November 1, 2011 by Bill Roebuck
Everybody knows that the best safety innovations first appear on high-end luxury cars. Eventually, they begin to filter down to regular and entry-level models. And what typically comes last? Pickup trucks.
It probably didn’t seem that important in the past because the theory was that bigger is better, and when it comes to a full-size pickup colliding with a smaller car, the truck wins. Yet because most pickups are far less nimble than cars, it’s actually more important to have the latest safety technologies in work trucks too.
Pickup truck drivers must also contend with differing handling characteristics, depending on whether or not they are carrying a heavy load in the truck bed or cargo area.
Safety is about much more than the size and weight of a vehicle. The race among the top manufacturers to be the best in the full-size light truck market has meant that many of the latest safety innovations can now be found in every manufacturer’s work truck lineup. This is an important market for all manufacturers, as light trucks remain the most popular vehicles in Canada, and pickup truck sales specifically were up 26.2 per cent last year.
Manufacturers vie each year to achieve a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). To earn Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must have good ratings in all four Institute tests of crashworthiness. To determine crashworthiness-how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash-the Institute rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in high-speed front and side-crash tests, a rollover test, plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts. In addition, the winning vehicles must offer Electronic Stability Control (ESC).
The IIHS estimates one-third of all fatal accidents could be prevented if ESC is used, so it’s a very important safety technology, especially in pickup trucks. In the U.S., ESC has been made mandatory starting with all 2012 model pickups.
In the Large Pickups category for 2011, two models are IIHS Top Safety Picks: The Ford F-150 crew cab models built after February 2011, and Toyota Tundra crew cab models.
IIHS also said the same vehicles are the only Large Pickup models to earn the top rating of good in its new roof strength evaluation that measures occupant protection in rollover crashes. The Nissan Titan is rated acceptable for rollover protection. The Chevrolet Silverado (and twin GMC Sierra), and Dodge Ram are rated marginal. The ratings only apply to crew cab versions of these pickups.
To measure roof strength, a metal plate is pushed against one corner of a vehicle’s roof at a constant speed. The maximum force sustained by the roof before five inches of crush is compared to the vehicle’s weight to find the strength-to-weight ratio. This is said to be a good assessment of vehicle structural protection in rollover crashes.
In the latest tests, the Tundra’s roof withstood a force of 4.5 times weight. The F-150’s roof withstood a force equal to 4.7 times the vehicle’s weight. Vehicles with a strength-to-weight ratio of 4 or higher earn a good rating. The good rating and Top Safety Pick designation for the F-150 apply to pickups manufactured after February 2011 because Ford made changes to the roof structure to better protect occupants in rollover crashes.
It’s a given that the latest pickup trucks will have all basic safety features-front air bags, head restraints, an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and such. (We hardly need to mention seatbelts, except that research shows pickup truck drivers are less likely to use them than drivers of cars, even though the chance of surviving a crash is 25 times higher if seatbelts are used.)
Most new pickups offer a range of the newest safety enhancements, such as ESC. You find it’s under various names from different manufacturers, such as General Motors’ StabiliTrak, Chrysler’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Ford’s AdvanceTrac, Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and Toyota’s Vehicle Stability Control (VSC).
ESC technology varies slightly among manufacturers, but the result is the same. Sensors monitor the vehicle as it moves, calculating direction, G-forces and especially any sudden changes. If you come into a corner too fast, for example, ESC can help you make the turn safely by throttling back on the engine power to slow you down, and also applying the brakes at just the right pressure to help you maintain-or regain-control. With ESC, once the vehicle has settled down-and you say “Wow, that was close,” the technology has gone back to rest, waiting silently to instantly react again, as needed.
Stability control sensors can include those for steering wheel angle, measuring the direction you intend to go; yaw rate, which measures how much the vehicle is actually turning compared to the steering wheel angle; lateral acceleration or sliding; wheel speed; longitudinal acceleration, which also can detect the road pitch; and roll rate.
The latter is often a component of a rollover protection system, which encompasses the inclusion of side-curtain airbags. This is a critical truck technology, as the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports pickup truck occupants are three times more likely to be involved in rollover crashes than passengers in other types of vehicles.
To provide additional rollover protection, most pickups have reinforced cab structures that act like a roll-cage, providing protection to the driver and passengers during a crash or a rollover. Like cars, pickups also feature predetermined crush zones around the engine compartment that are designed to absorb crash energy, reducing the impact on passengers.
Another useful truck option is Trailer Sway Control. If you’re towing a trailer and it begins swaying from side to side, this will be sensed by the truck’s ESC system, which will help you control the vehicle until the trailer is stable again.
