Electrifying and Safe

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Two for One

Electric cars are safe and green

By Deb Acord

CTW Features

The 2011 Nissan Leaf has gotten a lot of press for its all-electric engine and 100 miles per charge. But it’s also winning praise for something else: its safety system.

Automakers are always looking to make cars safer. Technologic advancements and safety features on new models offer drivers more protective equipment than ever before.

It’s a trend that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety applauds each year with its “Top Safety Pick” ratings. The rating is awarded to vehicles that are given the Institute’s highest rating in impact protection, electronic stability control and roof strength.

This year, in the first-ever U.S. crash test evaluations of plug-in electric cars, the Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt earned the highest safety ratings from the IIHS. The Volt is a full-performance electronic vehicle with a gasoline-powered extended range mode.

“What powers the wheels [of the Leaf and Volt] is different, but the level of safety is as high as any of our other top crash test performers,” says Joe Nolan, chief administrative officer for the Insurance Institute.

What elevates that level of safety in the Leaf? According to Nissan, its Advanced Air Bag System features a variety of high-end features to keep both the driver and passenger safe.

The Volt is equipped with eight standard air bags and safety belts with dual pretensioners to help reduce injury. The vehicle is equipped with General Motors’ OnStar system that uses sensors to detect certain types of collisions and connect the occupants immediately to a safety advisor who can send help.

It all adds up to a safer ride, says Nissan spokesman Colin Price. “The parts of the safety system work together to help protect the occupants. A good example of this is the seat belt and the air bags. The seat belt is the most important part of the air bag system because the air bags are designed to supplement their use. The innovation in the approach is to design the entire system to work together rather than developing individual safety features.”

The Insurance Institute classifies the Leaf and the Volt as small cars, but they make up for size with heft. “The battery pack in the Leaf weighs approximately 600 pounds, and the car weighs about 3,370 pounds,” Price says. Nissan’s midsize model, the Altima, weighs about 3,200 pounds

A vehicle’s weight helps in serious crashes, says the Insurance Institute. Last year, two golf-cart sized electric vehicles didn’t fare as well as the mainstream Leaf and Volt.

Seat belts and air bags are also part of the safety equation. Between 2005 and 2009, seat belts saved more than 72,000 lives, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And in 2009, 12,713 lives were saved by seat belts for occupants five and older; 2,381 lives were saved by frontal air bags for occupants 13 and older.

Do car shoppers really consider safety features when they are choosing a new car? Most drivers will never see first-hand how an air bag works and they can’t try out a car’s air bags on a test drive. The system, including an air bag module, crash sensors and a diagnostic unit, is triggered by a crash.

But Price says today’s consumers “are very savvy. Safety features are some of the features consumers analyze when shopping.”


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