2010 Spring Auto Guide
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Top 6 'active' car-safety features

When car safety is high on the list of demands for your next new vehicle, there is an array of established, as well as cutting-edge, technologies you should consider.

During the past decade car safety technology has changed in emphasis, according to Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS. That change has been from "passive" safety technology to what's known as"active" technology.

"In the past, safety features have been about protecting people in crashes," Rader says. "Now it's about preventing crashes."

Seat belts remain the most potent weapon in reducing collision-caused fatalities and injuries. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, seat belt use saved 15,383 lives in 2006. For the five years from 2002 through 2006, it estimates seat belts saved 76,000 lives.

Likewise, air bags have proven to be effective car safety devices. NHTSA reported that frontal air bags saved 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008. "Air bags are a tried-and-true safety feature," says Bill Pearse, vice president of auto product, strategy and design for Travelers Insurance. "Side-impact air bags are extremely useful."

Head restraints are also important passive car safety features. Although rear-end collisions are typically of the fender-bender variety, according to Rader, they do represent 25 percent of the total dollars paid out for crash injuries or roughly $8.8 billion per year. Nearly 300,000 neck injuries per year result from rear-end crashes. "A motorist is more likely to need a good head restraint than an air bag," Rader says.

Other passive car safety advancements from the simple addition of padding on dashboards to seat belt pretensioners and the LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, child-seat-anchor system have helped reduce injuries and fatalities once a crash occurs.

Among active safety technologies, one of the earliest and perhaps best known is anti-lock brakes, or ABS, which use a computer to "pump" the brakes several times per second bringing the vehicle to a more controlled stop and allowing the driver to steer around a crash. However, it hasn't made much of a difference in the real world. Rader referred to ABS as the poster child of crash-preventative features that never worked out.

Although ABS operates as promised, its widespread use hasn't measurably reduced collisions. "It saved a lot of cones on test tracks," Rader says, "but it didn't prevent very many crashes in the real world."

Six active safety technologies that Rader said are either proven or do hold promise:

Electronic stability control, or ESC. Pearse calls it the biggest game changer in auto safety in years. ESC is built on ABS. Sensors determine when the vehicle isn't going where its pointed, and uses the ABS to brake the appropriate wheels to get it back on course. "If all vehicles had stability control," Rader says, "we could prevent as many as 10,000 fatal crashes each year."

Lane departure warning. Recognizing when the vehicle is unintentionally drifting out of its lane, it alerts the driver. Sophisticated systems, like that on the 2011 Infiniti M, will even nudge the vehicle back on course. Rader says he expects this system to have a similar impact on accident reduction as roads with warning rumble strips dividing their lanes. On such roads, he says, "there has been a 25 (percent) to 30 percent decrease in head-on, sideswipe and run-off-the-road accidents."

Collision warning with automatic braking. Using radar similar to that for adaptive cruise control, this system senses when the traffic ahead is slowing or stopped. It alerts the driver with an audible warning and will bring the car to a stop if he fails to react.

Blind-zone warning. Sensing when another vehicle is approaching your vehicle's flanks, this system alerts you with a warning light and/or audible alarm. Rader says one factor that might reduce its effectiveness is that often the warning light is on the outboard mirror, which some drivers simply don't use.

Emergency brake assist. This system determines when the driver is applying the brakes in a panic situation and applies more brake quicker. "Not only might it prevent some crashes," Rader says, "but it may reduce the severity of a crash."

Adaptive headlights. These headlamps pivot in response to where the front wheels are pointed, helping illuminate around curves on dark roads. Rader says 150,000 crashes occur each year on dark curves, and the hope is that adaptive headlights will reduce that number.

According to Rader, IIHS will have preliminary study results for the effectiveness of lane departure warning, blind-zone warning and collision warning by mid-summer. He cautions, however, that driver behavior may mitigate the effectiveness of some of these safety features. "Drivers may become complacent or even more aggressive because they have this technology," he says. "We just don't know yet."

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