Avoid Danger this Summer

Hot fun in the summertime -- that's something Americans are fond of, but hot summer temperatures, heavily loaded vehicles and poorly maintained tires can spell disaster.  These three factors can combine to produce sudden tire failure, what is commonly referred to as a blowout, and that, in turn, can lead to loss of vehicle control.  The result could well be a tragic accident.

The vehicle experts at GM Goodwrench say poor maintenance of a vehicle's tires is a risk no motorist can afford. While many motorists rely on their tires without giving them a second (or even first) thought, maintaining tires can help avoid premature and/or uneven wear, poor performance and even the aforementioned blowouts.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates tire failures or blowouts contribute to more than 400 deaths and 10,000 injuries in the U.S. each year. Yet statistics show that some drivers don't follow the basic tire maintenance guidelines that can help prevent tire failures. According to the Car Care Council, 26 percent of the vehicles inspected at checkpoints during Car Care Month 2004 had low air pressure in one or more tires.

"Although today's tires are more technologically advanced than ever before, regular visual inspections and maintenance are critical to enabling tires to perform at their best," said Doug Herberger, GM North America vice president and general manager of service and parts operations.

Underinflation is the leading cause of tire failure, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, because underinflated tires create internal friction that forces them to work harder. This can be compounded by summer temperatures and vehicles that are heavily loaded.  Overloading creates excessive stresses and heat and can lead to tire failure and a crash.  Tiresafety, which offers a wide variety of tire safety tips, notes that with today's tires underinflation cannot be readily detected by the naked eye.  Instead, it's necessary to check tire pressure using an accurate gauge.

Changes in outdoor temperature can affect the rate at which a tire loses air. Typically, a tire loses one to two pounds of pressure per month, and even more in warm weather.

To help avoid underinflation, the Rubber Manufacturers Association recommends checking the air pressure in your tires at least once a month and before every long trip.  If they are underinflated, bring them up to the manufacturer's suggested tire pressure specified in the owner's manual.

Tires should be checked when they are cold, that is, before they have run for one mile. Experts also say you should never "bleed" or reduce air pressure when tires are hot.  It's normal for pressure to build up as a result of driving.

Remember, too, if your tire sustains a blowout, you can maintain control of your vehicle.  The key to this is avoiding panic.  For instance, don't slam on your brakes.  That can cause your car to swerve in the direction of the blowout. Instead, gently apply the brakes and gently guide the vehicle to a safe area off the road.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on safety-related issues. 

Study Says American Drivers Suck

If you've driven around America much lately, as we have, you have undoubtedly experienced some mighty poor driving.  Now there is more than anecdotal evidence that American drivers are woefully in need of refresher courses in basic driving skills.  The results of the second annual GMAC Insurance National Drivers Test suggest that licensed Americans "lack basic driving knowledge and exhibit alarming behaviors on the road." The study revealed that one in 11 drivers -- nearly 18 million people -- would fail a state drivers test if one were administered to them today. Furthermore, the study shows drivers deliberately disregard pedestrians and treat driving as the new "down time," where they catch up on the day's activities, diverting their attention from the road.

The startling results come one year after GMAC Insurance first set out to gauge the knowledge of the American driving public, when licensed drivers were administered 20 questions found on a typical DMV written drivers test. Reinforcing last year's discoveries, the new findings indicate drivers still do not have adequate knowledge of basic rules of the road, and they exhibit bad habits behind the wheel.

"The rules of the road should not be something you learn once when you are 16 years old," said Gary Kusumi, CEO and president, GMAC Insurance Personal Lines. "We want to remind everyone that they need to work on their driving skills every day. If we're all diligent, we can avoid many accidents and stay safe."

Perhaps the most dangerous behavior discovered by the study regards drivers' concern for pedestrians.  The fact is, there isn't much for concern for pedestrians, according to the study. Roughly one in three drivers usually do not stop for pedestrians even if they're in a crosswalk or at a yellow light.  At least one out of five drivers do not know that a pedestrian has the right of way at a marked or unmarked crosswalk. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), pedestrians constitute the second largest category of motor vehicle crash deaths after vehicle occupants, accounting for 11 percent of fatalities.  (Of course, the analytical thinker might question where else victims might be if they are neither in a vehicle nor at roadside? In blimps?  Below manhole covers?)
 
