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Consumer Reports

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    Why you shouldn't ask your doctor for antibiotics

    Did you ever ask your doctor for antibiotics to treat a cold? Or the flu? Or what about your child’s painful ear? And did your doctor ever say “Sure! Here you go!” Well, you probably shouldn’t have asked—and your doctor almost certainly should have said no. 

    Why? Because viruses usually cause those infections, not bacteria—and antibiotics don’t work against viruses. (Have you wondered why you did or didn't receive a prescription for antiobiotics? Share your story in the comments at the end of this article.) 

    And using antibiotics when you don’t need them is not only a waste of money, but can cause side effects including everything from diarrhea to nausea, vomiting, and serious allergic reactions. Even worse, the unnecessary use of antibiotics can breed bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, making the drugs less effective when you really do need them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to half of all the antibiotics used in this country are prescribed for the wrong reasons. 

    To help combat this problem, Consumer Reports is partnering with the ABIM Foundation (with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to work with seven health care groups across the country to get doctors to cut their inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics for upper respiratory infections–like the common cold and the flu—by at least 20 percent over the next three years. Each of the seven groups includes representatives from organizations such as hospitals, clinics, employers, community groups, and medical societies, like the California chapter of the American College of Physicians.

    See Consumer Reports’ guide to the risks posed by antibiotic-resistant infections and join our fight to stop the spread of superbugs.  Follow @ConsumerReports on Twitter, and use #SlamSuperBugs.

    One of the groups, based in Wisconsin, plans to launch a public awareness campaign with TV, radio, and newspaper ads to let people know about overuse of antibiotics–and what alternatives there are for people with runny nose and other symptoms from the common cold.

    Other groups, based in both the East and West coasts, will work with health care providers so that when a doctor and patient discuss antibiotics, the doctor can print out information from Consumer Reports explaining why antibiotics won’t work for their infection – and what to do instead. Printouts of those brochures are available in English and in Spanish.

    The groups will also work on reducing other examples of medical overuse that can lead to harm, including MRIs for new low-back pain with no other major symptoms, and benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, drugs frequently used to combat anxiety and insomnia in older adults. Read more about the campaign, called Choosing Wisely.

    —Beccah Rotthschild

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Want a cheap, reliable car? Consider a used Nissan Leaf

    If you’ve been sitting on the fence thinking about an electric car, or are currently leasing a Nissan Leaf, now is the time to act. Prices are falling like leaves.

    Last week, Nissan announced an additional incentive of $5,000 to $7,000 for current lessees to buy their Leafs when their lease matures. That brings the buyout price closer in line with retail values on the market, so current lessees won’t be as tempted to turn in their Leafs and replace them a few months later for half the price—or simply walk away.

    The Leafs coming off lease now are mostly 2012 models, which would have had contractual buyout price of just over $21,000. This incentive brings that down to about $14,000.

    Even that bargain price is still way above what some Leafs are selling for. We’ve seen plenty of online listings for used Leafs for just over $10,000. We’re talking about late-model cars with between 15,000 and 35,000 miles on them. (2011 models with more miles on them can cost even less.)

    At auction, these cars are selling for $8,000 to $9,000. The numbers point to great potential deals, yet most people apparently aren’t negotiating to get the best price. According to data from the National Automobile Dealers Association, the average price buyers paid for a 2012 Leaf at dealers is about $17,000—way above the auction prices plus a traditional profit.

    Read our complete Nissan Leaf road test and check our used-car buying guide.

     

    If you’ve been thinking of buying an electric car, but just can’t stomach the high price of entry, consider a used Leaf.  The car scored very well when we tested it with quiet, smooth acceleration, a supple ride, and roomy interior that belie its economy-car exterior. Given the available deals, a low-mileage, $10,000 Leaf may be just the way to see if an electric car could work with your lifestyle.

    True, there’s no getting around the Leaf’s range limitations. The car will go 75 to 80 miles on a good day before needing a recharge. And recharging takes about 6 hours, even after you invest in a dedicated 240-volt electric car charger. But it’s hard to beat for cheap transportation. Just be sure to negotiate.

    —Eric Evarts

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    AT&T and the truth about 'unlimited' data plans

    Yesterday the FCC announced that it plans to slap AT&T with a $100 million fine for not disclosing the limits of the company's "unlimited" data plans. Customers who thought they had such plans found that once they had downloaded a certain amount of data, transmission speeds would drop to a fraction of the company's normal network speeds. AT&T, meanwhile, contends that the practice is necessary in order to “manage network resources for the benefit of all customers.” (Our partner site, the Consumerist, has run through the background of the case.)

    AT&T says it will appeal the decision. Meanwhile, if the FCC wants to continue cracking down on a lack of marketing clarity and disclosure, there are rich targets in the mobile industry, because other carriers are continuing to promote plans that rely on loose interpretations of the term "unlimited."

    For instance, T-Mobile calls even its 1-, 3-, and 5-GB plans "unlimited" because the company doesn't cut you off after you've exceeded your monthly allowance. Instead it just throttles back your bandwidth. The problem from a consumer point of view is that this practice is only detailed in small print. And T-Mobile also offers a high-priced Unlimited plan that would seem to have no data cap at all. But the company's terms and conditions page says that customers who exceed 21 GB of data in a billing cycle will have their data usage “de-prioritized compared to other customers for that bill cycle at locations and times when competing network demands occur, resulting in relatively slower speeds.” To be clear, 21 GB is a huge amount of cellular data; it's just not unlimited.

    Last fall, Verizon Wireless floated a plan to throttle data as part of its Network Optimization Plan, but quickly pulled back after receiving negative publicity. However, the company's terms of service says that legacy customers with unlimited 3G data who fall in the top 5 percent of data users "may experience managed data speeds" when demand is high.

    There are signs that the industry is reconsidering its practices, however. On Friday, Sprint, apparently in anticipation of the FCC’s action against AT&T, pulled back from throttling customers who use large amounts of data, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. However, the carrier still has language buried in its terms of service that broadly explains away slow service: “Speeds may vary considerably from these averages based on factors both within and beyond Sprint’s control such as network problems, software, signal strength, your wireless device, structures, buildings, weather, geography, topography, etc.” 

    Starting this year, the FCC has taken on broad authority to focus on throttling as a net neutrality issue, although the agency has said it will allow for slowdowns to accommodate network management. Stay tuned for more news on this front—and for tips on determining whether your’re getting the network connections for which you’re paying, and what you can do if you’re not.

    —Mike Gikas

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    FCC votes to halt robocalls and fund broadband

    Today, the FCC approved measures long championed by Consumer Reports to help people halt robocalls and help low-income families access the Internet.

    The first vote was a clear victory for the 330,000-plus consumers who signed a petition launched early this year by Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, calling for phone companies to provide ways to block unwanted calls. (The petition and proposed solutions can be found at EndRobocalls.org.) The FCC's approval gave those companies full authority to arm customers with technology to prevent those intrusions. “Today’s FCC vote means the phone companies should stop stalling and start providing their customers with free tools to block those calls,” says Tim Marvin, who spearheaded the Consumers Union campaign.

