Bigger is better when it comes to vehicle safety, which...

GALLIMAUFRY

November 26, 1994

Bigger is better when it comes to vehicle safety, which should be no surprise to anyone who's ever driven a Volkswagen Beetle with a mile-high 18-wheel Peterbilt breathing down his back.

That conclusion is bolstered by two recent studies of driver deaths and injuries by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute.

Station wagons, vans and large cars had generally lower driver fatalities and passenger injuries than the average passenger vehicle. Higher death and injury rates were typically reported for categories of smaller vehicles, including sports cars, pickup trucks and utility vehicles.

Driver air bags were in 10 of the 12 passenger vehicles with the lowest death rates; nine of 11 vehicles with the highest death rate didn't have air bags.

Two-door cars typically had higher death rates than four-door vehicles, often another reflection of the larger size being more protective.

"It's impossible to determine which vehicle is the safest," said Brian O'Neill, the institutes' president. Consumers should first look at size and available safety features, then look at crash studies and test results for the type of vehicle they're considering, he said.

Ironically, sports cars have high death rates, but their reported injury claims are better than average. The morbid explanation, Mr. O'Neill notes, is that sports cars have more single-vehicle crashes and those crashes more often involve fatal injuries. So they don't have the high incidence of less-serious injuries reported for other classes of cars.

(The weight of some sports cars is not much less than that of some cars top-rated for lower fatalities; "bigger" in these studies tends to mean length and bulk, not weight.)

The federal government proposes putting safety labels on the price sticker of new cars. But that proposal is initially limited to rating a vehicle's propensity to roll over. Even that plan is burdened with contradictions: small cars are least likely to roll over, but result in the largest number of deaths and injuries among the 220,000 rollover accidents each year.

* * *

"IT'S THE RIGHT time for me," said Martina Navratilova as she ended her tennis career. "I'm happy I've been able to retire on my own terms. But there is lots of emotion in my head and heart."

Always tough, but always vulnerable, she earned her mark in sports history -- on her own terms.

From an insecure Iron Curtain refugee, she grew into the steely, superbly conditioned athlete who moved women's tennis to a more exciting level. She won more matches and titles than any other player, male or female. She earned over $20 million, but lost many lucrative corporate endorsements for refusing to deny her homosexuality. She refused to settle for anything less than her best. It was a remarkable 22-year career, indeed.

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