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Are vehicle design flaws increasing the risk of accidents?

When Consumer Reports reviewed Chevrolet’s 2014 Impala, it gave the sedan top marks — except in one crucial area. “Rear visibility is the biggest liability because of a high rear deck and short rear window,” the nonprofit’s review read.

According to the Detroit News’ Auto Insider, limited and obstructed visibility are becoming increasingly common design flaws in cars, trucks and SUVs, as automakers struggle to balance aerodynamics, interior space, federal crash survivability and anti-rollover standards,  and new fuel economy requirements with aesthetics.

The main reason visibility loses out in that balancing act, one Chrysler executive told the Auto Insider, is pressure to meet rigorous new fuel economy standards. Glass is heavy, and exterior visibility isn’t high on buyers’ wish lists, so it’s easy to justify sacrificing it for flashy styling that does influence sales.

“I think visibility gets missed by a lot of people until they’ve had it for a week,” a Consumer Reports engineer confirmed. The safety group encourages shoppers to make the most of test drives by scrutinize each vehicle for visibility-related design flaws.

Try merging in highway traffic. At intersections, how much of a struggle would it be to see pedestrians, motorcyclists or bikers before making a turn? Would you be able to see a child behind your car when backing up?

To compensate for the reduction in direct visibility, automakers are relying on technology, such as back-up cameras, side blind-zone alerts and lane-departure warning signals. Unfortunately, that technology isn’t cheap — and it often isn’t standard. In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was forced by industry pressure, for a fifth time, to delay a proposal to mandate backup cameras in all new vehicles.

Some progress has been made. In the 2013 model year, back-up cameras were standard on more than half of all vehicles — at least in the more expensive versions — up from only 1 percent of 2003 models.

If the vehicle you’re considering doesn’t offers an optional back-up camera, Consumer Reports urges you to buy it. “It’s the only way you can see immediately what’s behind your bumper,” said the human factors engineer.

Which vehicles have the most serious visibility-related design flaws? According to Consumer Reports, the Mini Cooper convertible had the worst visibility, followed by the Toyota FJ Cruiser SUV, and the Nissan 370Z. Best were the Subaru Forester, the Nissan Altima and the Subaru Outback.

Source: The Detroit News, “Some new vehicles have bigger blind spots,” Melissa Burden, Aug. 27, 2013

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