    In a separate action, the FCC also embraced a proposal to expand its Lifeline subsidy program to include broadband service. At the moment, the $9.25 monthly credit can only be applied to phone service. The FCC's decision is now open to public comment, with a final ruling likely to be issued later this year.

    “People need broadband more than ever to find a job, keep a job, stay informed, and manage their day-to-day lives,” says Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union. “Yet we still have a serious gap where millions of Americans don’t have access to affordable broadband.”

    For struggling families, the monthly subsidy would be a way to span that divide.

    Consumer Reports

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 ways to beat the heat and save money too

    With temperatures rising, your utility bill typically will too. But it’s possible to stay comfortable and keep your cool when rates go up. If you have central air, like most of the country, use a programmable thermostat so you’re not fully cooling your home when you’re at work. If you rely on window air conditioners, today’s models are more energy efficient and most have timers you can set to start cooling a room before you arrive. Here are some products and practices that’ll help you stay cool this summer.

    Meet a cool operator

    The GE AEM05LS small air conditioner, $210, a CR Best Buy, is a champ at quickly cooling a room and recovering from power brownouts. And it’s quiet enough for a bedroom.
    Tip: Install your AC in a shady window. It uses more energy when it’s in direct sunlight.

    Full air conditioner Ratings and recommendations

    Banish humidity from your home

    With a capacity of 50 pints per day, the GE ADEW50LR dehumidifier, $200, from Walmart, a CR Best Buy, is excellent at removing moisture from the air without wasting energy. It’s also quiet enough for living areas.
    Tip: If you have a damp basement, set your unit to drain automatically.

    Full dehumidifier Ratings and recommendations

    Reflect on your windows

    The Andersen 400 Series window, $310 per single double-hung window, come in many styles and feature glass options that vary in the amount of sunlight they let in or block out, depending on where you live.
    Tip: If you have plain panes, you can add low-emissive film to reduce heat buildup.

    Full window Ratings and recommendations

    Become a fan of ceiling fans

    Ceiling fans are generally inexpensive to buy and run, whether you use them alone or with air conditioning. A 52-inch-diameter fan is ideal for rooms that are 225 to 400 square feet. Pick a 42- to 44-inch fan for 144 to 225 square feet.
    Tip: Fans with blades that have a textured surface are noisier than those with smooth blades.

    Heat your food not your house

    The Panasonic Inverter NN-H965BF large microwave, $180, has one of the largest usable capacities of our tested models and performs very well. Heating evenness is very good and a sensor determines when food is done.
    Tip: You can steam veggies and poach chicken and fish and still keep the kitchen cool.

    Full microwave Ratings and recommendations

    More ways to save

    Other money-saving tricks include keeping your curtains closed during the day and throwing open your windows at night to take advantage of cooler outdoor temperatures. You can also run your dishwasher and washing machine—and any other heat-generating appliance—in the morning or late at night when temperatures are cooler and utility rates are sometimes less.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to lower your risk of melanoma

    If there’s any good news about skin cancer, is that the deadliest forms, melanoma, is also the rarest of the three types of the disease. But according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), melanoma rates have doubled over the last three decades, increasing from 11.2 cases per 100,000 people in 1982 to 22.7 per 100,000 in 2011—when more than 65,000 melanoma cancers were diagnosed. It’s still less common than basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, but the increase in melanoma is clearly cause for concern.

    Since more than 90 percent of melanomas are due to cell damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, the simple solution is prevention: Protect yourself from UV exposure by wearing a broad-rimmed hat and clothes that cover your skin, find some shade if you’re outside (especially in the middle of the day when rays are most intense), and apply broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed skin. Daily sunscreen use cut melanoma risk in half in one published study from researchers in Australia.

    Learn how to boost your sun protection smarts and find our sunscreen ratings in our sun safety guide.

    On a broader level, the CDC recommends that communities increase shade on playgrounds, pools, and other public spaces, and encourage education about sun safety and skin protection. Another important step: restricting the availability and use of indoor tanning by minors. Studies have found a 59 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who go to tanning salons. The effect of these measures could be powerful, preventing an estimated 230,000 melanoma cases over the next 15 years.

    As with many forms of cancer, early detection is key with melanoma. That’s why everyone should alert their doctor if they notice a mole that begins to grow or change significantly in any way or if they develop a new “outlier” mole— one that looks different from others they have.

    And if you’re at increased risk of melanoma, be sure to talk to your doctor about the best screening strategy. Factors that raise your chances of developing the disease include having a family history of melanoma, a personal history of frequent sunburns, or a large or increasing number of precancerous moles. Being fair-skinned or heavily freckled also increase the risk. When identified early (before the disease has spread to nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body), the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 98 percent. And that’s very good news!

    Karyn Repinski

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tips on how to maintain your new car

    One of the reassuring qualities of contemporary cars is that they need much less-frequent service to keep them running well. Changing the spark plugs, breaker points, and condenser used to be a seasonal exercise, and body rust was accepted as a normal if unfortunate hazard of aging. Now many spark plugs can go 100,000 miles between changes. Electronic ignition has done away with the points and condenser. Chassis, suspensions, and even some transmissions are lubed for life. And factory rust-through warranties typically run six years or longer. What’s more, reliability has improved significantly. The result is that most late-model cars and trucks should be able to go 200,000 miles with regular upkeep.

    Here are a few simple, periodic checks and procedures you can do that will help you get there.

     

    Check the engine oil

    Do it regularly—monthly for a vehicle in good condition; more often if you notice an oil leak or find you need to add oil routinely. The car should be parked on level ground so you can get an accurate dipstick reading. Don’t overfill. And if you do have a leak, find and fix it soon.

    Check tire air pressure

    Once a month and before any extended road trips, use an accurate tire-pressure gauge to check the inflation pressure in each tire, including the spare. Do this when the tires are cold (before the vehicle has been driven or after no more than a couple of miles of driving). Use the inflation pressure recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, not the maximum pressure embossed on the tire’s sidewall. The recommended pressure is usually found on a placard on a front doorjamb, in the glove compartment, or in the owner’s manual. Also be sure to inspect tires for abnormal or uneven wear, cuts, and any sidewall bulges you can see.

    CR advises that digital tire-pressure gauges (which cost about $15 to $25) are probably the best bet overall because they will give an accurate reading or none at all. Many pencil-type gauges (typically $10 to $15) are good as well. Note that to check the pressure in a temporary spare tire, which is often 60 psi, you will need a gauge that goes higher than that—say from 0 up to 90 pounds. (See our tire buying advice and Ratings.)

    Give it a wash

    Try to wash the car every week, if you can. Wash the body and, if necessary, hose out the fender wells and undercarriage to remove dirt and road salt. It’s time to wax the finish when water beads become larger than a quarter. (Read "How to detail your car" and check our car wax Ratings.)

    Visit our guide to car maintenance and repair.

    For normal driving, many automakers recommend changing the engine oil and filter every 7,500 miles or six months, whichever comes first. This is sufficient for the majority of motorists. For “severe” driving—with frequent, very cold starts and short trips, dusty conditions, or trailer towing--the change interval should be shortened to every 3,000 miles or three months. (Check your owner’s manual for the specific intervals recommended for your vehicle.) Special engines such as diesels and turbocharged engines may need more-frequent oil changes.