Be that as it may, 43 percent of all pedestrian injuries and 22 percent of fatal injuries to pedestrians occur in collisions with motor vehicles at intersections. In addition, many pedestrians are killed on sidewalks, median strips and traffic islands.  (None, however, was reported killed on "Fantasy Island."  Good news.)
 
Of equal concern is a growing trend in which Americans treat driving as a time to catch up on activities they didn't get to in their hectic day. Results show that while driving, American drivers engage in a variety of distracting behaviors, including chatting on a cell phone, sending text messages, e-mailing friends, selecting songs on iPods, applying makeup, changing clothes and reading. Drivers aged 18-24 are the most likely to engage in these distracting -- and dangerous -- behaviors.
 
For the second year in a row, Oregon drivers ranked highest on the test, with an average score of 91 percent (70 percent or higher is required to pass a standard drivers test), and Rhode Island's drivers ranked lowest, with an average score of 75 percent. Overall, drivers in the Northeast region are most apt to fail the test, with state failure rates of 16 percent or more.  Drivers in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest regions are the most knowledgeable, with state failure rates ranging from one percent to seven percent.

If you'd like to see how you would do, the drivers test administered in the study is available to the public online at GMAC Insurance.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley frequently visits the United States in his quest to report on the auto industry and the human condition.  He lives in Villeperce, France.

Child Safety and the SUV

A study that hit the news recently delivered a counterintuitive message. When the general news media reported on the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, it gave the impression that sport utility vehicles were no safer for child-passengers than cars. But according to analysis of a much broader study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), children are at least twice as safe in SUVs than in passenger cars when properly restrained. Of course, NHTSA is the federal government agency responsible for automobile and highway safety.

"Two times safer means a lot safer, and this is vital information that parents, grandparents and caregivers need to know," said Barry McCahill, president of Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America (SUVOA). "Unfortunately, it was widely reported that SUVs provide no more crash protection for children than cars -- and that's just not true."

The comprehensive NHTSA study, "Child Passenger Fatalities and Injuries Based on Restraint Use, Vehicle Type, Seat Position, and Number of Vehicles in the Crash," considered all fatal crashes, as well as injury crashes. In looking at crashes involving both restrained and unrestrained children researchers found that for children in safety seats or safety belts injuries were 21 percent greater for cars than SUVs, and SUVs provide 2 to 2.4 times better protection from fatal injury than cars.

"The NHTSA study documents still again that what you drive has much to do with crash outcome," McCahill said. "All else being equal in safety equipment, occupants of a larger vehicle fare better in a crash, which is why an SUV is among the smartest safety choices. They may cost more to operate, but the added expense could be viewed as another form of life insurance."
 
Why the discrepancy between the findings of the two studies? SUVOA believes the findings reported in Pediatrics were the result of a much smaller scale study based on a sample of less than one tenth of one percent of all crash-injured children, and it was limited to only 16 states. Perhaps the biggest reason for the discrepancy is that the study made no distinction between the types of injury reported -- small cuts and brain injuries were considered equal -- and the injuries were self-reported by the driver of the vehicle involved.

"The NHTSA study is far more authoritative because it is national in scope and much more extensive. Moreover, it comes from the agency that is the premier source for auto crash data collection and analysis," McCahill added. "Parents should look to the NHTSA findings for the bottom line in which vehicles are safest for their children."

Vehicle safety is evolving constantly. McCahill said automakers should continue to make SUVs and all vehicles even safer by equipping them with electronic stability control (ESC) to help prevent rollover crashes. Because SUVs have a greater tendency to roll over than cars, this, and other design and engineering technologies will further widen the rollover safety gap between SUVs and cars.

"But most highway tragedies are not the vehicle's fault. Adults should make sure children ride in a safety seat or safety belt for older children, and buckle up themselves," McCahill said. "That may sound like staid advice, but it's still your best chance of survival in a crash." 

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley is no stranger to life-and-death situations. He reports on the auto industry and the human condition from Villeperce, France.

The Auto Theft Capital

When Horace Greeley said, "Go West, young man," car thieves were apparently listening.  According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) for calendar year 2005, the West, and particularly California, is heaven and haven for the nation's auto thieves. All of the nation's top 10 areas with the highest vehicle theft rates are in the West with six of them in California.

