if somebody hits something out on the road and an airbag deploys, the car will automatically make a call for help. Then we get a screen that pops up at the call center that, on one half of the screen, will basically give us the vehicle information. The other half of the screen is a map where that vehicle is located. That is accurate within 20 meters in the US and Canada, the geographies that we cover," he says.

"GM started releasing another feature a couple of years ago called Advanced Automatic Crash Notification," Beiermeister adds. "We put sensors all around the vehicle, so it doesn't have to have an airbag deployment in order to make that call."

While it might sound a little "big brother" at first, Beiermeister is quick to point out that GM does not monitor vehicle location at any time other than at the request of the driver, or in the event of a crash.

The Tire Priority

Richard Van Dyke, vice president of Tire Sentry, sees tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) as a great way to improve both tire life and overall vehicle safety. The TPMS has the ability to alert the driver when there is a problem in the inflation levels of any tire on the vehicle. Giving the driver a chance to address the inflation problem before it is too late can be critical to his or her safety.

According to Van Dyke, "The tire manufacturers tell us that all those alligators we see out there on the road are not just from retreads, but they're from new tires as well—a result, generally, of tires being under-inflated," he says. "When they're under-inflated it leads to excessive sidewall flexing which generates more heat than a tire can withstand. Pretty soon the tire starts to de-vulcanize and leads to what they call a 'zipper rupture,' and the tire just comes apart. That's all a result of a tire that's under-inflated."

Training: Is it Enough?

Of course, it goes without saying that a driver with all the safety systems in the world can still crash a car. But, according to IIHS's Zuby, there is another side to this too: don't rely too much on driver training to keep your vehicles and operators out of harm's way.

"The research that we know about driver training suggests that it doesn't, by itself, lead to lower crash rates among drivers," Zuby says. "Certainly some kind of training, with some level of monitoring and enforcement to make sure a driver is adhering to safe driving practices can be effective. But simply giving somebody training doesn't necessarily lead to that person being a safer driver."

Charting the Return

The payback on these types of safety features, of course, comes in the way of keeping your employees safe. Still, if you want numbers, think about cost avoidance.

With GM's OnStar, the safety features are coupled with other cost saving devices. "From a cost avoidance sort of thing— this is the most amazing number: we get involved in 50,000+ remote door unlocks in a month," Beiermeister says. The OnStar operators have the ability to electronically open the locks after receiving the call and relevant vehicle information. "We can get somebody back on the road in a couple of minutes where they might have had to wait a couple of hours. We've had people that have been able to make appointments because we've been able to help them. Fleets would tell you that the cost of sending somebody out to do a door unlock could be as high as $150."

Tire Sentry's Van Dyke suggests that a TPMS can also improve efficiency by reducing the number of necessary manual tire checks. "Electronic tire pressure monitoring could be a particularly useful tool in reducing the need for manual pressure checks having to be done on a regular basis. It also can free up some of the yard personnel for other tasks."

Hella's Snow maintains that when spec'ing a vehicle for safety, cost should not be the number one concern. "There's a lot of research we've done; price can't be the only consideration when you're talking about safety items," he says. "There has to be some consideration for the innovation and the effectiveness of it. That's what we can bring to the party."

A Little Help From Your Friends

If it seems like there is almost too much to choose from, you can always rely on IIHS to offer advice. Their website features an array of vehicle reviews and testing procedures, to ensure that you can know every thing possible to know about safety before the point of purchase.

"For people looking for recommendations, IIHS now does publish what we consider our top safety picks for cars," Zuby says.

"The 2007 model requirements are a bit stricter (than 2006): we're requiring a good rating in front, side and rear crashes, and all require that the vehicle be equipped with electronic stability control. I think people who are looking to buy safe cars should heed these recommendations."