New Safety Features in Cars (or Just New to You)

Advanced automobile safety used to involve a buckled seatbelt, a hopeful glance at the St. Christopher medal on your rearview mirror and faith in your car’s crumple zones. Today, there’s a blizzard of technologies protecting people inside and outside the vehicle. So many, in fact, you may not even know all of the systems packed into your own car.

Autos built over the last 12 years (the average vehicle age these days) are stuffed with safety features we’ve forgotten about. Chances are electronic stability control has saved your bacon by pulsing the brakes on individual wheels to improve handling and prevent rollovers. Traction control helps to eliminate uncontrolled wheel spin on slick surfaces. Antilock brakes shorten stopping distances and add control. Rearview-camera monitors reveal small children hidden behind your car. All are mandatory in modern cars.

And then there is the more advanced tech. For example, an acquaintance who was frustrated with intermittent seat vibrations in his new Cadillac felt sheepish to find they were the lane departure system discreetly buzzing his cushion.

Keep in mind, features mentioned here on specific models might be available on a number of other vehicles. Some homework may be necessary, especially as the 2021 model year switch-over arrives.

First, a sobering figure. The Governors Highway Safety Association said this year that pedestrian deaths from automobiles had risen to 6,283 in 2018, from 4,109 in 2009. Part of the rise was due to popular pickups, S.U.V.s and crossovers.

“These vehicles have much higher hoods than sedans,” said David Zuby, the chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “U.S. bumper height regulations are for vehicle-to-vehicle protection, not pedestrian safety. With S.U.V.s or pickups it’s far more likely you’ll end up under the vehicle. Chances are better of landing on the hood when hit by a sedan.”

The Volkswagen Arteon has one nifty safety feature: a pyrotechnic device near the base of the windshield that instantly lifts the hood from the rear, adding space between it and the engine for a softer landing spot.

More of these “active electronic safety technologies,” using sensors, radar and cameras, are coming. Among them: automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection (a violent experience and not a license to multitask); automatic high-beam headlights (more likely to reveal pedestrians early); lane-departure warning (signaling when the car drifts over a road stripe); lane-keeping assist (actively helping to center the vehicle between the road stripes); blind-spot warning; and rear cross-path detection that senses traffic coming up from behind you and pedestrians before you back up (some systems even brake to avoid contact).

“Even where the auto braking doesn’t prevent a collision,” Mr. Zuby said, “slowing the speed helps pedestrians survive and reduces injuries in car-to-car impacts.”

Automakers are bundling these safety features and making them standard on even affordable cars, trucks and crossovers. The names and features vary: Ford Co-Pilot360, Honda Sensing, Nissan ProPilot Assist, Subaru EyeSight and Toyota Safety Sense. In a Honda it’s a Blind Spot Information System, while General Motors calls it Lane Change Alert (both are blind spot warning systems).

James McQueen at Consumer Reports points out that the organization teamed up with AAA, J.D. Power and the National Safety Council to create standardized names to give shoppers some clarity. “The Department of Transportation has endorsed the standardized names, but automakers don’t have to use them,” he said.

Then there’s the tech we in the United States can’t use. Europeans get adaptive headlights that are inexplicably banned from U.S. roads. Rather than simple high and low beams, sensors detect oncoming traffic and shade those vehicles from the incredibly bright LED units while illuminating the road ahead at full power.

Let’s move inside the car since National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics suggest that the growing amount of safety tech is starting to pay off. They show traffic fatalities dropping to an estimated 36,120 in 2019 from 37,461 in 2016 despite a rise in average miles traveled.

Automakers trying to ace the government’s small offset crash test (simulating a tree or pole impact with the outside edge of the car) have significantly raised your survival odds. Crumple zones have become more sophisticated. Ultra-high-strength steel in key areas protects far better than St. Chris (patron saint of travelers) on your mirror.

Most people I ask believe their car has two airbags (I’m a riot at parties), one each for the driver and front passenger. Generally, six are common (add two side torso bags and two curtain units covering the side glass). Some vehicles get knee and seat cushion airbags that position occupants properly during impact. The total easily climbs to 10 with torso units for rear passengers. Some GM vehicles like the Chevrolet Traverse have a unique curtain bag between the front seats to keep driver and passenger from his-and-hers concussions during side impacts. The new Mercedes-Benz S-Class will have airbags for rear passengers that are much like those in front.

Many rural single-car fatalities happen when cars veer off the pavement during distracted or drowsy driving. Driver attention systems work by monitoring steering wheel movements or employing cameras that watch the pilot. Lane-keep assist is a help, too.

Volvo (which invented the three-point seatbelt and gave away the patent) has Run Off Road protection. When sensors detect a wheel unweighting (signaling the car is heading into a ditch) seatbelts are cinched up until the car stops moving. If the impact is severe, airbags deploy and the brake pedal retracts. The seat frame is designed to collapse downward to reduce spinal injury.

Sophisticated features continue to trickle down from luxury cars to affordable vehicles. They include tech that avoids T-bone collisions. During left turns, sensors on the newest properly equipped Hyundai Sonata and Elantra sedans detect oncoming cars and then automatically brake to avoid impact. (The system relies on the use of turn signals, another good reason to use them.) Those cars can use the blind-spot monitoring sensors to warn passengers not to open the doors on a parked car if traffic is approaching from behind.

GM and Nissan vehicles provide warnings if you’ve left something in the back seat (like a sleeping child on a hot day). These rely on detecting that the back door was opened as a trip started. Hyundai and Kia go a step further, adding an ultrasonic motion sensor. Detecting movement when the car is locked, it honks the horn. It can even send a text message.

Kia’s K5 sedan is available with an adaptive cruise control that not only paces traffic ahead but uses GPS data to slow the car down if it’s traveling too fast for sharp curves ahead. At stoplights, the K5 can signal distracted drivers that the car in front has moved forward, even before the impatient driver behind has the chance to honk. Kia’s new Sorento will brake if it detects a rearward moving vehicle while pulling out of a parallel-parking spot.

Finally, a reminder to put the phone away. A fully present driver is the single most effective safety feature available. Plus, it’s free and available on all makes, models and years.

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