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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 6 | July 19, 2011 Subscribe

Volvo's City Safety prevents low-speed crashes and cuts insurance costs

Avoid crashes. That's the purpose of a crop of technologies showing up in mostly luxury cars and SUVs. A new analysis from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) indicates that Volvo XC60 midsize SUVs outfitted with standard City Safety get into fewer crashes than comparable vehicles without the feature. The forward collision avoidance system is designed to help a driver avoid rear-ending another vehicle in slow-moving, heavy traffic.

Claims under property damage liability coverage — the insurance that pays for damage to vehicles an at-fault driver hits — were filed about a quarter less often for the XC60 than other midsize luxury SUVs, and overall payouts under the same coverage were 20 percent lower than other midsize luxury SUVs.

"This is our first real-world look at an advanced crash avoidance technology, and the findings are encouraging," says Adrian Lund, president of HLDI and the Institute. "City Safety is helping XC60 drivers avoid the kinds of front-to-rear, low-speed crashes that frequently happen on congested roads."

The Institute last year estimated that 4 current crash avoidance features have the potential to prevent or mitigate as many as 1.9 million crashes each year, and early adopters have said the systems help them to be safer drivers (see "New estimates of benefits of crash avoidance features on passenger vehicles," May 20, 2010 and "Luxury owners embrace systems to skirt crashes," Nov. 18, 2009).

Volvo and other automakers also offer optional forward collision warning systems designed to help drivers avoid crashes at higher speeds than City Safety does. HLDI is working with several automakers to evaluate the loss experience of these and other crash avoidance technologies as the features make their way into more vehicles. City Safety is the first system of its kind. It addresses more common crashes than higher-speed systems do and has been standard on XC60s since the 2010 model year. It also is standard on 2011-12 model S60 sedans and 2012 model S80 sedans and XC70 wagons.

Volvo XC60 City Safety losses

Volvo photo
Claim frequencyClaim severityOverall losses
vs. other midsize luxury SUVs
Property damage liability-27%+$270-$17
Bodily injury liability-51%
Collision-22%-$517-$98
vs. other Volvos
Property damage liability-19%+$646+$2
Bodily injury liability-49%
Collision-17%-$147-$53

City Safety automatically brakes to avoid a front-to-rear crash in certain low-speed conditions. It uses an infrared laser sensor built into the windshield to monitor the area in front of the SUV when traveling at speeds of about 2 to 19 mph. It detects and reacts to other vehicles within 18 feet of the XC60's front bumper during both daytime and nighttime driving. If the speed difference between vehicles is less than 9 mph, City Safety helps drivers avoid some crashes altogether. If the difference is between 9 and 19 mph, the feature may not prevent the crash but will reduce the consequences. It's not designed to work at speeds faster than 19 mph.

Unlike forward collision warning systems developed to address higher-speed crashes, City Safety doesn't alert the driver before it engages and brakes at the last instant if the driver doesn't react in time. There's no missing the SUV's sudden lurch during automatic braking. Afterward, an alert appears in the instrument panel: Auto braking by City Safety.

The feature is always on unless the driver turns it off manually. If turned off, it switches back on when the vehicle is next started. City Safety's performance may be affected by inclement weather, and the system isn't designed to react to animals or people (for a description of Volvo's optional pedestrian detection system see "Pedestrians stand to benefit from new vehicle technology and design changes," March 30, 2011).

HLDI analysts compared insurance claims data for the 2010 XC60 with 2 groups: other 2009-10 midsize luxury SUVs and other 2009-10 Volvo models. The analysis controlled for a variety of geographic and demographic factors that can affect claims. Geographic factors include garaging state and vehicle density (number of registered vehicles per square mile). Demographic factors take into account such things as the primary driver's age, gender, and marital status. Other factors include calendar year and the policy deductible.

HLDI looked at how often claims are filed, also known as claim frequency, and claim costs, also known as claim severity. Researchers examined claim frequency and payouts under 3 types of auto insurance coverage: property damage liability, bodily injury liability, and collision. Property damage liability pays for damage an at-fault driver's vehicle does to other people's property as a result of a crash. Bodily injury liability generally pays for injuries to people involved in the crash other than the insured at-fault driver. Collision pays for damage to the insured vehicle.

Claim frequency rates for the XC60, the only Volvo with the feature in HLDI's study, were lower than all other midsize luxury SUVs combined, as well as other Volvos, under all 3 types of insurance coverage. Lower claim frequencies mean that City Safety is preventing crashes.

