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Stability Control and Seatbelt Use

It seems that no matter how advanced safety technology gets, it’s tough to beat the old standbys.

Last week, the entire U.S. News Cars crew headed over to FedEx field to check out GM’s Main Street in Motion event. Basically, Main Street in Motion travels around the country, giving consumers a chance to test drive GM cars without a salesperson riding along. You can also test drive the competition right there. We went to the event not only for the test drives, but also for some safety demonstrations.

The most impressive demonstration was of GM’s Stabilitrak system. Stabilitrak is GM-speak for electronic stability control. ESC will be standard in all cars for the 2012 model year, and with good reason. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that ESC lowers fatal single-vehicle crash risk by 49 percent and reduces rollover risk by 75 percent for SUVs and 72 percent for cars. The system works by monitoring driver input and vehicle response, and stepping in by selectively braking individual wheels and reducing engine power when it detects a possible loss of control. In essence, ESC helps you avoid skids and keep control of the car. Here’s how a car doing a high-speed avoidance maneuver looks and sounds without ESC.

Lots of skidding, lots of body roll. Also, the car in the video was driven by a professional driver on a closed course. Don’t try this yourself. Here’s the same car doing the same maneuver with the ESC switched on.

There’s less skidding and more control.

I spoke with two of GM’s safety engineers and they said that no matter how many airbags or high-tech accident avoidance systems they put in a car, there’s one thing that everyone can do to increase their odds of surviving an accident: wear a seatbelt. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that seatbelts save more than 14,000 lives each year. All the airbags in your car are engineered to work with the seatbelts. If you don’t have a seatbelt on, the airbags are much less likely to protect you. In fact, they may injure you. Not wearing a seatbelt also increases your risk of being thrown from the car in an accident, which drastically increases the chances that you’ll be killed.

As important as wearing a seatbelt is, a lot of us aren’t wearing them properly. Take me, for example. I’m pretty short, and in a lot of cars, the seatbelt hits me high, cutting into my neck. I thought that was just an annoyance, but GM’s safety engineers told me that by not taking a second to adjust the belt, I was more likely to slide out from under the shoulder strap, and be injured by the airbag. Most cars, trucks and SUVs have adjustable seatbelt shoulder anchors you can move up and down to fit you. Make sure you get the seatbelt situated before you hit the road.

The shoulder strap should be comfortable, and come down in the middle of your shoulder. It shouldn’t touch your neck, nor should it slide off your shoulder. The strap should cross the center of your chest. The lap portion of the belt should be worn low across your hip bones. That’s because your hip bones are strong and can take the force of the belt, anchoring you in an accident. Wear the lap portion high on your abdomen, and the force of the belt holding you in place will be borne by soft tissue and organs, which increases your risk for injury.

If you want to learn more about the right way to use seat belts, check out the NHTSA’s Top 5 Things You Should Know about Buckling Up. They even have a special seat belt guide for pregnant women, as well as info on seat belt use in teens and older adults. 

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