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Crash avoidance technologies: Benefit or distraction?

Consumer Reports News: April 24, 2008 08:57 AM

Advances in car safety features, such as electronic stability control (ESC) have been proven to save lives and will be standard on all vehicles by the 2012 model year. Now a host a new safety features are making their way to the market place. Will these technologies be as widespread as ESC and become significant life saving features or will they become a distraction to drivers? A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) takes a look at five new features and crash data from 2002-2006 to see how they can help prevent crashes.

Two features, forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning, are the most promising of these new technologies at helping to avoid crashes. Forward-collision warning helps to prevent front impacts by alerting drivers of the potential hazard with alarms, flashing lights, and/or on some vehicles, automatically applying the brakes.

There are more than two million front crashes—that’s 40 percent of the total number of crashes in a given year. If some of these crashes and the over 7,000 deaths that occurred from them could be prevented, then the potential benefit from this safety feature could significantly reduce injuries, related medical costs, emergency services, and repair bills. However, the IIHS warns that if drivers rely too much on technology to help them out or decide not to heed the warnings, then the benefit wouldn’t be as great.

Lane-departure warning alerts drivers, using a vibrating steering wheel, audible tone, or visual notice if they are moving out of their lane when a turn signal isn’t activated. In the period reviewed, there were almost 500,000 crashes per year and over 10,000 deaths from these accidents. A 2004 report from IIHS shows that textured pavement, known as rumble strips, have reduced head-on crashes and side swipes by 25 to 30 percent. If lane departure warning works just as well, the IIHS points out that feature could potentially eliminate more than 100,000 accidents and 2,500 deaths.

Three other safety features—blind-spot detection, adaptive headlights, and emergency brake assistance were also evaluated. Blind-spot detection helps keep track of vehicles in a blind spot by alerting drivers through a light by the side mirror or in some models, a beep. As my colleague Jim Travers notes in his recent blog, this warning can be distracting to drivers and can be turned off. There are 450,000 blind-spot-related crashes per year, but only a small number involve fatalities, limiting the benefit.

Adaptive headlights help drivers see better in nighttime driving by moving in the direction of the steering, but according to the IIHS, several studies show that drivers speed up when there are reflector posts or markers that indicate curves in the road. If this is the case, then drivers may also speed up if they have adaptive headlights.

Finally, emergency brake assist senses panic braking and prepares the brakes for extra pressure. This feature overlaps with the forward-collision warning and both systems are intended to prevent frontal crashes, so many of the crashes could be avoided by just the forward-collision warning, says the IIHS report.

Most of these technologies are relatively new and not available from all manufacturers. Volvo is the only manufacturer with all five technologies on some of its models, but other upscale brands such as BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz are testing out some of these features. A recent Harris poll reveals that consumers showed an interest in purchasing blind-spot detection and lane-departure warning features, but the study also found that drivers still want control of their vehicles. Other studies show that automatic features tend to be the most effective as we have seen with existing features such as ESC and antilock brakes.

Only time will tell if these new safety features will reduce crashes and save lives, or if they may rely too much on driver response and become more of a distraction than a safety tool. Consumers shopping for a new vehicle should become familiar with the latest safety systems and seek models equipped with proven features, such as antilock brakes, side- and curtain air bags, and stability control. This latest report suggests that forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning systems are worth considering, as well.

Liza Barth


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