updated 8/2/2011 12:19:40 PM ET 2011-08-02T16:19:40

TV ads show off automotive collision avoidance tech, but a new independent study proves that it’s actually working. Advanced car “brains” do a better job avoiding common low-speed crashes than human brains that are distracted.

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“Whenever you can say things like, “Almost a quarter of crashes being avoided,” that’s a huge number. But that’s where we are,” said Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit research organization funded by the automotive insurance industry that studied the technology.

HLDI, which is affiliated with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, looked at crash data from Volvos with the automaker’s “City Safety” crash avoidance technology, which is mandatory in its XC60 series.

An infrared laser sensor in the windshield behind the rear view mirror senses other vehicles within 18 feet. Other sensors detect steering angle and the brake pedal. When there’s a certain type of speed difference around other vehicles, the sensor will automatically apply the brakes.

The technology is designed to avoid front-to-rear crashes that typically happen in commuter traffic at speeds up to 19 miles per hour. “It’s unique,” Hazelbaker said. “It’s made to keep you safer in urban traffic.”

Volvo’s automatic braking function is intended to be an uncomfortable experience for drivers so they don’t rely on the car to do all the thinking for them.

“There’s always a surprise reaction,” said Adam Kopstein, Volvo’s product and safety compliance manager for the North American market. “The system is designed to react very late in a crash sequence. It’s really important when the system activates that it’s not something a customer would try to get used to.”

The real-world data from automotive insurers that HLDI used for its study accounts for 80 percent of the insured vehicle fleet in the United States. Insurers know which vehicles were involved in claims based on their unique vehicle identification numbers or VINs. HLDI took crash data from Volvo XC60 vehicles and compared them with crashes involving other vehicles in the midsize luxury SUV class.

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The City Safety system was found to prevent about a quarter common low-speed commuter traffic crashes compared with cars that didn’t have the technology. “We’ve been in this business for quite a while and you seldom see as dramatic a difference as these things appear to be making,” Hazelbaker said of Volvo’s crash avoidance system. His organization is working on evaluating a number of crash avoidance technologies from manufacturers, he added.

Volvo is working on other advanced systems to avoid pedestrians and animals, Kopstein said. They're not alone. HLDI’s Hazelbaker reports that several different manufacturers have new technologies emerging, including “smart headlights” that adapt to steering and turn the corner as the vehicle turns.

Another fairly new technology uses cameras in the vehicle’s mirrors to monitor where the vehicle is in relation to lanes on the highway. If they’re crossed without a turn signal, an alert goes off to warn the driver.

For automakers, the long-term vision is to produce safe vehicles that don’t crash or hurt anyone at all. “Google’s got a self-driving car,” Hazelbaker said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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