There was a time during some of our readers’ lifetimes when vehicle safety meant a padded dashboard (on a car with only drum brakes). But hey, you survived, and so did I. When I was five and still an only child (in 1980), my parents had a new white Corvette. Guess where I rode? Under the rear glass. I remember opening the various cargo compartments and being surprised when one of them contained the car’s battery. During my brief two-year youth baseball career, we’d travel to away games (and to Dairy Queen to celebrate wins) in the back of the coach’s Toyota pickup. “Hold onto your hats, boys!”
Times are different today. Not only are our children coddled in the safety of booster seats, car seats, seat belts, and a cocoon of airbags, but we do the same thing for ourselves as well. And highway fatalities are at an all-time low relative to miles driven. Cars today protect their occupants better than at any other time in history. (For a stark reminder of this, I direct you to watch the YouTube clip from a few years ago when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – IIHS – offset crashed a 1959 Bel Air into a 2009 Malibu. The old car’s driver didn’t stand a chance.
Aside from occupant protection, where there seems to be little new innovation over the past few years now that all cars have front, side, and curtain airbags and advanced crash-structure engineering, there is still plenty of opportunity to improve accident avoidance, which, if successful, would remove some of the need to further occupant protection. We already have ABS, traction control, stability control (now mandatory in new cars), radial tires, stabilizer bars, unibody construction, and more. All of those technologies – though some are older than others – help drivers avoid accidents in the first place.
There has been a lot of work from OEMs and automotive suppliers in accident avoidance during the past few years. Now, a new study from IIHS that looked at collision avoidance technology such as Volvo’s City Safety (despite some high-profile slip-ups), lane departure warning/lane departure prevention systems, blind spot detection, and park assist.
Surprisingly, not all of the technologies improved loss rates. (The IIHS decided that rather than waiting to collect years of fatality statistics, it would examine losses for Buicks, Mercedes-Benzes, Volvos, and Mazdas, comparing cars with the safety features to a “control group” of cars without the features.
The researchers found that forward-collision alerts did reduce insurance claims by between 10 percent and 14 percent. In vehicles such as Acura’s RL where the car will actively apply the brakes to prevent a collision, the results were very good. Some vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Taurus, have a flashing red alert that warns the driver of an impending collision but do not apply the brakes. Presumably the driver-dependent warning-only systems are not quite as effective as systems that do the work for the driver. Also, adaptive headlamps reduced claims by about 10 percent. (Adaptive headlamps swivel slightly with the steering wheel to illuminate into a turn rather than straight into where you may not even be heading).
Somewhat counter-intuitively, vehicles equipped with lane departure warning systems actually saw increased claims compared to similar vehicles without such systems. I’ve driven several cars equipped with LDW systems, and they can be extremely irritating (either that, or extremely enlightening, when I learn just how many times I cross the double-yellows during a 25 mile drive). The researchers weren’t quite sure what caused this seeming anomaly, but one theory they put out was that LDW systems are preventing head-on collisions, which often result in fatalities – which were beyond the scope of this particular claims-only study.
Finally, the study found that blind-spot detection systems and park assist systems had seemingly no impact, positive or negative, on claims. From a personal standpoint, I really do like driving with blind-spot detection mirrors (though neither of my family’s own cars have the feature). Someone with good driving habits knows to trust more than just the mirrors before changing lanes, but sadly most drivers today could hardly be classified as “good.”
One takeaway from this study is that more research is needed into understanding the effectiveness of ever more complex safety features that are being added to cars. Are these features all really improving vehicle safety, or are they being thrown in partially for marketing reasons, to just have a longer list of acronyms than a competitor’s vehicle does?
It will be interesting to see if any follow-up studies also question the effectiveness of these safety technologies in preventing accidents. Obviously, the IIHS has a horse in this race – safer cars mean fewer claims for its member insurance companies to pay – but the organization’s advocacy over the years has shamed some manufacturers into developing ever-safer vehicles. Lower claims should eventually equal lower insurance rates, and that sounds like a win for everyone.