    Check the air filter

    Remove the air-filter element and hold it up to a strong light. If you don’t see light, replace it. Regardless, follow the recommended service intervals.

    Check the constant-velocity-joint boots

    On front-wheel-drive and some four-wheel-drive vehicles, examine these bellowslike rubber boots, also known as CV boots, on the drive axles. Immediately replace any that are cut, cracked, or leaking. If dirt contaminates the CV joint it can quickly lead to an expensive fix.

    Inspect the exhaust system

    If you’re willing to make under-car inspections, check for rusted-through exhaust parts that need replacing. Also tighten loose clamps. Do this while the car is up on ramps. If a shop changes your oil, have them make these checks. Listen for changes in the exhaust sound while driving. It’s usually advisable to replace the entire exhaust system all at once rather than to repair sections at different times.

    Look at the brakes

    For most people it makes sense to have a shop check and service the brakes. If you handle your own brake work, remove all wheels and examine the brake system. Replace excessively worn pads or linings, and have badly scored rotors or drums machined or replaced. The brakes should be checked at least twice per year; more often if you drive a lot of miles.

    Check the fluids

    On many newer cars, the automatic transmission is sealed. On cars where it is not sealed, check the transmission dipstick with the engine warmed up and running (see the owner’s manual for details). Also check the power-steering-pump dipstick (it’s usually attached to the fluid-reservoir cap) and the level in the brake-fluid reservoir. If the brake-fluid level is low, top it up and have the system checked for leaks.

    Clean the radiator

    Prevent overheating by removing debris with a soft brush and washing the outside of the radiator with a detergent solution.

    Check the battery

    Check the battery’s terminals and cables to make sure they are securely attached, with no corrosion. If the battery has removable caps, check its fluid level every few months—especially in warmer climates. (See our car battery ratings and buying advice.)

    Drain and flush the cooling system

    Considering the hassle of collecting and safely disposing of old antifreeze, you may want to leave this to a shop.

    Change the automatic-transmission fluid

    Many models require that you replace the fluid and filter every 36,000 miles—sooner if the normally pink fluid takes on a brownish tint. With some cars the fluid and, if applicable, the filter can go 100,000 miles or more. With other late models, the transmission fluid never needs to be changed. Check your owner’s manual for this information.

    Replace the drive belts and hoses

    Do this every two to three years, even if they don’t show any wear. If a belt becomes noisy, have it adjusted.

    Change the timing belt

    If your vehicle has a belt instead of a chain, stick to the manufacturer’s recommended replacement interval—usually every 60,000 to 80,000 miles. Check the owner’s manual or consult a dealer. Failure to change the timing belt can result in a very expensive engine repair if the belt should break.

    Use our car repair estimator to check maintenance and repair prices in your area.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Persil laundry detergent winning the war on stains

    As laundry detergent goes, it was big news when Persil, a recent import from Europe, took over the top spot in Consumer Reports' laundry detergent Ratings from Tide. Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2-in-1, sold at Walmart, beat the next-best Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release by being tougher on blood stains in our tests. “It’s pretty powerful,” says Caroline LaBarre, director of marketing at Henkel, who led the launch of Persil in the U.S. If you’re looking for a gentler, yet still effective Persil laundry detergent, we tested a couple other models. Here’s the full report. 

    Henkel has been around since 1876 and its products are sold in about 60 countries, so it has experience tailoring detergents for different markets. “Kimchi is a very big stain in South Korea,” says LaBarre. When it came to time to create a Persil laundry detergent for the U.S., red wine, chocolate, and grass were top priorities. The Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2-in-1, 25 cents per load, handled those stains easily. 

    We also tested the Persil ProClean Power-Liquid, which doesn’t have the “Pro-Lift Technology” of its top-rated brand mate. Its overall score is about 11 points lower, mainly because it struggled to remove ring-around-the-collar. But it’s still a very solid performer and it costs 5 cents less per load than the top Persil. It’s also available in more fragrances, including intense fresh and sensitive skin, described as “100% dye free” and “gentle on your skin.”

    A third Persil laundry detergent from our latest tests is the Persil ProClean Power-Pearls, 25 cents per load. We’re categorizing it as a powder, though it’s in the form of hard tiny pearls (that’s how it can be packaged in a typical liquid detergent bottle.) Powders are often more compatible with bleaching agents, and that’s how this product is being positioned. “The pearls are outstanding on whites in warm or hot water,” says LaBarre. In our tests, the Persil ProClean Power-Pearls were very tough on grass and blood, though not ring-around-the-collar. So it should do the job on sheets and sports uniforms, but maybe not white dress shirts.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    New protections, cautions on reverse mortgages

    Surviving spouses of reverse mortgage borrowers now could be better protected against eviction thanks to a rule issued recently by the Federal Housing Administration. But a new study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau underscores that borrowers still can get into trouble with this products due to potentially misleading advertising.

    Last week, the FHA announced a policy change to potentially allow all spouses of people who enter into reverse mortgages—also known as home equity conversion mortgages (HECMs)—to stay in their homes after the borrowers die, regardless of when the loan was made. 

    Reverse mortgages let borrowers who are 62 or older get income by tapping the equity in their home. In the past, reverse mortgage contracts required that the loans be repaid upon death of the borrowers. Otherwise, lenders could foreclose. Numerous widows and widowers, some of whom had no idea their spouses had borrowed against their homes, were threatened with eviction when they could not repay the loans. 

    Thanks to the new rule, lenders have the option to assign such loans to the Department of Housing and Urban Development after the last surviving borrower dies. The surviving spouse can then stay in the home if he or she makes timely tax and insurance payments; maintains the property according to the HECM contract; and can prove legal marriage to the borrower, primary residency in the home, and the legal right to stay in the home.

    The rule, affecting loans made before August 4, 2014, follows up on an earlier ruling affecting loans made after that date.

    Get unbiased advice on retirement finances with Consumer Reports' Retirement Planning Guide

    Reverse mortgages can be lifesavers. But with origination fees, closing costs, and interest on the principal—among other expenses—they can be costly. And even with the new FHA rule, borrowers and their surviving spouses still can face significant risks. Not keeping up on property taxes or maintenance, for instance, could lead to foreclosure.

    In fact, a recent CFPB study found reverse mortgage advertisements underplayed those risks. The bureau, which regulates loans and credit products, found the ads were incomplete, and provided inaccurate descriptions. Key loan requirements "were often buried in fine print, if they were even mentioned at all," the CFPB reported. As a result, it concluded, consumers could be misled into borrowing products that they really didn't understand.

    It's that potential to mislead that has prompted Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, to recommend that all reverse mortgage lenders give borrowers a reverse mortgage worksheet, now mandated for all reverse mortgage borrowers in California. Studies show that unlike a disclosure, a worksheet can guide the borrower through a more thoughtful decision-making process. 

