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New Safety Features Keep Drivers in Control

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author photo by Autotrader December 2008

You have your coffee cup in one hand, cell phone in the other and you're glancing over at your GPS screen, all while cruising 65 mph down the freeway. Many of us are guilty of giving less than 100 percent of our attention to the road. But while the latest car safety features are something you hope you never need, they can bring peace of mind, ease fatigue and potentially save your life.

Driver Intervention
Whether your kids are screaming in the back seat or you spill your lunch in your lap, sometimes distractions are inevitable. The following features intervene if they sense you're losing control.

  • Electronic stability control uses sensors to help you avoid skidding by momentarily applying your brakes, and some systems will even reduce engine power and change the direction of your car. This feature will be mandatory beginning in 2012 and could save more than 10,000 lives each year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The systems work by detecting the car's wheel speed, steering angle and sideways motion.

  • Rollover mitigation systems determine if your car is in danger of rolling, and use your car's electronic stability control system to get you back under safe conditions.

  • Pre-crash systems, also called collision mitigation systems, typically use radar to detect crashes before they happen and work to prevent them. For example, if you approach another car too quickly, some systems will respond with a warning bell and flashing light. If you continue toward the obstacle, the car will charge your brakes and airbags, close your windows, adjust your seat position for maximum airbag effectiveness and tighten your seatbelt. Some systems will even apply your brakes for you, and make steering more responsive.

  • Lane departure warning systems engage if a vehicle deviates from its intended path. In-car cameras can "see" road lines and the rest of the highway. If the system detects you drifting into another lane, it may sound a chime, flash a warning light, pulse the steering wheel, apply the brakes or even steer you back to safety.

  • Interaction managers can delay incoming phone calls if they sense you're distracted. To figure out whether you're relaxed enough to chat, the car monitors your activity level, including steering, acceleration, braking and turn signals.

How many times have you struggled to make out the taillights ahead during a thunder storm or had to swerve to avoid hitting a car in your blind spot? With new safety features that add visibility, you'll almost have eyes in the back of your head.

  • Night vision uses a dashboard display to help drivers see during low-visibility situations, including rain, snow, fog, and of course, at night. Most systems use infrared sensors to show you pedestrians, animals and other objects outside your headlights' reach. Some night vision systems use thermal heat-sensing systems, but these don't pick up inanimate objects.

  • Blind spot and reverse backup sensors typically use warning lights or increasingly loud beeps to alert you to a car, pedestrian or other out-of-sight hazard. With blind spots extending 30 feet in many cars, out-of-sight definitely shouldn't mean out-of-mind. Some systems use radar, while others use cameras or some combination of the two. Backup sensors can also be helpful when you're parking.

  • Advanced front lighting systems move your car's headlights to follow the curve of the road and help you see off the beaten track. Unlike traditional directional headlights, most of these systems have two independent light sources, allowing you to see both the road in front of you and the curve ahead. The lights know which direction you're headed based on your speed and input from the steering wheel.

Comfort and Convenience
Fatigue and multitasking do not lend themselves to safe car trips. These features could make your next adventure safer by helping you be more comfortable and focused.

  • Voice recognition allows you to literally tell your car what to do. With simple voice commands, you can boss around your climate control, audio system, cell phone and navigation system.

  • Key fobs are a lot more than just fancy key chains. Now they can remember if you locked your car and set your alarm, saving the information so that you can check it from any distance. One model even has a heartbeat monitor, so you'll know if someone is hiding in your car, has broken in or was left inside.

  • Adaptive cruise control, also called smart cruise control, maintains a set distance behind the car in front of you. So now you don't have to hit the brakes every time the person ahead of you slows down. The system uses radar and measures distance based on time or car length. Some adaptive cruise control systems work in stop-and-go traffic; look for more cars to have this feature in the future.

  • Tire pressure warning gauges help you avoid serious problems, like blowouts and fuel economy loss, which can happen more during the summer when tires naturally become less inflated. The gauges either measure tire pressure directly or indirectly by counting your tire revolutions. This feature has been mandatory in new cars since 2006.

Accident Survival
Since most of us will be in at least one fender bender during our lifetime, it's good to know that car designers are concerned about more than just helping you look good. The latest features can help drivers survive a car crash injury-free.

  • Smart airbags can detect passengers in the front seat, usually with weight sensors, and then deploy at different sizes, pressures and sometimes shapes. The technology was designed with children in mind, who were especially at risk for injury with older airbags. Some smart side airbags deploy with five times more force at the hip level than the torso, which is more prone to injury. Curtain airbags automatically deploy if a car is in danger of rolling over or in a side collision; they cover windows to help prevent head injuries and can also keep passengers from being thrown from the car.

  • Active head restraints automatically move the head restraint closer to the driver in the event of an accident. This feature helps prevent whiplash, which taller people are more susceptible to, by reducing impact.

Post Accident Assistance
After an accident, these safety features ensure that drivers have access to emergency help when necessary.

  • Integrated emergency communications systems, also called telematics, can automatically call for help when a driver can't. They can also transmit your location, using the car's GPS, and convey whether the airbag has deployed. In the future, you can expect systems that transmit more detailed accident information, like the level of damage, which could help emergency responders. Most systems require a monthly service fee.

  • Crash sensors can automatically unlock car doors and turn on interior and hazard lights. This can help emergency crews locate the accident scene and help other drivers avoid it.

The Future
What's in store in the future? Look for cars with an increasing ability to interact with you and the world around them. While many of these features are already possible, they're still being tested for widespread use.

  • Networked cars could let automobiles of the future “talk” to each other. Cars could warn each other about potential accidents, and automatically activate their pre-collision systems when necessary. High-speed data networks could also link emergency vehicles when other communication systems are down, and provide real-time information about traffic.

  • Facial recognition can monitor a driver's face to detect alertness. If it senses tiredness or distraction, you can be roused with a warning signal, tightened seat belt or visual alert. If these fail, the car will be able to apply your brakes momentarily.

  • Alcohol sensors built into the transmission shift knob can now detect alcohol in a driver's hand perspiration. If a driver is over the legal alcohol limit, the car can sound a voice alert and lock the transmission, making the car immobile.

Staying alert and driving the speed limit may be two of the best ways to stay safe on the road. But when the unexpected happens, new car technology is on your side, working to help keep you safe and sound. Individual manufacturers use different names for similar safety systems, so be sure to ask what your new car can do.

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New Safety Features Keep Drivers in Control - Autotrader