Anti-lock brakes found not to be safer

January 27, 1994|By Newsday

A safety research group had bad news yesterday for drivers who think their cars' anti-lock brakes will help them make it unscathed through their commutes: As good as they are on test tracks, there is little or no evidence that anti-lock brakes are preventing accidents on the road.

The conclusion surprised even the group that published it, the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance trade organization. And it was quickly challenged by an automaker, a manufacturer of anti-lock brakes and a federal safety official.

It throws icy water on what has become an accepted view among auto safety experts: that anti-lock braking systems, which rapidly "pump" a car's brakes if a wheel is about to lock, can help prevent accidents, especially on roads that are wet or icy.

Based on 100,000 accident reports, the institute said cars and passenger vans with anti-lock brakes have about as many crashes as those without the systems, and the crashes are about as severe.

"We don't know how many crashes are preceded by skidding or loss of control that anti-locks could have prevented," the institute said, "but the new . . . findings suggest the number cannot be very high."

It's not that the devices don't work as advertised, the institute said. They help to shorten stopping distances and, by keeping the wheels from locking, help the driver to retain steering control.

But, the institute said, many drivers panic when they skid and do not use that ability to steer around obstacles. Sometimes, the institute said, there simply is nowhere to go. Some drivers, it said, do not understand how the systems work and attempt to "pump" the brakes themselves. And the group suggested that the presence of the systems might encourage drivers to take more risks in adverse weather.

The institute, headquartered in Arlington, Va., compared accident claims for seven 1991 General Motors vehicles -- the Chevrolet Cavalier, Corsica and Beretta, the Pontiac Sunbird, and three of its minivans, all without anti-lock brakes -- against 1992 versions of the same vehicles with anti-lock brakes.

The study's validity was questioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, as well as by the Robert Bosch Corp., a major producer of anti-lock systems, and General Motors, which equips most of its cars and many of its light trucks with anti-lock brakes.

An estimated 10 million cars and passenger vans -- about 8 percent of those on the road -- have anti-lock brakes. So do many pickups and sport-utility vehicles, but the study did not cover them.

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