    Heed these other recommendations before you borrow:

    • Go for face-to-face counseling. You’re required to talk to a mortgage counselor to discuss eligibility, financial implications, and alternatives. While you can talk on the phone for counseling, we urge you to have a face-to-face session (find info here about local counseling agencies). 
    • Calculate your ongoing expenses. If you can’t keep up with homeowners insurance, property taxes, and maintenance, you could default and lose your home.
    • Visit a financial adviser or CPA. There may be other options, like borrowing from family that might work better for you.

    — Tobie Stanger

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    NHTSA seeks to reinvent itself—and keep drivers safer

    Following a series of massive safety recalls that have proved an embarrassment and generated concern about just how safe our cars are, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—NHTSA—has initiated a series of sweeping and long-overdue reforms.

    The biggest recall misses by the federal government’s car-safety watchdog involved flimsy General Motors ignition switches that inappropriately shut off engine power and suppressed airbag deployments and potentially explosive Takata airbag inflators installed by 10 automakers over the span of a decade.

    In both cases, automakers failed to send NHTSA critical information that would have indicated there was a safety defect. Nevertheless, it still took years for NHTSA to catch on to issues that could have been recognized and dealt with much sooner. Tens of millions of cars have been affected.

    Two reports released by the agency this month, NHTSA’s Path Forward (pdf) and Workforce Assessment (pdf), outline just how weak the agency has been and map out steps to limit or eliminate future safety issues. If implemented—a big “if,” as the agency is asking for more money from a budget-slashing Congress—these changes could help keep us all safer on the road.

    Among other goals, the agency seeks to upgrade its antiquated computer systems, hire additional and well-trained staff, step up its scrutiny of data supplied by the auto industry, and force automakers to provide better and more timely information.

    These two reports were prompted by an internal review NHTSA conducted over the past year, and by a critical 2011 audit from the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General. A separate Inspector General audit of the agency is expected to be released sometime this summer.

    One of the striking features in NHTSA’s self-portrait is just how under-resourced NHTSA is, especially given the scope of its work.

    Learn more in our guide to car safety.

    NHTSA is tasked with overseeing tens of thousands of consumer vehicle complaints annually to determine if safety recalls for passenger vehicles and equipment are necessary—a decision which happens close to 1,000 times a year.

    But that’s just the beginning of the to-do list. NHTSA also conducts detailed crash investigations, compiles fatality and injury statistics, manages fuel economy standards (CAFE), polices all federal motor-vehicle safety standards (FMVSS), runs a comprehensive series of new-car crash tests (the familiar 5-Star ratings system), and other projects.

    And before any self-driving car gets to hit the highway, it will be NHTSA’s task to develop the necessary standards and regulations to ensure they are safe for their drivers and to the rest of the driving public—and to protect the data streams running the automated cars from being hacked.

    Much of the criticism leveled at NHTSA for its slow-motion response to long-simmering safety issues is aimed at the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) which investigates potential defects, gathers data from consumer safety complaints and the automakers, and administers the recalls system.

    But ODI has a mere 50 full-time employees, responsible for monitoring the safety of the more than 265 million vehicles on the road. According to the Workforce Assessment document, ODI has only eight people screening data from consumers, which numbered 80,000 submissions last year alone. Four investigators examine “Early Warning” reports filed by the automakers, and 16 investigators conduct the formal defect investigations.

    That report also draws a striking contrast between ODI and the resources of other federal safety agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It says that the rough equivalent of NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation is the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety, which had 6,408 employees in 2014 and a budget of more than $1 billion. NHTSA’s entire safety-enforcement budget for 2014 was about $34 million, split between ODI and two other divisions.  

    When Congress criticizes NHTSA officials for failing to spot defects earlier, which it does whenever a serious safety issue makes headlines, it’s worth considering how underfed its watchdog has been.

    For starters, NHTSA is requesting an additional $24 million this year and 93 additional employees for ODI. But to staff what the agency’s analysis reckons is an effective level, NHTSA wants to eventually add 380 more people and an additional $89 million to its annual budget.  

    We like a lot of what we see in NHTSA’s overhaul plan, which aims to make the agency more proactive and assertive.

    However, the overhaul plan doesn’t say much about improvements to NHTSA’s consumer website, safercar.gov, where consumers go to file safety complaints, check for recalls, and see crash-test results. Using the site can be tedious and frustrating, demanding an antiquated drill-down search or a long slog through multiple menus.

    We’ve found many safety-problem reports to be misclassified, duplicated, or hard to decipher. In some cases the safety-problem questionnaire form doesn’t supply a category appropriate for the problem someone wants to report.

    If NHTSA wants consumers to feed it good data, it needs to make the website a whole lot friendlier to use.

    In the meantime, we encourage you to continue to enter safety complaints as best you can.  

    NHTSA has warned that things may get worse before they get better.  Increased vigilance will mean more recalls in the short term, and as vehicle systems become more complex, investigations will become more challenging, and consumer complaints will rise. All the more reason Congress should supply the funding for the added resources, both human and machine.   

    Gordon Hard

    Support auto safety!

    265 million cars, yet only 50 people looking at defects?

    Join Consumers Union in calling upon Congress to give NHTSA the resources it needs to keep motorists safe.

     

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    End robocalls! Are these nuisance calls going the way of rotary phones?

    Just a day after the Federal Communications Commission hit AT&T with a record $100 million fine for slowing download and upload speeds for its unlimited data plans, the FCC voted to help consumers with two more concerns: robocalls and connecting low-income Americans to the Internet.

    Robocalls, robotexts, and telemarketing calls are the FCC's leading source of consumer complaints. Commissioners voted 3-2 to make it easier for consumers to say "no" to unwanted calls and texts by putting stricter rules in place and closing loopholes in the law.

    FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made a point of saying phone companies can—should—offer tools for Americans to block robocalls. In the past, some phone companies have resisted doing so, maintaining they did not have the legal authority. But this FCC order makes it clear that the companies can offer this technology without violating FCC rules.

    Earlier this year, Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, launched the End Robocalls campaign, calling on the major phone companies to provide free, effective tools to block unwanted calls. More 330,000 consumers have signed Consumers Union's petition to the carriers.

    "Americans have had enough with robocalls that ring off the hook all day long, and often target them with the latest scams," says Tim Marvin, Consumers Union's End Robocalls campaign manager. "The FCC vote means the phone companies should stop stalling and start providing their customers with free tools to block these calls."

    Read more about robocalls, including how robocalls scam the Do Not Call List and tips for stopping robocalls and telemarketers.

    More than 217 million phone numbers have been registered on the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call registry. Yet robocalls persist as scam artists ignore the lists and use the latest technology to hammer people with calls day and night. Phone scams cost consumers an estimated $350 million in financial losses annually, and we're pleased to see the FCC cracking down on them.

    In a separate action, commissioners voted to consider reforming and modernizing a program called Lifeline. The program was started in 1985 during the Reagan administration to help low-income Americans pay for phone service.

    Today, Lifeline offers a $9.25 monthly credit for eligible people to put toward landline phone service or wireless plans. Chairman Wheeler wants to expand the program so people can apply the credit to phone service or broadband. The plan would also strengthen oversight and administration of Lifeline, and take additional measures to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse.

    Consumers Union is a longtime supporter of Lifeline because it helps consumers in need get critical communications services. We applaud this effort to restructure the program and connect more Americans to broadband. This vote starts the process of gathering public comments and developing a rule, and we plan to speak out on the need for it.

    Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said, "People need broadband more than ever to find a job, keep a job, stay informed, and manage their day-to-day lives. Yet we still have a serious gap where millions of Americans don't have access to affordable broadband. The FCC's plan will help close the broadband gap and make Lifeline more relevant and impactful for a lot more people."

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read past installments of our Policy & Action feature.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tools to help seniors fight off money scams

    Fraud against seniors costs them and their families some $2.9 billion a year, by one estimate. The criminals, among them “charity” phone solicitors; phony IRS agents demanding tax payments; sweepstakes and lottery fraudsters and scammers duping grandparents into wiring funds abroad, often don't get caught. 

    In fact, an estimated 1 in 44 cases of money scams and financial abuse of seniors is ever brought to the attention of authorities. “Victims of elder financial exploitation are forced to live out their last days in fear, worse health, indignity and often poverty,” Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the National Adult Protective Services Association, said earlier this week at the first global summit commemorating World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

    There are many reasons for why they often go unreported. Among them, older people often feel ashamed to report their abuse, they may not know where to report, and they may be afraid to anger their abusers. And, noted a number of participants earlier this week at the summit in Washington, D.C., even when the crimes do get reported, the attention they get varies depending on which professionals get involved in helping, which resources are available locally, and which state and municipal laws can be used to address them. Professionals in adult protective services (APS), which serves the elderly and disabled, talked about the need for uniformity throughout the country.

    "There are 50 ways to report to APS; you absolutely need something that’s one-stop-shopping,” said Joe Snyder, director of the Philadelphia Protective Services for Older Adults and a panelist at the event. 

    There are new technologies that can help stop annoying robocalls. Consumers Union explains how.

    How to get help

    Fortunately for seniors and the people who care about them, there is recourse. At the summit, representatives from several government agencies highlighted their resources to help prevent, fight and report money scams aimed at seniors. Other demographic groups also can benefit. 

    FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, sponsors a new Securities Helpline for Seniors (HELPS) to assist with their questions and concerns regarding brokerage accounts and investments.

    A FINRA spokesman said that as of last week, the helpline, which started in April, had received over 540 calls, including 42 calls alleging unsuitable recommendations, 30 calls alleging misrepresentation, 15 alleging unauthorized trading, 11 alleging churning/excessive trading, seven alleging failure to execute, three alleging identify theft, and one about forgery.

    "FINRA has opened 97 matters for further review internally, of which we have referred three matters to state regulators and one to the SEC through FINRA’s Office of Fraud Detection and Market Intelligence," said the spokesman, George Smaragdis.

    — Tobie Stanger

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    Does the sweetener xylitol really prevent cavities?

    Q. Does the natural sweetener xylitol in chewing gums and other products really prevent cavities?

    A. It has been claimed that xylitol reduces plaque and discourages cavities, but xylitol's health benefits were recently questioned in a review of 10 studies conducted by Cochrane, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that analyzes scientific research.

    A sugar alcohol found in many plants and fruits, xylitol (like other natural sweeteners, including maltitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and erythritol) is used in foods and other products as a replacement for sucrose (i.e., table sugar). It's been used in chewing gums since the 1970s.

    Read our report on dental care to find out how to keep your teeth healthy without going broke. Also check out our Buying Guide to toothbrushes, both manual and electric.

    The review by Chochrane found that "over 2.5 to 3 years of use" brushing with a toothpaste containing fluoride and 10 percent xylitol may reduce cavities by 13 percent "when compared to a fluoride-only toothpaste." But the evidence for xylitol in other products like chewing gum, mouthwash, and sweets was deemed insufficient.

    "If one is developing a lot of cavities, there is no convincing evidence that xylitol will have a significant effect," says Jay W. Friedman, D.D.S., a Los Angeles-area dentist and Consumer Reports dental adviser. "If a person isn't developing a lot of cavities, or any, it doesn't matter what one chews, as long as it isn't tobacco."

    This article also appears in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health

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    What to carry in your roadside emergency kit

    A roadside emergency can happen at any time, whether your car is new or old. A range of problems can cause it, from a tire failure or mechanical breakdown to running out of fuel. At best, it's an annoyance; at worst, it can compromise your safety. Being prepared with a basic emergency kit can increase your safety, reduce stress, and help you get back on the road faster.

    Even if you have roadside-assistance coverage or an automobile-club membership with roadside assistance, you usually need access to a phone in order to contact them and you may have to wait on the side of the road for an hour or more before help arrives. That's why we recommend that drivers carry certain items in their vehicle, even if it only gets used for everyday, around-town driving. This basic kit can be supplemented with additional items if you go on a long-distance trip or have to deal with winter weather conditions.

    It's also important to make periodic checks on the equipment to ensure it's in working order—that the spare tire is properly inflated, batteries are not discharged, first-aid supplies are current, water is fresh, and food is dry. In addition, be familiar with how each tool works, from the cellular phone to the jack, before you need to use it in an emergency.

    This kit is intended to aid you in getting help, signaling your car's presence to other motorists, and tackling simple challenges.

    Cellular phone

    We don't recommend that you talk on a cell phone while driving, but in an emergency, this can be the single most valuable component of your kit. Keep a car charger handy. This device plugs into the cigarette lighter or other power point in the car and charges the battery of your cell phone. When traveling, it's best to leave your cell phone on. Emergency tip: If you have to dial 911, remember that your location and phone number aren't always available to an emergency operator when calling from a cell phone. So give the operator your number and any information you have about your location. Ignore any "no service" messages on the phone and try the call anyway. If you have trouble connecting to 911 from inside a car, get out if possible and call from the side of the road. That may help you get a better signal.

    First-aid kit

    Choose one that allows you to treat a range of problems, from small cuts or burns to ones that require major bandaging. We also suggest you get familiar with how to use the kit before you need to.

    Fire extinguisher

    A car fire can start from something as simple as a wiring short circuit or leaking oil. You should get away from a vehicle that's on fire as quickly as possible. Still, for extra security it's good to keep a fire extinguisher in the car that can be used in any emergency or to quickly dose a small flame that's just begun. The quicker a fire can be put out, the less damage it will cause. Multipurpose dry-chemical fire extinguishers are available in a variety of sizes. We recommend carrying a compact unit that's labeled 1A10BC or 2A10BC.

    Warning light, hazard triangle, or flares

    If your vehicle is stuck on the side of the road, it's vital that you give other motorists as much warning of its presence as possible, especially at night. Look for a battery-powered warning light that can be placed far from the vehicle. Reflective hazard triangles and flares are also effective and don't need batteries.

    Tire gauge

    This should be used on a monthly basis to check the inflation pressure in all four tires and the spare tire. Because the ambient temperature affects tire pressure, it's also advisable to check the pressure after a significant change in temperature. See our latest Ratings and buying advice on tire pressure gauges.

    Jack and lug wrench

    Almost all vehicles come with these items for changing a tire. Refer to your owner's manual on where they're located in the vehicle and how to use them. Models that come with run-flat tires do not have a spare tire. Run-flat tires can be driven a limited number of miles with little or no air in them. They have very stiff sidewalls, which provide support when the tire is deflated. Learn more about the warning signs of imminent tire failure.