The XC60's estimated property damage liability claim frequency (measured in claims per 100 insured vehicle years) was 27 percent lower than that for all other midsize luxury SUVs combined. When compared with Volvos without City Safety, the XC60's estimated claim frequency was 19 percent lower.

XC60s in the study had fewer claims, but when owners did seek payment under property damage liability, the average claim cost of $3,058 was higher than for vehicles in either control group — 10 percent higher than for other midsize luxury SUVs and 27 percent higher than for other Volvos.

"Although it may seem counterintuitive, higher payouts for property damage liability are a sign that City Safety works," says Matthew Moore, HLDI vice president and director of the study.

Because the feature is preventing the kinds of low-speed fender-benders drivers get into on busy roads, XC60 owners aren't filing as many low-cost claims (those less than $1,500) as people who drive other midsize luxury SUVs. The frequency of high-severity claims ($7,000 and higher) was about the same for the XC60 as it was for the control vehicles. As a result, the average claim cost for the XC60 was higher than for other midsize luxury SUVs because the share of high-cost claims relative to low-cost claims was larger.

Despite the higher average claim cost, estimated overall payouts under property damage liability for XC60s were 20 percent lower than losses for all other midsize luxury SUVs combined, at $68 per insured vehicle year compared with $85 per insured vehicle year for the control group. (An insured vehicle year is 1 vehicle insured for 1 year, 2 for 6 months each, etc.) Overall losses, which take into account both claim frequency and severity, show that the frequency reductions more than offset the increase in average payment. The XC60 had lower overall losses under this coverage than most of the other midsize luxury SUVs.

When it comes to crashes with injuries, claim frequencies under bodily injury liability (measured in claims per 1,000 insured vehicle years) for the XC60 were about half of those for other midsize luxury SUVs and the other Volvos. These claims cover injuries to people in vehicles struck by XC60s and the other study vehicles. It's likely that the kinds of injuries City Safety prevents to people in other vehicles are minor because the system is designed for stop-and-go traffic. Serious or fatal injuries aren't common in low-speed crashes, but minor neck and back injuries are especially likely in rear-end collisions (see "Neck injury risk is lower if seats and head restraints are rated good," March 15, 2008). HLDI didn't examine whether City Safety helps prevent or reduce injuries to people inside XC60s. Due to a limited number of bodily injury liability claims, analysts weren't able to estimate severity or overall losses.

Meanwhile, collision claim frequencies (measured in claims per 100 insured vehicle years) for the XC60 were 22 percent lower than for all other midsize luxury SUVs and 17 percent lower than for other Volvo models. Costs related to collision claims were lower, too. At about $4,000, the XC60's estimated average loss payment per claim was 11 percent lower than for all other midsize luxury SUVs and 3 percent lower than for other Volvos. Estimated overall losses for the XC60 were 31 percent lower than for all other midsize luxury SUVs and 20 percent lower than for all other Volvo models.

"These are very large effects," says Lund, who notes that some differences in driving styles of XC60 owners might come into play. However, "the pattern of results strongly indicates that City Safety is preventing low-speed crashes and reducing insurance costs.

"That's great news for consumers. As people grow more aware of the risks of distracted driving, crash avoidance systems like this one can help to ensure that a momentary lapse of attention during a congested commute doesn't result in a crash."

City Safety is helping Volvo XC60 drivers avoid the kinds of
low-speed collisions that often happen on congested roads.

Property damage liability claims per 100 insured vehicle years,
2010 Volvo XC60 with City Safety vs. other 2009-10 midsize luxury SUVs

Graph image

Property damage liability claims per 100 insured vehicle years,
2010 XC60 with City Safety vs. other 2009-10 Volvos

Graph image

Note: Vertical i-bars for comparison models are the 95 percent confidence limits for the comparison of that group to the XC60.

City Safety also showed promise in an analysis of insurance claims in the United Kingdom by Thatcham. The auto insurance repair research group found that Volvo XC60s have a lower claims rate in comparison with other Volvos, signaling that City Safety is helping to prevent frontal crashes.

HLDI and the Institute are working with Thatcham, automakers, and other groups on a variety of international cooperative efforts to devise programs to evaluate crash avoidance systems. The goal is to encourage further development of systems that can best prevent or mitigate vehicle-to-vehicle crashes and vehicle-to-pedestrian impacts.

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Available forward collision warning systems

A list of systems on 2011 models by vehicle make 

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