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New Directions in Auto Safety

Like big-screen TVs, high-tech automotive safety systems keep getting better, cooler and more affordable. If you have new-car fever, you’ll find mainstream vehicles that include safety gear that once was found only in expensive luxury rides. Buckle up as we explore the latest in safety systems for 2010 and beyond.

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In 2008, Bruce Haibach was driving in Albuquerque, N.M., when a driver ran a red light and slammed into Haibach’s Honda S2000. The roadster was hit on the passenger side and spun 360 degrees before Haibach’s door struck a light pole.

Considering that the offender was driving a large pickup, the fact that Haibach wasn’t killed is amazing. But a miracle? Well, not exactly. Haibach’s year-old Honda had a chassis that was similar to the designs that are found in race cars, in which energy from a collision is absorbed and filtered away from the cabin. Haibach’s seat belt had pretensioners and load limiters, which tighten immediately before and give a bit immediately after a collision to first restrain the body and then limit the restraining forces and chances of related injuries.

“I really have to hand it to Honda,” Haibach says. “The front windshield pillar stayed pretty much intact and bore the brunt of the impact.” Haibach, who was unconscious until after he was transported to the hospital, was released after 3 days.

“We definitely see less severe injuries associated with motor vehicles than we used to,” says Dr. Angela Fisher, who leads the trauma center at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston.

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Energy-absorbing design and “smart” seat belts are a couple of once-cutting-edge safety features that have become widespread in the past 5 years. According to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 92 percent of 2010 model cars, 100 percent of SUVs and 66 percent of pickups have standard side airbags that provide head protection. Electronic stability control is standard on 88 percent of cars, 100 percent of SUVs and 62 percent of pickups. Five years ago, these features were just being introduced to U.S. drivers.

And automakers are letting folks know about this. “Gone are fit-and-finish issues, paint problems, interior styling and so on,” says Dan Johnston of Volvo. “So, as marketing (executives) scratch
for something to pound their chests about, it’s now safety.”

We expect that a few of today’s latest safety systems will proliferate as quickly as did tire-pressure monitoring systems, which went from rare in 2005 to mandatory by 2008. For example, consider Toyota’s massive (5.6-million-vehicle) recall regarding unintended acceleration. In January, the automaker said it would install on most of its lineup a brake-override system that would prevent unintended acceleration. A few experts believe that such systems will become mandatory on all vehicles in the next few years.

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