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Beyond the Belt

Fifty years after the seat belt made its debut, today’s vehicles keep you safe in ways you may not even be aware of. Hop in and check them out…

October 10, 2010
By Rachel Adelson

Beyond the Belt

How safe is your car? As roads get more crowded, traffic speeds up and the weather’s more intense, new and improved safety technologies help us cruise without crashing. Want to learn more? Fasten your seat belts.

Yes, first buckle up. Introduced in 1959, the 3-point seat belt saved an estimated 255,000 lives from 1975-2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s getting smarter, too: electronically controlled pretensioners (first installed in luxury cars more than a decade ago and now becoming more widespread) are designed to tighten or loosen your belt when sensing something is wrong, adjusting for body size.

Let’s get going. We back out of the garage; it’s raining. Is that Joe back there walking the dog? Wide-view mirrors, camera systems and radar or ultrasonic sensors — once improved to limit distortion and bypass bad weather — promise to alert us to objects near the rear bumper, helping prevent the kind of backover crash thought to take more than 200 lives and cause more than 14,000 injuries each year (mostly to children and older adults). Currently, these tools seem to curb collisions with cars better than with people, so it’s still up to us to walk around the car first, train kids in driveway safety, go slow and be extra vigilant.

As we turn into the street, daytime running lights make our car easier to see, significantly curbing daytime head-on and front-corner collisions.

Dang, but the road is slippery. The rain is picking up and the wet leaves of autumn don’t help. Thankfully, the tires are properly inflated, thanks to a tire-pressure monitoring system (required by federal law in all new models since September 2007) that warns of severely under-inflated tires.

Onto the highway we go. Shift into high gear. That SUV in the next lane is weaving in and out of traffic. That could be dangerous, but this SUV has electronic stability control (ESC), a proven effective vehicle control system. ESC’s sensors and microcomputer monitor how the car responds to steering, selectively braking and modulating engine power. ESC helps prevent sideways skidding and the loss of control that can lead to rollovers, especially during emergency maneuvers when drivers can’t help but spin out.

ESC can also cut the risk of fatal one-vehicle crashes in half, and cut one fifth off the risk for a fatal multiple-vehicle crash for cars and SUVs, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Federal law will require ESC in all cars, SUVs, pickups and minivans by the 2012 model year, but it’s already in many used and new vehicles on the market.

“ESC saves a lot of people who don’t even realize they’ve been saved,” says David Zuby, chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Back to the road. Why is traffic slowing? We could check local traffic radio or satellite, but hey — this baby came with a first-gen DSRC receiver. DSRC, or Dedicated Short Range Communications, is used by first-responders for radio communication. The DSRC frequency band holds up in bad weather and supports messaging from traffic controllers to cars, or even cars to other cars. The news: Jackknifed tractor-trailer two miles ahead. Best to get off at the next exit.

But, yikes! Listen to those squealing brakes. The guy in the next lane’s skidding. Sheesh — he hit the car in front, we have to stop. Look at the front airbags—they worked. Almost instantly, these rapid-fill cushions kept all those heads from smashing into windshields, and reduced whiplash forces on their heads and necks. In a side collision, side airbags — soon to be required — would inflate, too.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that, as of Jan. 1, 2009, more than 28,000 people were still alive after a crash because of frontal airbags — most of them drivers.

Dave Freeman, ERIE’s vice president for Personal Lines Underwriting, says. “It’s hard to make a completely risk-free airbag given the need for rapid inflation, but engineers have been reworking them to find the right balance, and shorter drivers are warned to sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel.” Freeman notes that engineers’ attention to crumple zones and crash zones also makes the passenger compartment much safer.”

Out in the rain, everyone seems okay. Just need, as witnesses, to wait for the cops. Maybe this accident could have been prevented by a forward collision warning/mitigation system. Predicted to be as helpful as ESC, forward collision warning systems are already in some high-end cars and expect to help prevent the most common type of crash.

Cops come and go. Back in the car, wet and chilled through. Slowly cut over two lanes to catch the exit. Bing! Bing! Car nearly drifted onto the shoulder. Bing! Steer back in to the lane. Thank you, lane departure warning/prevention system. You may have saved a life.

Lane departures cause the most fatal crashes. “These often involve people running off the road due to fatigue, bad weather, distraction, inattention,” says Zuby. “Drivers go off the pavement and then over-correct; the vehicle shoots across the lane, and if they don’t recover, they crash into a roadside object or another vehicle.”

As for us, it’s time to get the groceries, end this bad trip and head home by local roads. The worst is over…or is it? As we head toward a traffic light, the car in front stops short. Hit the brakes…but there’s less grab on a slick road. Emergency brake assist kicks in, compensating for the fact that “a lot of people don’t brake hard enough,” according to Zuby. When you hit the brake fast, sensors in the pedal boost the stopping force.

Finally, there’s our street; we make that old familiar turn into the driveway. It’s been a trip to remember, but—thanks to the seat belt, airbag, running lights, warnings systems, brake augmentation, and all-important driver awareness — we’re home safe. Now it’s time for just one more bit of technology, but it requires some effort on your part: pressing the garage-door remote.

Rachel Adelson writes about technology and the science of behavior from her office near Toronto.
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