    Foam tire sealant or a portable compressor and plug kit

    For minor punctures, a foam tire sealant can get your vehicle back on the road quickly. Only use it in an emergency, however, as many tire shops will refuse to repair the tire because of the sticky residue these sealants leave inside it. Be sure to choose a sealant that's labeled as non-flammable, and don't consider this a permanent fix. A portable DC-powered air compressor can also be used to inflate a tire--and is especially handy for one that suffers from a slow leak. To fix a puncture, however, you need to have it professionally repaired.

    Spare fuses

    If you experience an electrical problem, your first check should be for a burned-out fuse. These are easy to check and replace by referring to your owner's manual. Keep an assortment on hand of the proper type for your vehicle.

    Jumper cables or a portable battery booster

    Jumper cables are easy to use as long as you have a second car available to provide a jump. Refer to your owner's manual for instructions. A portable battery booster eliminates the need for a second car.

    Flashlight

    This can be critical at night. Choose one that is bright and weatherproof. In addition, a flashlight with a magnet, flexible mounting system, or a stand will free up your hands for other tasks. Also, have extra batteries and a bulb available.

    Gloves, hand cleaner, and clean rags

    Even the simplest jobs can get your hands dirty. Having these on hand will help keep that dirt from getting on your clothes or your vehicle's interior.

    Auto-club card or roadside-assistance number

    If you belong to an auto club or roadside-assistance program, be sure you have the necessary information in your vehicle.

    Disposable flash camera

    Following an accident, this lets you record the condition of your vehicle and other vehicles for insurance purposes. A cell phone camera can also work.

    $20 in small bills and change

    Keep this available for miscellaneous use. And resist dipping into it for a spontaneous ice cream cone on a hot day.

    Pen and pad of paper

    This can come in handy for a range of uses, from leaving a note on the windshield should you have to leave your car to jotting down information after an accident.

    For long trips, especially those through remote areas, add these items to your basic emergency kit.

    Basic tools

    This includes a set of socket and open-end wrenches, a multi-tip screwdriver, and pliers. This should be enough to perform simple jobs such as changing a lightbulb, tightening battery cables, and so on. Even if you don't know what to do, a Good Samaritan will still need something to work with.

    Coolant hose repair kit and tape

    A leaking coolant hose can sideline your vehicle quickly and possibly cause engine damage from overheating. Often, a leaking hose is a simple fix if you have the right items. They can be bought at any major auto-parts store.

    Extra clothes and small tarpaulin

    Even if all you do is change a tire, these items can help keep your regular clothes clean.

    Water and nonperishable emergency food

    Bring enough food and water to sustain you and any passengers for at least a meal, longer for remote areas or in extreme hot/cold regions.

    CB radio

    If your route will take you into an area where cellular service is spotty, consider a portable or in-car CB radio.

    GPS navigation system

    This is an optional item, but good to have when traveling to new places.

    For the cold, wet conditions of winter, you may need additional items in your emergency kit, especially if you travel in remote areas or in severe conditions.

    Windshield scraper

    Good visibility is your most important safety item, but persistent snow and ice can build up quickly and make it hard to see. A long-handled, soft-bristled brush can also come in handy.

    Tire chains and tow strap

    Familiarize yourself with how to put the chains on your vehicle's tires or attach a tow strap before you need to do it in cold and possibly dark conditions.

    Blanket and winter hat

    If you run out of fuel or if your battery dies, the vehicle won't be able to provide heat. A blanket and hat can help keep you warm if you have to wait for a long time in cold conditions.

    Chemical hand warmers

    These small, inexpensive packets are available at ski shops and sporting-goods stores.

    Small folding shovel

    If you get stuck in snow, this can be a vital tool. A folding camping-style shovel will require more digging effort than a longer-handled shovel, but is more convenient to store in the vehicle.

    Bag of cat litter

    This can help provide some traction on an especially slick road surface.

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    Dog harnesses for cars may not be as safe as you think

    Despite good intentions, many owners who are buckling up their dogs may not be using a harness that will keep the animals or passengers safe. A study by the Center for Pet Safety (CPS) and Subaru found serious flaws with many popular car pet restraints. Of all the restraints tested, only one provided adequate protection to the dog and the passengers of the vehicle.

    More than 43 million households own a dog, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and most pooches need to be transported in vehicles, whether for a trip to the vet or a family vacation. A proper restraint not only protects your pet and your passengers in a crash (where a loose pet can become a deadly projectile), it also reduces the risk of the pet interfering with the driver or otherwise causing distractions with its movement.

    To understand the safety that restraints can provide in an accident, the CPS looked at systems that manufacturers claimed were tested, crash tested, or have crash protection. They based the test on FMVSS 213 standard, which is the procedure currently used to certify child safety seats. The organization will use the data to help develop standards for performance and test protocols of restraint systems, since there are currently no such industry guidelines.

    The CPS purchased a variety of harnesses and the testing occurred in two phases. Each harness was first subjected to a preliminary strength test; if the harness remained intact during the strength test, it would continue on to the crash test portion of the evaluation. Of the 11 harnesses that claim crash protection, only seven passed the initial strength portion of the test and therefore qualified for the crash test evaluation. The systems were tested using specially designed crash test dummy dogs in three sizes: a 25 lb. Terrier mix, a 45 lb. Border Collie, and a 75 lb. Golden Retriever.

    The Sleepypod Clickit Utility was the top performer. The dog remained restrained during every test and was deemed to offer protection to not only the pet, but to the passengers in the car.

    Learn more about car safety.

    The other harnesses that were crash tested—Klein Metal AllSafe, Cover Craft RuffRider Roadie, RC Pet Canine Friendly Crash Tested, Bergan Dog Auto Harness, Kurgo Tru-Fit Enhanced Strength, and IMMI PetBuckle—did not perform as well. Some of the harnesses allowed the dog to launch off of the seat; others did not control the rotation of the dog. The worst products were labeled catastrophic failures, as they allowed the dog to become a projectile or be released from the restraint. That occurred in the IMMI model in all dog sizes, Kurgo in the 25 lb. and 75 lb. size, and the Bergan model in the 75 lb. size.

    For more tips on how to safely transport your pet, see our report on pets and car safety.

    Liza Barth

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Is your financial adviser a fraud?

    Investors, beware: Your financial adviser may be faking his or her credentials. A recent Investor Alert from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) warns investors that fraudulent advisers may misrepresent their backgrounds and experience to lure unsuspecting clients into buying questionable products and services.

    “In order to attract unsuspecting investors and gain their trust, fraudsters may boast about credentials they do not have,” the SEC warns. “They may fabricate, exaggerate, or hide facts about their backgrounds to portray themselves as successful professionals and to make you believe that the investments they offer are legitimate. Others may repeat these misrepresentations and contribute—perhaps unintentionally—to a fraudster’s false reputation of success and professional accomplishment.”

    For more information on choosing a financial adviser, read "7 Questions You Need to Ask Your Financial Adviser."

