Thirty-four vehicles have earned the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) 'top safety pick' award for 2008 which recognises vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes based on ratings in the institute's tests.

Winners also have to be equipped with electronic stability control (ESC), which research shows can significantly reduce the risk of crashing, according to IIHS.

Compared with last year, automakers more than doubled the number of vehicles that met the criteria for top safety pick. At the beginning of the 2007 model year, 13 models qualified, but as manufacturers have made changes and introduced new and safer vehicle designs, 10 additional vehicles qualified during the year. Now another 11 vehicles are being added to the list for 2008.

Designating winners based on the tests makes it easier for consumers to identify vehicles that afford the best overall protection without sifting through multiple sets of comparative crash test results, IIHS believes.

"For 2008, consumers have the widest selection of vehicles they've ever had that afford the best protection in the most common kinds of crashes," said institute president Adrian Lund.

Front and side impacts are the most common kinds of fatal crashes, killing nearly 25,000 of the 31,000 vehicle occupants who died in 2005. Rear-end crashes usually aren't fatal, but they result in a large proportion of the injuries that occur in crashes. About 60% of insurance injury claims in 2002 reported minor neck sprains and strains.

Eight vehicles from Ford and its subsidiary, Volvo, made the list of winners for 2008. Seven winners were from Honda and its subsidiary, Acura.

"Vehicles should be designed to provide good occupant protection when crashes occur, but now with ESC we have the possibility of preventing many crashes altogether," Lund added.

"If all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 10,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year."

Institute research indicates that ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56% and fatal multiple-vehicle crashes by 32%. Many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and ESC reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 80% (SUVs) and 77% (cars).

Pickup trucks hade't until now to win IIHS top safety pick until now because the institute hadn't begun side testing them but he Toyota Tundra was first to qualify. Pickups aren't as likely as cars or SUVs to have side airbags or ESC though Toyota has made these features standard in the Tundra, IIHS noted.

"Pickups are among the top selling vehicles in the United States," Lund said. "They're also more likely than in the past to be used as family vehicles, so equipping them with the latest safety features is important."