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Old 09-26-2003, 04:53   #1 (permalink)
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U.S.A.:More carmakers should get serious about making safety a selling point

By Dan Lienert / Special to The Detroit News

Arriving for a recent media event at the Volvo Car Safety Center in Gothenburg, Sweden, I initially found the place as goofy as the Swedish Chef.

A comically large car seat welcomed us. Three crash-test dummies were scattered throughout the seats at a news conference -- two with their arms draped around the adjacent seats.

"Those wacky Swedes," said Mark Gillies, executive editor of Automobile magazine, echoing a phrase I have heard in description of both Volvo and Saab.

But things quickly became serious. It was Sept. 11. Sven Eckerstein, Volvo's deputy CEO, asked for a minute of silence in memory of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"This may seem like a hard place, with cars crashing -- a moment of terror we all hope we never experience," Eckerstein said to begin the day's formal program.

Volvo's brand image demands that the company have the best crash-test facility in the world. The track even sits on air cushions that can be moved to change the angle of impact, and the company analyzes each test for two weeks. Other marques owned by Ford Motor Co. -- including sophisticates like Aston Martin -- send their vehicles to Gothenburg to be crashed.

We witnessed an XC90 sport-utility, Volvo's biggest vehicle, ram the automaker's tiniest car, the new S40 sedan. The test simulated what happens when a driver runs a red light and hits the car that has the right of way.

The XC90, traveling at 30 mph, smashed into the driver's door of the S40 as it lurched forward at 15 mph.

"Whoa," I heard several people say. I think I even smiled; a fairly predictable response to observing, but not experiencing, such a wreck. As my girlfriend's great aunt recently said, "I watch NASCAR for the same reason as everybody else: I'm hoping to see an accident."

But when we inspected the cars, I felt the "moment of terror" Eckerstein had alluded to. Ten minutes after the crash, the air bags were steaming and the XC90's interior had the horrible smell of an electrical fire.

But Volvo executives said that had people been in the S40, shielded by side air bags and curtains, they would perhaps have suffered bruises or a fractured rib at worst, but they likely would not have been hospitalized.

On a day when the fragility of life was already top of mind -- we also learned of the fatal stabbing of Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh -- it struck me that Volvo is doing something very good by making safety their chief priority.

And there's room for other automakers to do the same. Except for companies that intentionally build ridiculously fast cars for drivers who know the dangers, it's sacrilege to name "youthfulness" or "spirited driving" as virtues ahead of safety.

Happily, the Swedes show you can be both responsible and silly.
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