    Here are four ways in which fraudulent advisers bamboozle you and how you can protect yourself:

    Confusing credentials

    Certified financial planner, certified senior adviser, certified senior consultant, certified specialist in retirement planning, certified retirement services professional—who can make sense of this alphabet soup? But while some of these titles confirm actual expertise, many others are misleading and some are little more than marketing ploys to lure credulous clients into buying dubious financial products.

    Our advice: Check out titles and certifications. Go to Paladin Registry, click on “Investor Tools” and scroll to “Check a Credential.” Or use the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA) Professional Designations guide. Make sure the credential is from an accredited organization, that the training and educational requirements are stringent, and that there’s an easy way to file a complaint, if necessary.

    Misrepresent awards or honors 

    The SEC is pursuing a case in which the respondent allegedly solicited investors for a private fund by claiming he was named a “Top 25 Rising Business Star” by Fortune Magazine. In fact, no such distinction exists. Similarly, questionable financial advisers may tout a “Five Star” award from Five Star Professional. It sounds good but candidates are nominated by peers and firms, not their clients.

    Our advice: Verify all awards and honors. Use more objective criteria when choosing an adviser.

    Inflate their educational background or professional experience

    The SEC Alert cites a defendant whose prospectus for a fictitious hedge fund stated he had earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University, when he had only enrolled there for a few semesters. In another example, the defendant misled investors about his trading track record as a private fund manager and lost almost all of investors’ money.

    Our advice: Do a basic background check. Make sure the adviser is registered with your state’s securities regulator (contact the North American Securities Administrators Association) or insurance commission (contact the National Association of Insurance Commissioners). 

    Hide previous problems

    An adviser could have the right credentials but still be a crook.

    Our advice: Consult FINRA’s BrokerCheck for any disciplinary actions against investment adviser firms and individual representatives.

    Don’t trust someone just because he or she claims to have impressive credentials, stellar experience, or manages to have created a successful reputation. Always ask for details and be particularly skeptical if you do not receive direct and specific answers to your questions, encounter discrepancies, or unearth conflicting information. 

    Catherine Fredman

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    Is riding shotgun safer than sitting in the back?

    For decades, automotive safety has focused mostly on the front seat, which makes sense. There is always a driver behind the wheel, and there is a passenger, who usually sits in front. But it is time to direct attention to the back seat as well, some safety researchers and automakers say.

    Rear-seat safety hasn’t kept pace with advancements up front, according to a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

    How good have front seats become? In vehicles made after 2006, people sitting in the rear seat, even when wearing a seatbelt, have a 46 percent greater chance of dying in a crash than someone riding in the front passenger seat—even after controlling for age and gender differences.  

    “It’s not because the rear seat has gotten less safe, but rather the front seat has gotten safer,” said Jessica Jermakian, IIHS senior research scientist and co-author of the study, titled “Rear Seat Safety: Variation in Protection By Occupant, Crash and Vehicle Characteristics.”

    It doesn’t mean children are better off in the front seats, however. Detailed results based on age indicate that the rear seat is still safer for children under 9 years. We believe that this is likely due to the added protection of child restraints.

    And, although results for 9- to 12-year-olds showed a higher relative risk in the rear seat, it was attributed to “an unusually small fatality risk in the front,” and not to a higher risk in the rear. Consumer Reports still recommends that all children under the age of 13 ride in the back.

    For occupants age 55 and older, there are indications that the rear seat may be less safe than the front but the study stated that more data is needed to be conclusive.

    However, one thing was clear: When in the rear seat, older occupants had the highest risk of being seriously or fatally injured in a crash of any age group.

    Learn more in our guide to car safety.

    It had been a maxim in the automotive safety community that the rear seat was safer than the front, says the study’s lead author, Dennis Durbin, M.D., director of the Office of Clinical and Translational Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

    “I always used to say that, if I could figure out a way to drive from the back seat I would,” Durbin says.

    But in the last five years, some studies have shown that the relative safety advantage of the back seat has begun to shrink, particularly in newer vehicles and particularly for adults.

    “We have reduced the likelihood of dying in a crash in the front seat; we know there are things we can do in the rear seat,” Jermakian says.

    Those strategies include adding features that help reduce chest injuries such as seat-belt pretensioners and load limiters, which front seat belts have had for years, but rear belts, with rare exceptions, have not. Belt pretensioners remove excess slack in a crash. Load limiters allow some of the seat belt to strategically spool out—if it didn’t, the overly tensioned seat belt could break your ribs or other bones by not giving the body sufficient slack to absorb the shock.

    Among the other suggestions: Adding rear-seat reminder chimes, to increase seatbelt use. A recent NHTSA study shows that front-seat seatbelt use is 87 percent, a figure that drops sharply to 78 percent in rear seats for passengers 8 and older.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has contracted with the University of Michigan and automotive supplier ZF TRW to study rear-seat restraint systems such as rear airbags that deploy from the roof or from the back of a front seat. Currently, rear-seat occupants only have airbags that provide protection in side impacts.

    What’s available right now?

    Volvo, has added seat-belt pretensioners and load limiters to its rear seatbelts in all its vehicles. And, if a child is seated in a Volvo’s integrated booster seat, the load limiter adjusts to limit the force of the impact even more.

    For mass-market shoppers, Ford has developed rear-seat safety technology with its Rear Inflatable Belt, introduced in the 2011 Explorer.

    A tubular airbag concealed in the shoulder belt inflates in a crash to reduce head, neck and chest injuries. It’s a $195 option on the Ford Explorer, Edge, F-150, Flex and Fusion and the Lincoln MKZ and MKT.

    Mercedes-Benz has similar technology. Its rear-seat Beltbag is available on the S-Class sedans as part of an optional rear seat package and standard on the S600 and S65 AMG sedan.

    In Consumer Reports’ evaluations, however, those inflatable belts may make it harder to install child restraints and for children to buckle themselves up. Overall, we think inflatable belts are a good step forward, but there are still some kinks to work out.

    Toyota is conducting research related to two vulnerable groups mentioned in the study—children between 9 and 12, and adults 55 and older. Partnering with Wayne State University, Toyota is developing computerized “virtual models” of a 10-year-old and a 70-year-old to help better understand crash injuries using computer simulation.

    NHTSA, the federal safety agency, also has proposed changes to its 5-Star Safety Rating System for new vehicles such as adding a “Silver” rating to provide crash safety information for older consumers, and a “Family Star” rating, to rate vehicles on how well they protect children in the rear.

    Part of the challenge is the wider age range of people who sit in the back—from infants to 90-year-olds. It will be important that engineering solutions not help one group at the expense of the other.

    —Cheryl Jensen

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    4 cool refrigerator features that keep food fresh

    Many new refrigerators have  features designed to keep food fresher longer and help cut down on wasted, wilted produce that ends up forgotten on a back shelf or in a bottom drawer. The new features include produce-preserving filters, humidity regulating drawers, and convertible compartments that switch from refrigerator to freezer mode. Consumer Reports found these food-storage innovations on some of the top-performing models in our tests. To earn top scores, refrigerators must be energy-efficient and keep temperatures consistent.

