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Federal safety standards keep automobile passengers safe

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The way today's cars are manufactured could save lives.

Charleston Fire Department Lt. Paul Niedbalski explained at a recent West Virginia Public Safety Expo that advanced metals used to build newer model cars have gone through rigorous testing to ensure their stability. And those safety features mean fewer people are dying in car crashes across the nation.

"We're not seeing people crushed," Niedblaski said.

Car manufacturers began using these so-called new metals — they're new to car manufacturing, but have been used since World War II — in response to federal safety standards. The National Transportation Safety Board announced a few years ago it wanted to see an increase in car safety, especially when it comes to side-impact collisions. There were two ways to go about that, Niedbalski said: more steel or stronger steel. 

All auto manufacturers will comply with federal motor vehicle safety standard 216, which calls for stronger roofs, by 2017. 

But it's not just the amount or strength of steel being used in new car construction. The composition of glass is changing, too, including laminated and tempered glass. 

Although the cost of this new technology is reflected in the price of the car, the safety standards in a $20,000 car are equal to those in a vehicle that is much more expensive.

"They're your $15-25,000 car, low-end inexpensive type car you see on the street that a lot of people today in society (are driving) because of budget restraints," Niedbalski said. "We're looking at industry, corporate people trying to reduce overall costs who are buying less expensive cars. The same safety technology is in these less expensive cars as it is the $70,000, $80,000 or $90,000 cars. Don't be fooled because it's a Chevy Cobalt that there's nothing in it. It will probably trip you up more than the $90,000 Mercedes-Benz."

Although cars are built to keep passengers and drivers safe, firefighters need to be familiar with how cars are made so they can rescue crash victims as quickly as possible. Niedbalski showed firefighters at the safety expo several different ways first responders can rescue victims using modern technology. He demonstrated two apps, Extricate and Moditech, that first responders can use in the field. In each app, a first responder can look up the exact make, model and year of the car and find the appropriate places for firefighters to cut in order to extricate victims from the vehicle. In addition to new, stronger steel, sensors and airbag inflation devices are hidden within the body of the car. Niedbalski said first responders can use the apps to learn where those sensors are and where to make the best cuts in order to safely rescue the victims without destroying their tools.

And hybrid cars make it even more difficult. Niedbalski noted many hybrid cars run silently, so first responders always need to ensure the car is in park and shut off. He also noted that batteries aren't in areas of the car where they would likely be damaged by extrication tools. The likelihood of first responders even dealing with the battery is slim.

"It's relatively safe," he said. "Just don't go looking for trouble."

He also cautioned first responders to treat every car, no matter make, model or year, as if it is dangerous. 

"It's a serious business," Niedbalski said. "It's not a game."