The Washington Times - July 14, 2008, 11:29AM


Upcoming safety technologies


I frequently get to try out future technologies being worked on by the auto manufacturers. Many aren’t fully incorporated into production vehicles but it’s great fun to experience the various gadgets and geegaws, not to mention high-powered engines and active suspension systems that are being evaluated.

Some of the safety technologies I’ve experienced recently show great promise for lowering the overall number of accidents, which directly translates to fewer deaths and injuries. Here’s a sampling:

Collision warning systems with automatic braking are coming in to the marketplace soon. These devices use radar and other systems to sense where your vehicle is in space and what’s around it. If you are closing too fast on a vehicle ahead a warning system might shake your seat, vibrate the steering wheel or sound an alarm so that you can react. If you continue to close too fast the brakes will actually take over and start slowing your vehicle, even coming to a stop. If a crash is imminent, your brakes will maximize their effort an your shoulder belts will pre-tension to minimize the impact forces.

Lane departure warning systems are beginning to show up in production vehicles from Infiniti, Mazda and several others. If the turn signal isn’t on they detect your vehicle’s tendency to leave your lane and warn you of that fact.

Blind spot detection is also in the marketplace and the systems sense that a vehicle is in your right or left blind spot. If you start to move in either direction the system warns you of a potential collision.

Adaptive headlights move to the right and left as you enter a turn to give more visibility into the area you are approaching. This is done electronically, of course. Back in the late 1940s the short-lived Tucker company cars utilized a center-mounted turning headlight that was mechanically coupled to the steering wheel. It was a good idea then and still is.

So how many accidents will these technologies prevent? That’s a tough question to answer because it’s hard to measure accidents that, well, didn’t happen. Best estimates from the insurance industry are that thousands of the 1.7 million turn/merge/lane-change accidents that occur annually will be prevented, and a significant number of the 1.6 million single vehicle head-on crashes will also be reduced.

I believe the numbers will be much larger because almost all accidents result from some form of lack of attention. These new safety systems are always paying attention to the surroundings and don’t get distracted by phone calls, changing radio stations, chatting with passengers, eating sandwiches or falling asleep. They don’t get tired or panic, so they show great promise to either avoid a crash or minimize the effects of one.

In the long run widespread use of such systems will make teenagers and elderly persons better drivers, not to mention all the rest of us because, sadly, everyone knows how to operate car but very few know how to drive one.