    Extra doors that keep cold air in

    If your family uses the refrigerator a lot, you might appreciate a hidden door-in-door compartment. It allows you easy access to go-to staples without letting food-preserving cold air escape from the main compartment. The feature has become popular on French-door refrigerators but is showing up on other models, too. Smart picks with door-in-door compartments

    Humidity and temperature controls

    Many crispers now have controls that maintain optimum humidity to keep produce fresher. (Fruits that ripen quickly tend to need low humidity, and veggies that easily wilt generally need high humidity.) Certain models also have temperature-controlled compartments that can be set cooler than the rest of your refrigerator, which can come in handy when chilling drinks for a party. Smart picks with temperature-controlled drawers:

    Special cooling systems

    Traditional refrigerators with one evaporator exchange airflow with the freezer, which can dry things out, causing crisper drawers to lose moisture. New dual-evaporator cooling systems maintain the two sections separately. Our tests have found that two evaporators are better than one at maintaining optimal humidity in the refrigerator chamber, which can help food stay at its peak of freshness longer. This setup also prevents odors from migrating between the freezer and refrigerator sections, so your ice cubes won’t taste like salmon or other smelly foods. Smart picks with dual evaporators:

    Produce preservers

    Beyond humidity controls, even more advanced features are showing up on crisper drawers. For example, Kenmore’s AirTight Crisper is designed to delay wilting thanks to a special gasket and dimpled surface that the company claims helps retain moisture in produce. Certain KitchenAid and Whirlpool models have a filter in the crisper that is claimed to absorb the ripeness-speeding ethylene gas that many fruits and veggies give off—as long as you replace the filter every six months. Smart picks with enhanced crisper drawers:

    —Adapted from ShopSmart magazine

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    Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid rises from the ashes

    The Fisker Karma may be rising from the ashes, with new ownership and a new production facility.

    After declaring bankruptcy in 2013 and defaulting on government loans, the company’s assets were purchased by Chinese conglomerate Wanxiang Group Corp. last year for about $149 million.

    Now Fisker Automotive and Technology Group, the reconstituted company owned by Wanxiang, has announced that it has leased an industrial warehouse in Moreno Valley, California. Communications Manager Judy Hoste says the company plans to use the facility to restart production of the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid. No timetable for the relaunch of the semi-electric sedan  has been disclosed, but she said the company plans to make further announcements later this year.

    The new company reportedly still owns the former General Motors factory in Delaware, where Fisker planned to produce a second, smaller and less expensive model, the Atlantic. While Hoste confirmed production of the Karma, she did not address the future of either the Atlantic or the Delaware factory.

    In the meantime, Fisker Automotive and Technology Group is providing parts and service support for existing Karma owners. That strikes us as a great thing for consumers who own these rare cars, briefly built  by the original Fisker company. We bought and tested our own Fisker Karma in 2012 and experienced first-hand an entirely disabled vehicle and various other glitches that required rather frequent visits to the dealer. (Read "Fisker Karma earns a failing grade.")

    Wanxiang seems to have all the resources needed to revive the Karma, from production tooling, to battery supplies and now an assembly plant location. The question is: if they do restart Karma production, will there be any interested consumers willing to buy a car that relies on six-year-old design and technology, when newer models are available, such as the Tesla Model S?

    We’ll continue to follow this developing story.

    Read our complete Fisker Karma road test.

    —Eric Evarts

     

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    Do's and don'ts of washing your car

    For many vehicle owners, washing a car by hand is a therapeutic act as beneficial for the person's state of mind as to the vehicle's appearance. That's good, because frequent washing is also the best way to maintain a new-car finish. But as simple as washing your car may seem, there are some things to watch for so that you don't accidentally scratch or degrade the finish. Here are some basic car-washing tips:

    Don't... wait for a layer of crud to accumulate before washing. Dead bugs, bird droppings, and chemicals from the atmosphere all leach acids that can strip away wax and eventually eat into your car's paint. If left too long, they can cause damage that requires sanding and repainting the area to correct.

    Do... wash off dead bugs, bird droppings, and tree-sap mist as soon as possible. Other than this, a weekly car wash will keep the finish in its best shape. In addition, if you live in an area that suffers from acid rain, rinse your vehicle off after a period of rainy weather. Otherwise, acidic chemicals in the rainwater will be left on the surface after the droplets have evaporated, leaving a mark that can permanently mar the paint.

    Don't... use household cleaning agents like hand soap, dishwashing detergent, or glass cleaner on the paint. These aren't formulated for use on a car's paint and may strip off the protective wax.

    Do... use a dedicated car-wash product, which is milder and specifically designed for use on automotive paint. Apply the suds with a large, soft natural sponge or a lamb's-wool mitt. (See our car wax report for tips and advice on all types of waxes.)

    Grease, rubber, and road-tar deposits picked up from the road often accumulate around the wheel wells and along the lower edge of the body. These can be stubborn to remove and may require a stronger product, such as a bug-and-tar remover. Use a soft, nonabrasive cloth to remove these deposits, as they can quickly blacken your sponge.

    Do... use a separate sponge to clean the wheels and tires, which may be coated with sand, brake dust, and other debris that could mar the car's finish. Mild soap and water may work here; if not, a dedicated wheel cleaner may be required. Be sure the cleaner is compatible with the type of finish (paint, clear-coat, chrome, etc.) used on the wheels. A strong formula intended for mag wheels, for instance, can damage the clear coat that's used on the wheels that come on today's cars. To be on the safe side, choose a cleaner that's labeled as safe for use on all wheels.

    Don't... wash your car when the body is hot, such as immediately after driving it or after it has been parked in direct sunlight for awhile. Heat speeds the drying of soap and water, making washing more difficult and increasing the chances that spots or deposits will form.

    Don't... move the sponge in circles. This can create light, but noticeable scratches called swirl marks. Instead, move the sponge lengthwise across the hood and other body panels. And don't continue using a sponge that's dropped on the ground without thoroughly rinsing it out. The sponge can pick up dirt particles that can scratch the paint.

    Do... rinse all surfaces thoroughly with water before you begin washing to remove loose dirt and debris that could cause scratching. Once you begin, concentrate on one section at a time, washing and rinsing each area completely before moving on to the next one. This ensures that you have plenty of time to rinse before the soap dries. Start at the top, and then work your way around the car. Use a hose without a nozzle and let the water flow over the car from top to bottom. This creates a sheeting action that helps minimize pooling of water.

    Do... work the car-wash solution into a lather with plenty of suds that provide lots of lubrication on the paint surface. And rinse the sponge often. Using a separate bucket to rinse the sponge keeps dirt from getting mixed into the sudsy wash water.

    Don't... let the car air dry, and don't expect a drive around the block to do an effective job. Either will leave watermarks caused by minerals in hard water. In addition, don't use an abrasive towel or other material that can leave hairline scratches in the paint.

    Do... use a chamois (natural or synthetic) or soft terry towels. If you choose towels, you may need several. It's best to blot the water up instead of dragging the towel or chamois over the paint. The drying process can be speeded up by using a soft squeegee to remove most of the water on the body, but be sure the rubber is pliable and that it doesn't pick up bits of dirt that can cause scratches.

    Do... find more ownership tips in our guide to car maintenance and repair.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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