Guarded
Safety without a moon roof
Published August 9, 2004

Iíve been spending some time lately looking at new cars. The sad truth is that one of our trusty buggies is heading towards her retirement, and the time has come to find a replacement. Like most of us, Iím conscious of the wide range of safety equipment that has recently been added to cars. Now I can get traction control, stability control, side airbags in front and back, and who knows what else. Whatís strange, however, is that one of the oldest safety innovations is still not widely available on entry-level cars. Why is it so hard to get ABS?

ABS stands for anti-lock braking system. Itís a computer controlled system that monitors the wheels of your car, checking the speed of each one against the others during a braking maneuver. If the computer senses a wheel starting to lock up, it takes over the braking for that wheel, pumping the brakes as fast as ten times a second. The result is that you stop faster (most of the time) and can maintain steering control even during emergency braking.

Various studies, including an exhaustive one by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, have shown that ABS is very effective in helping to stop vehicles, especially on icy or otherwise slippery surfaces. I said most of the time above; on gravel or other deformable surfaces, ABS may lead to a longer stop time. Still, for most driving situations, these systems can significantly increase your ability to avoid an accident.

Surprisingly, ABS has not been marketed as actively as other safety innovations, like airbags. Perhaps this is because airbags are passiveóthey require no input from usówhile ABS requires us to actively use it in conjunction with quick reflexes and careful steering to avoid an accident. Still, Iíd rather not hit anything at allóairbags might let me survive either way, but with the possible addition of repair and medical bills!

The upshot of the limited marketing and information is that the public has not demanded ABS the same way as they have airbags. Thus, in the lower end of the market, ABS tends to be optional equipmentóexpensive optional equipment. In some cases, the system is only available in a higher trim level, or bundled with other options. Letís take a look at a few examples.

The Honda Civic is the worse culprit. The least-expensive DX model has a base price of $13,010; youíll pay at least $17,260 for a car with ABS, forcing you to add a moon roof, a bigger engine, and alloy wheels. A base Nissan Sentra will cost you $12,960, but the minimum for ABS is $15,560. The funny thing with the Honda is that their mid-range car, the Accord, comes standard with ABS, starting as low as $15,900!

The American car manufacturers come off better in this comparison. ABS is a $400 option on even the base-model Ford Focus, $695 on the Dodge Neon, and $400 on the Chevy Cavalier. Their mid-range vehicles have markups in a similar range. Thatís certainly commendable.

The problem with the numbers Iíve quoted above, however, is that itís rare you can find cars with these option combinations on a dealership lot. ABS is considered a luxury option, and as such is not built into the low-end models. You might theoretically be able to buy one of these cars with no options other than ABS, but go ahead and try finding that package. How many of us are going to go through the trouble of ordering a car from the manufacturer?

So, faced with spending an additional two or three thousand dollars, or biting the bullet and driving without ABS, we often choose the latter. I donít know about you, but even one thousand dollars might put me over my car-buying budget. Automobile manufacturers should do a better job of making this system available. If it can be done with airbags, thereís no reason it canít be done with ABS.

The car companies wonít budge on this issue, however, unless thereís a demand from the public. We should be trying to educate drivers not only on the advantages of ABS, but on its use. A remarkable proportion of drivers donít understand how ABS works, nor do they know what happens when it engages. A shuddering feeling through the brake pedal and loud noises are both normal with ABS equipment, but most people interpret these as signs of brake malfunction or failure. Their reactions can be deadly.

Once the public knows what ABS is and fully understands how to use it (and how not to use it), pressure will mount on the manufacturers to put these systems into all of their cars, not just the ones with every possible additional feature. Combined with proper driver training, this change will hopefully lead to fewer accidents. Thatís something that we can all feel good about.