Brakes, of course, are key to ESC, and braking systems have undergone major improvements. One of the best braking enhancements is Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), which has slightly different names with each manufacturer. This system works with the ABS system and automatically varies the amount of brake force applied to each of the truck’s wheels. EBD also properly balances the brake forces between the front and rear wheels so the rear brakes won’t lock up and cause loss of control.
Another feature, commonly known as Brake Assist (BA), judges your speed and predicted stopping distance, determining how hard you’re pressing on the brake pedal. It will work no matter how hard or lightly you’re pressing. If you hit the brakes too hard so that you might skid out of control, BA will ease off the pressure to maximize your vehicle’s stopping power while still maintaining control.
Other safety options, available on some higher-end trucks, include back-up cameras, which not only help prevent hitting anything behind your truck but also can aid in aligning a trailer hitch, and monitors that use sensors to detect when another vehicle is in your blind spot. Tire pressure monitoring systems are another useful safety feature.
Here is a look at some of the key safety features in today’s crop of pickup trucks.
The 2011 Toyota Tundra features a suite of active and passive safety systems. It includes standard Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and traction control; anti-lock braking system, BA, EBD and Smart Stop Technology (SST). SST is designed to reduce engine power when the brake is firmly applied, helping to bring the vehicle to a stop, even if the accelerator pedal is fully depressed. There are eight airbags, all-position vertically adjustable headrests and three-point lap and shoulder belts with front-belt-anchor height adjusters.
The 2011 Nissan Titan also includes a long list of
safety equipment, including standard Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), Nissan’s Advanced Air Bag System (AABS) with dual stage front supplemental air bags with seat belt sensors and a front passenger occupant classification sensor; standard front-seat-mounted side-impact and roof-mounted supplemental curtain air bags that help provide side-impact and rollover protection for outboard passengers; front seat belts with adjustable upper anchors, pretensioners and load limiters; front seat Active Head Restraints; and three-point rear passenger seat belts.
Vehicle-incorporated safety features include a Zone Body construction with front and rear structure crumple zones, an energy-absorbing steering column, hood-buckling creases with safety stops, knee bolsters, special body side reinforcements and a shift interlock system.
From General Motors, the 2011 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups include StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation technology; roof-mounted rollover-capable head curtain side air bags, which are integrated into strengthened chassis and body structures to provide improved passenger protection; and safety belt pretensioners that activate during a rear-end crash.
Additional safety features include an Autotrac active transfer case to help keep the vehicle sure-footed in slippery driving situations, Ultrasonic Rear Parking Assist, a rearview camera system and a tire pressure monitoring system. All retail models come standard with the OnStar 9.0 system, including a one-year subscription to the Safe and Sound plan. It includes Automatic Crash Response, Emergency Services, Crisis Assist and Stolen Vehicle Assistance featuring Stolen Vehicle Slowdown.
Chrysler’s 2011 Ram 1500 and the new 2012 Ram 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty have several safety features available, including anti-lock brake system (ABS); advanced multi-stage air bags; BeltAlert; constant-force seat belt retractors (CFR); crumple zones; electronic brake-force distribution; electronic stability program; energy-absorbing steering column; and an Enhanced Accident Response System (EARS), which makes it easier for emergency personnel to see and reach occupants in the event of an accident by turning on the interior lighting and unlocking doors after air bag deployment (it also shuts off the flow of fuel to the engine).
Other features include height-adjustable seat belts; Hill-start Assist (HSA); interior head-impact protection; knee bolsters; and a low-risk deployment air bag-a front-passenger air bag that uses unique shape, venting, folding patterns, advanced inflators or a combination of these four technologies to position and inflate the restraint properly for a belted passenger, while also meeting safety requirements for out-of-position, small occupants and rear-facing infant seats. Also available are the Parksense rear park assist system; power-adjustable pedals; seat belt pretensioners; three-point seat belts; Tire Pressure Monitoring (TPM); and Trailer-sway Control (TSC).
The 2011 Ford F-150 also features a large number of standard safety and stability systems including Safety Canopy side curtain airbags, AdvanceTrac with RSC (Roll Stability Control), SOS Post Crash Alert System, trailer sway control, and an advanced safety structure using high-strength steel.
New safety features from Ford for 2011 include a seat-integrated shoulder belt for the front middle seat and a head restraint for the second-row middle seat. Other standard Ford F-150 safety features include dual-stage airbags for the driver and front passenger, front seat-mounted side airbags and four-wheel ABS brakes.
According to Ford customer research, 83 per cent of F-150 buyers consider safety a leading purchase reason. That’s a significant trend, as safety should be the foremost consideration in the selection of any pickup truck.
Bill Roebuck is a veteran member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.
Bill Roebuck is a veteran member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.