Automobiles, whether economy cars or the top luxury models, are rapidly becoming safer to drive, an insurance industry trade group says.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released its Top Safety Pick ratings for the 2011 model year, saying 66 vehicles, including 40 cars and 25 sport-utility vehicles, earned the group's highest safety ranking.
That's more than double the 27 vehicles achieving the group's top safety grade at the start of this year. Big roof improvements to protect passengers in rollover accidents contributed a greater number of vehicles achieving better rankings.
"That gives consumers shopping for a safer new car or SUV plenty of choices to consider in most dealer showrooms," said Adrian Lund, the institute's president. "In fact, every major automaker has at least one winning model this year." The institute rated 191 vehicles.
More autos are getting the highest rating because better safety equipment is increasingly standard, Lund said. The insurance industry-funded trade group said 92 percent of 2011 cars, 94 percent of SUVs and 56 percent of pickup trucks now have standard head and torso side air bags. Electronic stability control is standard on 92 percent of 2011 cars, all SUVs and 72 percent of pickups.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, attributed the proliferation of safety features to Congress, saying that in recent years lawmakers have pressed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set more stringent standards.
Electronic stability control, for example, must be standard in all 2012 model year cars, and more automakers are installing side-curtain air bags to satisfy a phase-in of stricter side-impact crash protection in the next several years.
"The two features we like the most are electronic stability control and side-curtain air bags," Ditlow said. "No consumer should have a car without those two features."
Federal safety regulators also have changed their evaluations and testing methods to give consumers a better view of vehicle safety ratings. In October, the Transportation Department and NHTSA unveiled a more comprehensive crash rating system for vehicles.
For the first time, the government will evaluate how women fare in accidents by using female crash dummies. The new ratings also take into account side-pole crashes and crash-prevention technology such as electronic stability control.
The agencies also said they would issue an overall vehicle score that combines the results of a frontal crash test, side crash tests and rollover resistance tests.
Automakers are reacting to these changes, Lund said. Ford added safety features when it brought out its redesigned Explorer midsize SUV at the start of the 2011 model year. The Explorer, one of the best selling SUVs ever, had never previously earned a top insurance institute rating.
Ford also upgraded the roofs of its Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT SUVs as well as its Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans. The four vehicles previously failed to win top safety rankings because they lacked the required roof strength.
And when GM launched its Chevrolet Cruze compact car this year, it put 10 air bags, including knee protection, in the car as standard equipment, the insurance group said.
Some segments of the industry still lag when it comes to safety features. None of the small pickup trucks the institute evaluated qualified for this year's award. It has not yet tested large pickups.