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13 safest cars of 2007

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Another gadget designed for long-distance trips is a distance-sensitive cruise control that adjusts your speed automatically if the car in front of you taps on the brakes.

Helperin says one camera-based feature that is becoming more popular the longer it is on the market is the rear parking sensors for large vehicles with big blind spots, such as sport utility vehicles.

"Those are less about saving your life than they are about saving those outside the vehicle," she says. "They are just terrific if you have kids. They help avoid back-over deaths or injuries."

She says with the proliferation of SUVs, cases of accidentally backing over a child playing in a driveway have blossomed. "There is a movement to get more cameras as standard equipment to avoid that kind of accident in the first place," she says.

Car design
Gadgets and niceties aside, all the safety experts agree on one safety feature that is a must-have for all new cars: electronic stability control.

Sold under a variety of names, including dynamic stability control, vehicle stability control, electronic stability program and vehicle stability enhancement, all the systems work in a similar way to keep you safe. Stability control works in concert with your antilock brakes and constantly monitors each wheel. If one starts spinning out of control, like when you take a turn too fast or hit a slick spot, the car's onboard computer automatically applies the brakes on that wheel to bring it, and the car, back under control.

"Stability control is great. It can help keep the vehicle under control in almost any avoidance maneuver," Linkov says.

This device is so promising, the Federal Highway Administration has proposed a rule that would require all manufacturers to begin equipping passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds with stability control as an optional feature starting with the 2009 model year. The rule will then require manufacturers to make the feature standard equipment on all vehicles by the 2012 model year.

"Stability control is being compared with the seatbelt in terms of the number of lives it can save," Helperin says.

NHTSA maintains a list of cars that offer stability control as an optional feature on its Web site.

In addition to stability control, NHTSA also recommends buyers choose vehicles with side airbags and another cutting-edge technology called variable ride-height suspension. This smart suspension will adjust the center of gravity on high-riding vehicles, such as SUVs, to keep them under control during a turn and help avoid a rollover.

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"Rollover prevention is a biggie," Helperin says. "That's because even though rollovers aren't all that common in the grand scheme, they do account for high percentage of the road fatalities each year. These new smart suspensions are great because they help you keep control and avoid the rollover in the first place."

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