Astro van's scary numbers


Those National Highway Traffic Safety Administration test results on passenger van crash-worthiness are indeed shocking. The Chevrolet Astro, built in Baltimore at General Motors' Broening Highway plant, fell so far behind other vans in 35-mph test crashes that the federal agency said a driver of a 1992 Astro would have a 90-percent chance of a fatal head injury in a head-on crash into a wall. The front-seat passenger would have a nearly 8-1 chance. That's while both were wearing seat belts, the federal agency said.

Scary numbers, indeed. Surely emergency repairs are in order, even if it's true that the typical van driver does not often crash into solid walls. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, a private research agency in Arlington, Va., Astros experienced 14 injury accidents for every 10,000 Astros on the road from 1988 to 1990.

For the approximately 150,000 Astros built at Broening Highway last year, that is about 210 accidents. These were not all fatal accidents, to be sure. And the Astro drivers' safety record exceeded the 20-accident average for all cars, the institute said.

The difference is in the average van buyer's "lifestyle": family, stable employment, supermarket and mall shopping runs, some outdoors activity, some utility use in do-it-yourself home repairs, unlike, say, sports car buyers.

So the theoretical results say one thing, but real-life experience on the road says another. The Highway Loss Data Institute did say some of the Astro's competitors had even better accident records, so as popular as Astro vans are, something could be improved.

What doesn't need fixing, for once, is quality of construction. Even the critics say Broening Highway's workmanship is solid. But other safety factors could clearly improve: If, as spokesman Jack Dinan says, GM's van is boxier to handle cargo as well as people, putting the driver and passenger closer to the windshield, shouldn't the seat belts be improved to prevent more head and chest injuries?

After all, cab-over trucks have been around for decades. Their drivers sit over the front wheels, right behind the windshield, but such vehicles are still popular with safety-conscious companies. JTC As are rear-engine buses.

Moreover, the Astro could use standard air bags. GM made a bad bet on anti-lock brakes, a nice feature but no substitute in the crunch. Chrysler's self-congratulatory advertisements make that point well. And how about improving the seat mounts and steering-column design to cut possibilities of injury? Such moves could boost both safety and marketing, erasing the shadow cast by the shockingly poor performance on the federal crash-worthiness tests.

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