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How safe is Toyota's hybrid Prius?

With the price of gas climbing ever higher, hybrid vehicles are looking more appealing. However, some readers want to know about the safety record of the Prius.
Alternative Fuel Sources Gain In Popularity
Toyota’s stylish Prius hybrid is 'a good performer' in frontal crashes, according to the IIHS.David Paul Morris / Getty Images file
/ Source: contributor

With the price of gas climbing ever higher, hybrid vehicles are looking more appealing. However, some readers want to know about the safety record of the Prius.

The Toyota Prius gets a lot of news coverage for its styling and fuel economy. But I want to know about safety. How does this Prius do in crash tests?
-- Ed, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released its first crash tests of the Prius a few weeks ago. Toyota’s stylish hybrid is “a good performer” in frontal crashes. It’s also “a good performer” in side crashes if it has side air bags (a $650 option most Prius customers buy).

The Prius without side bags did poorly in the side crash test -- similar to other models tested with and without side bags.

"Once again, these tests show the importance of side-impact bags,” says IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. “In a head-on crash you have the entire front end of the vehicle to crush and help protect you. In a side crash, there’s very little there to absorb the impact, so you are much better protected with side air bags."

Because the IIHS rated the Prius “marginal” for seat/head restraint design, it was not listed as a “Top Safety Pick."

The Prius is only sold as a hybrid, but for vehicles with both hybrid and gasoline-powered models – the Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Lexus RX, and Toyota Highlander – the IIHS says its crash test ratings apply to both versions.

That may not be the case with the Ford Escape. The IIHS already tested the conventionally-powered version of the SUV. It rated “acceptable” in the frontal crash test, “good” in the side test with optional side air bags and “poor” without them.

The IIHS says Ford’s crash test results for the conventionally-powered Ford Escape do not apply to the hybrid version. “We don’t know if they are better or worse,” Rader says, “but we may now test the hybrid version of the Escape to see if it performs differently."

What are 'soft' credit inquiries?
Every time I check my credit report I find inquiries that I didn’t authorize, including those from credit card companies and insurance companies. Are they allowed to do this without my permission? Does this hurt my credit score?
-- Carolyn W., Hockley, Texas

Credit file inquiries can lower your credit score or drive up the interest rate you pay on loans. Have too many inquiries and you might be denied credit.

So what’s happening to you? In certain situations creditors or potential creditors can check your credit report without your permission. These are called “soft inquires” and they do not impact your credit score.

Steven Katz, Director of Communications for TransUnion, (one of the big three credit reporting agencies) tells me these credit checks were most likely done by companies with whom you already have an existing business relationship.

These soft inquiries can also be from financial institutions that want to offer you a pre-approved credit card. In this case, they are buying a mailing list of people who meet a certain profile, based on factors such as age, income, and marital status.

The potential creditor can do this -– even though you did not apply for credit from them -– because they never see your individual credit report; they just get a mailing list of prospects.  That’s why this is considered a soft inquiry -- it does not require your permission and it does not count against you. This may seem like an invasion of privacy, but under current regulations it is allowed.

You can opt out of these pre-approved offers by calling 1-888-567-8688. As I noted in a previous column, you will have to provide your Social Security number to get on the opt-out list, since this is the way you are identified by the credit bureau.

By the way, looking at your own credit report is also considered a soft inquiry. Only “hard” inquiries impact your credit score. A hard inquiry takes place when you apply for credit – this would include trying to get a credit card or home loan, starting cell phone service, or renting an apartment. These hard credit checks cannot take place without your specific written permission.

If you believe something different is happening to your credit than what I described above, you should contact the three credit reporting agencies. For instance, if new accounts are being opened that you did not apply for, it would indicate that an identity thief has gotten hold of your personal information.

Many credit card companies recently increased the minimum monthly payment. In 2004, I entered into an agreement with several credit cards to lower my interest as long as I was in debt management. I’m trying my best to pay off my debts through the program, but I cannot afford to pay any more. Can these credit card companies boost my minimum payments now that I am in debt management?
John C., Jr.   Henderson, Nev.

Relax; your payments won’t be going up. Nick Jacobs, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling tells me as long as you stay in that debt management program and live up to the terms of the agreement, it should not be impacted in any way. “You've already set up a plan and as long as you abide by it,” Jacobs says, “it should stay in place."

Charles Helms, president of Consumer Counseling Northwest, agrees. Helms says none of his clients who had approved agreements in place before the higher minimums kicked in have been subject to any increases.

When is a bill sent by mail considered paid? Is it the postmark date or the date when the check is received?
-- D
on S., Manchester, N.H.

Tax payments are based on the postmark. That’s why so many people rush to the Post Office prior to midnight on tax day.  Most other bills are considered paid when the check is received and processed.

And get this, in many cases you check must be processed by a certain time on the date due. Look on your credit card bill and somewhere in the fine print it probably gives that information. For instance, Capital One says a payment will be credited on the business day they receive it, provided it is received in their processing center by 3:00 p.m. ET. That means if your check arrives on or before the due date, but doesn’t get to the processing center until after 3:15 p.m. on the due date, the payment is considered late. That’s why you don’t want to cut it too close.

If the payment is late, you could be in for a nasty surprise. “Miss the due date by even a day and expect to get hit with a stiff late payment,” says Ken McEldowney, Executive Director of Consumer Action, a California-based consumer group. “You could also see your interest rate skyrocket,” he says.

His advice; open your credit card statement as soon as you get it and check the due date. “In most cases, I would advise sending a check off immediately.” If you find yourself too close to the deadline, consider paying by phone or online.

Something else to remember; processing will most likely be delayed – as much as five days – if you don’t include the bottom portion of your statement with your check of if you don’t use the return envelope they provided.