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Highway deaths plunging as cars become safer

If the numbers in a preliminary federal study hold true, U.S. highway deaths continued to plunge last year – when measured in terms of fatalities per 100 million miles driven - to the lowest level since the government began keeping records in 1921. 

A number of factors have contributed to the decline, which has seen traffic deaths dip 25 percent just since 2005. These include better roads and signage and a crackdown on drunk drivers.  But another significant factor is the continuing improvement in the safety of the vehicles we drive.

By using the latest in computer-aided design technology, manufacturers have learned how to shield motorists and passengers from the deadly forces of even the most serious crashes.  Equally significant are the various high-tech safety devices that are finding their way into the industry’s newest models and which can help motorists avoid accidents in the first place. 

“Our research shows that some of the newest forward collision avoidance systems, such as Volvo’s City Safety, are reducing collisions by as much as 20 percent to 30 percent,” said David Zuby, chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The 2013 model year will see some of the most sophisticated systems yet developed – and in many cases technologies once limited to only the most expensive models are migrating down to even entry-level vehicles.

It’s been more than 40 years since federal regulations began mandating improvements in automotive safety, with the seat belt being one of the first devices written into law.  In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration added electronic stability control – which is designed to keep a car under control on slick surfaces or when it makes an overly aggressive maneuver – to the list. And the NHTSA may soon add rear back-up cameras to the list.

Credit ever faster microprocessors, along with the overall drop in the price of electronic hardware, for making it possible to mandate such technology.  But where industry planners routinely resisted new federal regulations in decades past, these days manufacturers are likely to introduce new features – often as standard equipment – without pressure from the government.

“There’s an expectation on the part of customers for more and more safety equipment,” explained General Motors designer Bob Boniface.

The challenge these days, he said is to find a place to put all the various controls and sensors. The front ends of some of GM’s most advanced models. are “covered” with radar and laser sensors, he said, with many new models also introducing advanced video cameras as well.

The latest safety technology roughly divides into two separate categories: active and passive systems.  Passive systems are those designed to reduce injuries if an accident occurs. An air bag is such a system.  Expect to see some models, such as the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, offer as many as 10 air bags.  The new two-seat Scion iQ microcar is offering the first air bag designed to protect a passenger in the event the vehicle is struck from the rear.

Ford’s is expanding the use of its new inflatable rear seat belts, now found in several models, including the recently redesigned Explorer.  According to just-retired Ford safety chief Sue Cischke, the devices are particularly well-suited for use by the very young and the very old because they can suffer internal injuries from the forces acting on standard seat belts in severe collisions.

The 2013 model year will also see a number of new applications of the most advanced active safety systems, which are designed to prevent accidents.  A wide range of new mainstream products will add forward collision avoidance, blind-spot monitoring and active lane-keeping.  The 2013 Ford Fusion will not only warn drivers that they are drifting out of their lanes but will also help steer the car back into the lane. If the system detects that the driver might also be drowsy, it will sound an alert warning the driver to pull over and rest.

Significantly, many of the most advanced technologies are migrating down-market.  Cross-traffic alert was introduced only a few years ago on the redesigned BMW-7 Series. The system, which uses radar to monitor oncoming traffic as a driver backs out of a parking spot, will now be offered on a wide range of midline models, such as the 2013 Nissan Altima.

The redesigned midsized sedan also features blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning and other systems as part of an optional technology package.  The trick, explained Nissan product manager John Curl. was to use a single wide-angle rear camera instead of an assortment of much more expensive radar and sonar sensors. 

Subaru will take a similar approach in 2013 with its new EyeSight system, technology it has been tweaking for almost a decade.  The system uses a pair of stereoscopic cameras mounted on either side of the rear-view mirror to look out onto the road ahead.  It’s a lower-cost alternative, the maker claimed, compared to the radar-based safety systems currently in use by luxury makers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

According to IIHS research, the new technologies are paying off.  The basic Mercedes forward collision warning system has reduced accident rates by approximately 6 percent. And the maker has introduced a more advanced version of what it calls Distronic, which can apply the brakes if it senses the driver is not reacting in time to a potential collision.

Cadillac is now working on a prototype system that could also steer a vehicle around an obstacle without a motorist’s involvement.  And a number of makers – as well as tech giant Google – are working on fully autonomous vehicles that some proponents believe could be ready for sale before decade’s end.

The good news is that even the features now on the road are saving lives, but IIHS research chief Zuby stressed that because the typical American car remains in use for a decade or longer, it will be close to 2020 before most vehicles in the U.S. fleet have advanced technologies such as electronic stability control, let alone collision warning and blind spot detection.

On the other hand, he added, “As older vehicles retire and these technologies come into a broader segment of the fleet, we can expect to see the death rate continue to decline.”