Automotive safety systems and why we need them

It’s just a fact of life — we are living longer. And it’s not just because of tofu, sunscreen, and medical breakthroughs. Automakers are to thank (or curse) for this as much as doctors since they are competitively blending performance and creature comforts with cutting-edge safety technology that tries to stay one step ahead of you — and everyone else on the road.

Car safety technology has advanced considerably since the earliest models of automobiles were created. In the early 1900s when the Ford Model-T came into existence, there was not much thought put into the probability the vehicle would be involved in a crash, thus safety standards were low or nonexistent.

Still years later, the interior of popular cars seemed to be designed with aesthetics in mind over the safety of their occupants. According to data from the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 1966, the United States saw almost 51,000 fatalities due to auto accidents, while in 2012 the numbers have dropped considerably to just over 25,000 fatalities.

Much of this decrease in automobile-related deaths can be attributed to the invention, promotion, and use of different types of safety devices that cars have been fitted with over the years. Step into a 2017 model vehicle and you are likely to see standard safety features like airbags, 3-point seatbelts, anti-lock braking systems and even automatic parking capabilities, all of which serve one purpose: to keep the vehicle’s occupants safe.

Below are just a few of the safety systems you’ll find in today’s cars.

1. Tire-pressure monitoring The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has required that all U.S. passenger vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less be equipped with a tire-pressure monitoring system by the 2008 model year. But it’s already a safety feature in most new autos. Sensors at the wheels are able to alert you if the air pressure is too low by an audible warning, a light on the instrument panel, or both. You may also see more cars with run-flat, which allow a vehicle to continue to run at a relatively high rate of speed for 50-plus miles.

2. Adaptive cruise control/collision mitigation Modern cruise control goes beyond just maintaining a constant speed. Thanks to sensors and the use of radar, cruise control can now adjust the throttle and brakes to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you if there are changes in traffic speed or if a slowpoke cuts in. If the system senses a potential collision, it typically will brake hard and tighten the seatbelts. Once it knows the lane is clear or traffic has sped up, it will return your car to its original cruising speed, all without your input. Of course, you may override the system by touching the brakes.

3. Blind-spot detection/side assist/collision warning This technology is designed to alert you to cars or objects in your blind spot during driving or parking, or both. Usually, it will respond when you put on your turn signal; if it detects something in the way, it may flash a light in your mirror, cause the seat or steering wheel to vibrate, or sound an alarm. This is more of a short-range detection system.

4. Lane-departure warning/wake-you-up safety This is similar to blind-spot/side-assist technology but with more range. It judges an approaching vehicle’s speed and distance to warn you of potential danger if you change lanes. It can also warn if it determines your car is wandering out of the lane, which could be useful if you become distracted. This could come in the form of a vibration through the seat or steering wheel, or an alarm. Down the road expect the lane-departure warning to even be able to monitor body posture, head position and eye activity to decide if the driver is falling asleep and the vehicle is behaving erratically. At that point, the system may even be capable of slowing the car down and engaging stability control. Just in case.

5. Rollover prevention/mitigation Most automakers offer an electronic stability control system, and some offer a preparation system (seat belts tighten, roll bars extend). However, what we’re talking about is more intelligent than that. If the system senses a potential rollover (such as if you whip around a corner too fast or swerve sharply), it will apply the brakes and modulate throttle as needed to help you maintain control. DaimlerChrysler calls it Electronic Roll Mitigation, Ford named it Roll Stability Control, and GM’s is Proactive Roll Avoidance. Range Rover’s is Active Roll Mitigation, while Volvo’s is called Roll-Over Protection System. But they all have the same goal.

6. Occupant-sensitive/dual-stage airbags All humans are not created equal, and airbags are evolving to compensate in the form of low-risk, multistage and occupant-sensitive deployment. Technology can now sense the different sizes and weights of occupants as well as seatbelt usage, abnormal seating position (such as reaching for the radio or bending to pick something off the floor), rear-facing child seats and even vehicle speed. While the driver, passenger and side curtain airbags are nothing new, sensing airbags are popping up (so to speak) everywhere.

7. Emergency brake assists/collision mitigation This brake technology is different from an anti-lock braking system or electronic brakeforce distribution, in that it recognizes when the driver makes a panic stop (a quick shift from gas to the brake pedal) and will apply additional brake pressure to help shorten the stopping distance. It may also work in conjunction with the smart cruise control or stability control system in some vehicles if it senses a potential collision. It is often called brake assist, although BMW, for example, refers to it as Dynamic Brake Control.

8. Adaptive headlights and/or night-vision assist Night vision can be executed in different forms, such as infrared headlamps or thermal-imaging cameras. But no matter the science, the goal is the same: to help you see farther down the road and to spot animals, people or trees in the path — even at nearly 1,000 feet away. An image is generated through a cockpit display, brightening the objects that are hard to see with the naked eye. Adaptive headlights follow the direction of the vehicle (bending the light as you go around corners). They may also be speed-sensitive (changing beam length or height) or compensate for ambient light.

9. Rearview camera Rearview cameras not only protect your car but also protect children and animals from accidental back-overs. Backing up your car has graduated from side mirrors tilting down or causing chirps and beeps to real-time viewing. New-school tech involves a camera that works with the navigation system to provide a wide-open shot of what’s happening behind you to help with parking or hooking up a trailer.

10. Emergency response There are a variety of ways vehicles now and in the future will handle an emergency situation. For example, Daimler Chrysler’s Enhanced Accident Response System (EARS) turns on interior lighting, unlocks doors and shuts off fuel when airbags deploy, while Volkswagen’s also switches on the hazards and disconnects the battery terminal from the alternator. In addition, GM’s OnStar and BMW Assist both alert their respective response centers of the accident and make crash details available to emergency personnel.

Why do we need them?

Well the short answer: distracted irresponsible drivers and drivers who do not understand the power of the machine operating or just plain driver complacency

It’s no secret that drivers face more distractions on the road than ever before. In fact, each day in the U.S., over eight people are killed and 1,161 are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to data from 2013 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The reality is everyone is a human being. Everyone has experienced some type of distraction in addition to cell phone usage, distractions on the road can also be related to rubbernecking, eating and drinking, and tuning the radio.

Safe cars don’t do the driver’s job for him. They provide good visibility, promote alertness, respond immediately to driver inputs (instead of suggesting them) to avoid potential accidents, and keep occupants alive when all else fails and doom looms.

Ultimately, it’s your butt on the line when you get into a car, and it’s you who is responsible for it and the butts of those around you on the road. Although the aforementioned features, and countless others developed since man first relieved horse with horsepower, no doubt save lives, the most important safety feature in any car is the one with the steering wheel in its hands and the pedals underfoot.

Pay attention when you drive. Note changing road conditions. Watch what other drivers are doing. Note who’s agitated, who’s cognitively antiquated, who’s just plain stupid. Don’t text while you drive. Don’t drive when you’ve been drinking. Be considerate. Keep right except to pass. Drive at a speed appropriate for conditions. All simple pieces of advice, all categorically ignored by most people who have been driving for more than a few years. All could potentially prevent countless accidents, injuries, and deaths every year, and all are 100 percent the responsibility of the person behind the wheel. Check all the boxes you want on your order sheet; they’re not going to make you a better driver. Using your brain will.