For 2005 the 10 metropolitan statistical areas with the highest vehicle theft rates are:
1. Modesto, CA
2. Las Vegas/Paradise, NV
3. Stockton, CA
4. Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, AZ
5. Visalia/Porterville, CA
6. Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue, WA
7. Sacramento/Arden-Arcade/Roseville, CA
8. San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos, CA
9. Fresno, CA
10. Yakima, WA

The rate is determined by the number of vehicle theft offenses per 100,000 inhabitants using the 2004 U.S. Census Population Estimates, the most current figures available.
Preliminary FBI data shows a 2.1 percent decrease in motor vehicle thefts during January-June 2005 when compared with the same period in 2004. Nationally, this is the second straight year of decreases in vehicle theft and that is good news.

One note about the statistics, as well -- they are indicative of the auto theft rates in what laymen might call "metropolitan areas," not just cities.  So, for example, the numero uno on the list -- Modesto, California -- includes data not only from the city of Modesto, but the entire county of Stanislaus in which Modesto is located.  In the creation of Hot Spots, its annual report on auto theft rates, NICB reviewed data supplied by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for each of the nation's 360 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).  While thefts are down slightly on a national basis, they are still cause for alarm.

"The continued reduction in auto thefts is good news for our member companies and the general public," said NICB President and Chief Executive Officer Robert M. Bryant. "NICB has been instrumental in attacking this problem through expanded efforts with our member companies and law enforcement. For example, the bait car program is most effective and in those communities where bait cars are employed, there have been significant declines in the auto theft problem."

While the NICB is attacking the problem on a macro basis, you can do the same by protecting the safety and security of your own vehicle.  We'll tell you how next week in the second of this two-part series.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the car industry and the human condition, which includes crime and unusual uses for body hair, from his home in Villeperce, France.

What Will Go Wrong?

Murphy's Law says whatever can go wrong will go wrong. That is accompanied by the Fraschini Corollary that intones nothing is as easy as it should be. Now we all know that these two time-tested principles apply to automobiles, which are, along with DVD players, VCRs, and electric toothbrushes, among the most complicated consumer products known to woman and man. But let's get a little more specific here. When it comes to cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs, just what does go wrong? What should you, as a consumer/owner/operator really be looking out for?

Luckily, the fine folks at AAA have quantified that for us. During nationwide clinics conducted by AAA and its affiliated repair facilities during last year's AAA Car Care Month, inspections conducted on nearly 6,500 vehicles by 20 different AAA clubs resulted in a good snapshot of what could be going wrong right now on your personal chariot.

Tire pressure was the number one vehicle issue identified by the study. This is bad news because inattention to tire pressure can have serious safety implications. Low tire pressure can cause poor vehicle handling and may lead to a blow-out that can have potentially catastrophic effects. The good news is that the fix is simple and free.

"Drivers should check tire pressure at least once a month to assure tires are not under- or over-inflated," said Mike Lavoie, the 2006 NAPA Technician of the Year and owner of Lavoie's NAPA AutoCare Center in Haverhill, New Hampshire. "Low pressure in the tires can increase wear and fuel consumption, while having too much pressure may reduce traction. Keeping tires properly aligned will also help assure longer tire life and improve fuel economy."
 
Engine oil that was low or needed changing was the second most common malady the study discovered. Operating vehicles low on oil will typically cause wear in camshafts, bearings and valves that will cost your engine a substantial portion of its life. If the level gets too low this wear could cause very costly failures up to and including "blown" engines. Again, the fix is simple: Check the oil level regularly and change the oil at frequent intervals.

Clogged air filters were the third most common issue. NAPA's Lavoie said that maintaining and replacing air filters when needed will ensure better air flow to the engine. This, in turn, will improve engine efficiency and result in more power and better fuel mileage.

While it might seem so rudimentary as to be ludicrous, low windshield washer fluid was the fourth area that needed to be addressed. It might not even seem to be a problem, but poor visibility can be a safety hazard. The fix: Fill 'er up and check the reservoir now and then.

Insufficient or dirty engine coolant was the fifth most common issue. Having a full cooling system is essential to maintaining a safe engine temperature, and dirty coolant with depleted additives can no longer protect the cooling system's iron, steel, copper, and aluminum parts from corrosion and deterioration. Remember, overheating can destroy an engine quickly, and an engine replacement is very costly.

"The coolant reservoir should be checked monthly and topped off with the appropriate antifreeze and water mixture as needed," said Lavoie. "It's easy to check the windshield washer fluid at the same time."
 
Other areas cited as needing attention during the inspections included battery cables/clamps/terminals, antifreeze protection, wiper blades, tire tread, and transmission fluid.

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini performs a great deal of his own maintenance, and he also works on his car.