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Highway Deaths Plunging as Cars Become Safer

Highway Deaths Plunging as Cars Become Safer

The numbers in a preliminary federal study, show that U.S. highway deaths continued to plunge last year, to the lowest level since the government began keeping records in 1921. These numbers were measured in terms of fatalities per 100 million miles driven. There are several factors that have contributed to this decline, which has seen traffic deaths lessen by 25 percent since 2005. These factors include better roads and signage and a crackdown on drunk drivers. The significant factor in these improvements, though, is the continuing improvement in the safety of the vehicles we drive.

Manufacturers have learned how, by using the latest in computer-aided design (CAD) technology, to shield motorists and passengers from deadly forces in even the most serious accidents. The various high-tech safety devices that are in the industry's newest models, are an equally significant factor. These high-tech safety devices help motorists avoid accidents in the first place.

David Zuby, chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said that 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.

Some of the most sophisticated systems yet developed, will be seen in 2013 models. Even entry-level vehicles will have many of these technologies that in the past, were limited to expensive models.

Federal regulators began mandating improvements in automotive safety over 40 years ago. The seat belt was one of the first devices written into law. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2011, added electronic stability to the list of mandatory improvements. Electronic stability is designed to keep a car under control on slick surfaces or when it makes an overly aggressive movement. NHTSA may soon add back-up cameras to that list.

With faster microprocessors and an overall drop in the price of electronic hardware, it is becoming easier for federal regulators to mandate these improvements. In the past, industry planners resisted new federal regulations, but these days manufacturers are likely to introduce new features without pressure from the government.

General Motors designer Bob Boniface has said that there’s an expectation on the part of customers for more and more safety equipment. He added that these days the challenge is to find a place to put all the various controls and sensors as the front ends of some of GM's most advanced models are covered with radar and laser sensors. He then added that many new models are introducing advanced video cameras as well.

There are two separate categories of the latest safety technology; active and passive systems. Passive systems are those designed to reduce injuries if an accident occurs. An example of a passive system in an air bag. Some new models of cars could offer as many as 10 air bags.

Ford is expanding the use of its new inflatable rear seat belts – another example of a passive system – which are now found in several models, including the Explorer. Sue Cischke, a retired Ford safety chief, said these devices are particularly suited for use by the very young and the very old because they can suffer internal injuries from the forces acting upon standard seat belts in severe collisions.

Active systems are those systems which help prevent accidents. In 2013 Ford vehicles, a wide range of new mainstream products will add forward collision avoidance, blind-spot monitoring and active lane-keeping, which are all active safety systems.

Many of the most advanced technologies are migrating down system. New technologies that once were only available in the most expensive models, such as cross-traffic alert, which was only available on the BMW-7 Series, are migrating down-market. This system will now be offered on a wide range of midline models, such as the 2013 Nissan Altima.

According to IIHS research, the new technologies are paying off by saving lives on the road. But Zuby, IIHS research chief, stressed that because the typical American car remains in use a decade or longer, it will be close to 2020 before most vehicles in the U.S. fleet have advanced technologies. But as the 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.