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Active safety features: What your next car needs to have

Wed, 15 Jun 2011

Car safety used to mean double buckling your seatbelt when you squeezed three people into the front row. Now, with electronic stability control (ESC), cross-traffic alerts and adaptive headlights, it's a bit more difficult to sort through all of the available options.

Of course you want to choose the safest car you can for yourself and your family. But which of these new safety features truly reduce the risk of accidents and injuries? Which can you do without?

There are three types of safety equipment common on vehicles today--those that come into use before, during and after an accident.

-- Postaccident features usually focus on obtaining emergency assistance. General Motors' OnStar and Ford's 911 Assist are two examples.

-- Passive safety devices are automatically activated during an accident and often are federally mandated (though this is becoming increasingly true for active safety features) and standard across a given manufacturer's line. Airbags and seatbelt pretensioners are examples.

-- Active safety features essentially are accident-avoidance technologies. Cross-traffic alert and blind-spot-assistance systems are examples.

It's in the arena of active safety features where manufacturers are introducing a growing variety of options--and acronyms, giving consumers even more choices in an already confusing market. We spoke with some experts in an effort to cut through the clutter.

Electronic Stability Control can selectively apply the brakes to help keep the car under control in many situations.

Maintaining stability

“One of the most important technologies is ESC [electronic stability control],” said a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) spokesperson. “While all new cars will have to have this technology by September of this year, consumers in the used-car market should look for and purchase vehicles with ESC. In terms of its potential impact on safety, this technology is in a class by itself.”

Electronic stability control, along with its cousin, rollover mitigation (which is basically the same thing but optimized for SUVs), is crucial to improving a car's stability and minimizing skids. When it detects a loss of steering control, it strategically applies the brakes, often times on individual wheels, to help steer the vehicle where the driver wants it to go.

According to Gay Kent, GM executive director for vehicle safety and crash-worthiness, the company made a commitment a couple of years ago to make ESC standard on all of its vehicles. NHTSA estimates that ESC will save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives and prevent 156,238 injuries each year once all vehicles on the road are equipped with ESC systems.

There are variations of this technology. Ford's curve control, standard on the new 2011 Explorer, specifically helps maintain control when going into a curve too quickly. According to Ford spokesperson Wes Sherwood, 50,000 crashes each year could potentially be avoided because of curve control, and the type of crashes being avoided are typically serious ones.

Ford Motor Company
Rear-view camera systems can help drivers back up in tricky situations and also see things--or people--behind the vehicle.

Seeing clearly

Ford's Sherwood also says that the company's customer research each year indicates that drivers want help seeing around the vehicle better. To achieve that goal, rear cameras, rear radar sensors and blind-spot radar systems are becoming available across a wider range of vehicles.

The government may be about to speed adoption, too: A proposed mandate from the Department of Transportation will call for all new motor vehicles sold in the United States weighing less than 10,000 pounds to have rearview cameras by Sept. 1, 2014.

NHTSA's assessment of available safety data indicate that on average, there are 292 fatalities and 18,000 injuries--3,000 of which they judge to be incapacitating--each year from back-over crashes.

“NHTSA is currently developing a final rule to improve the rear visibility of vehicles and we will publish that by the end of this year,” its spokesperson said.

If NHTSA's ruling comes to fruition, buyers won't have to decide whether to splurge on a backup camera in their new cars--it will come standard.

Accidents that result from a lack of visibility can also be prevented by blind-spot-detection systems. These warn a driver when a vehicle enters his blind spot, helping avoid lane-change accidents. Depending on the system, these can warn drivers with a visual or auditory alert, or even take limited steering control if a driver is about to swerve into another car.

Cross-traffic alert systems work similarly, warning the driver of oncoming traffic from either side when reversing out of a driveway or a parking spot.

These systems can be helpful, but their downside is that they can trigger false alarms, causing drivers to ignore them.

Other systems use radar to avoid cars in front rather than to the rear or side of the car. Adaptive cruise control is like regular cruise control in that it keeps a vehicle traveling at a consistent speed. The adaptive version also adjusts the speed if it senses that the vehicle is getting too close to traffic ahead.

Working in conjunction with adaptive cruise control is collision warning, offered by a number of manufacturers including Ford, Infiniti and Audi. This system detects the potential for a frontal collision, warns the driver with a beep and a red light projected onto the windshield, and, in some cases, precharges the brakes to maximize braking ability once they are engaged.

GM is looking to introduce forward collision systems with camera-based--as opposed to radar-based--collision detection, which spokesperson Kent says will make the technology more affordable.

While it seems that collisions with cars to the front would be less common than with those to the rear or side, given the improved visibility, the stats tell a different story. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, forward-collision-warning systems have the potential to help prevent the kind of rear-end crashes that occurred 2.3 million times per year from 2002 to 2006--almost 40 percent of the total crashes reported to police each year in the United States.

However, these crashes are less likely to be fatal. According to NHTSA, of the 1,750,000 rear-end accidents reported in 2008 only 1,914 of them, or 0.1 percent, were fatal. Collisions at an angle were four times as likely to end in death.

Other so-called safety features seem to be features of convenience. Parking assist is often an extension of backup-sensor and rear-camera technology, employing those tools but also providing the driver with arrows and visual cues to help with parallel parking and backing into a tight space. Adaptive headlights improve visibility at night by reacting to steering and moving headlights in the direction the car is moving to better illuminate the road.

Both are useful in certain conditions, but whether they're essential to your next vehicle purchase depends upon the type of driving you do most often.

Bottom line? When you're car shopping, put a rearview camera and electronic stability control on your list of must-haves. For most of us, these two extras will prove most important in everyday driving. Luckily, both features are likely to be standard on all new cars in the near future. But if you're shopping used cars, it's smart to narrow your list to vehicles that have this equipment that might be able to help save lives.

By Julie Alvin