- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

Today's cars are loaded with both passive and active safety features. Passive features are those that help shield, cushion and restrain occupants when accidents are unavoidable. Active features are those that avoid accidents.

Safety begins with a good foundation, and most new cars are designed with a reinforced steel safety cage to give better protection from front, rear and side impacts. Crumple zones lessen the impact transferred to the passenger compartment during an accident by helping to control the crush. Side-impact door beams help to deflect a striking vehicle away from the passenger compartment.

Driver and front-passenger air bags provide the next level of protection. Newer on the market, but increasingly common, are side-impact bags. Air bags save lives, but it's important to remember that the activation of an air bag is a forceful event. To decrease the risk of injury from a deploying air bag, everyone must buckle up. Front-seat passengers and the driver should sit as far back as possible a minimum distance of at least 10 inches. If your height won't permit this, consider pedal extenders. For information, see www.pedalextenders.com or call 818/247-9246.

Many newer cars feature smarter, safer air bags, some of which are simply lower powered; others respond differently based on the force of the crash and the weight of the occupants. Still others (usually in trucks and two-passenger vehicles) feature a passenger air bag cutoff switch for children riding in the front.

But the most critical element of motor vehicle safety remains the seat belt. New and improved seat belts are equipped with pretensioners that instantly tighten the seat belt to absorb forward momentum and force limiters that control the amount of pressure over the torso by limiting the seat belt's tension.

Children should always travel in the back seat and be properly restrained. Never place a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat of a vehicle with an active passenger air bag. It's estimated that 11 percent of parents continue to make this mistake, thereby putting as many as 175,000 babies at risk of dying each year. Visit www.safekids.org or call 888/327-4236 for some important information about automotive safety for your child.

As additional protection, newer cars also have child-seat tether anchors at the top of the rear seat, and some newer vehicles have child seat lower attachments. These devices allow seats to be snapped into place as easily as attaching a seat belt on an adult.

When it comes to active safety features, anti-lock brakes are a winner. They've helped me avoid accidents on several occasions. This computerized automatic braking system helps keep the wheels from locking up and the vehicle from skidding during hard braking. They won't, however, make your car stop faster.

To get maximum benefit from ABS, apply a firm, steady force to the brake pedal. Don't pump the brakes. Many drivers don't apply sufficient pressure when using ABS. To compensate for this miscalculation, some newer ABS systems determine whether the driver is attempting an emergency stop and proceed to provide more powerful braking without input from the driver. It's like having an invisible co-pilot.

Other whiz-bang brake enhancements optimize braking in corners, especially in conditions that fall short of triggering the ABS. Still others use an anti-skid computer to reduce skids by ensuring cornering stability on slippery road surfaces. Regardless of your vehicle's braking system, just remember to drive with the same care and caution you used pre-ABS.

The next step in safety is traction control. As the name suggests, this computerized system increases traction and control during takeoff or cruising on slippery surfaces. It applies the brakes to check the slip and backs off engine speed until the slipping wheel regains traction.

While all of these safety features help save lives, they can't overcome the laws of physics. A wet or icy road has reduced adhesion, and there is no system that will enable a vehicle to stop on a dime under these low-friction conditions.

Even if your vehicle doesn't have the most up-to-date safety features, you can improve your personal safety by taking a few simple precautions. Keep up with your car's scheduled maintenance. Check tire pressure regularly. Replace worn tires as needed. Keep the gas tank full. Keep a safe gap between you and the car in front of you, and focus your eyes on the road ahead.

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