Cutting-edge technologies are reducing automobile accidents -- and the injuries that accompany them.
In fact, if just four of these technologies -- forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection and adaptive headlights -- were universally adopted by automakers, about 1 in 3 fatal crashes and 1 in 5 injury crashes could either be prevented or mitigated, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
These technologies aren't always cheap, says IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. "Crash-avoidance technologies are often bundled as optional packages with other unrelated features that can add several thousand dollars to the cost of a new vehicle," he says.
For example, the luxury 2014 Lexus LS 460 sedan has a safety-options package that includes many of the latest safety features and starts at $6,500. However, the cost seems small compared to the priceless value of saved lives.
Following are six technologies making today's cars safer.
1. Backover-prevention systems
Backover accidents – where drivers run into something that is difficult to see behind them as they are backing up – cause 210 deaths and 15,000 injuries each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Small children often are the victims of these accidents, which often occur in parking lots and driveways.
Backover-prevention systems use cameras and sensors to help prevent crashes when the driver is backing out.
Rearview video systems use cameras and a monitor -- typically mounted on the center console or rearview mirror -- to display an image of the area directly behind the vehicle. Some systems also include lines in the image that help guide the driver in backing out.
"Providing drivers with visual information about what is directly behind their vehicle can certainly prevent injuries and fatalities," says Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Sensors also detect objects behind the vehicle and send audible or visual alerts to the driver. Some systems even detect approaching vehicles and automatically apply the brakes if a crash is imminent. The systems generally cost less than $200, according to NHTSA. In cars that have a route navigation system or other similar display, the cost can be less than $60.
2. Blind-spot detection
Blind-spot detection is intended to prevent crashes when the driver changes lanes. The technology uses sensors that monitor nearby traffic lanes and warn drivers when vehicles are approaching or entering the driver's blind spot.
The alert typically pops up in or near the sideview mirror. If the driver ignores the initial alert and signals a lane change, the alert changes by either becoming brighter or flashing, or by warning the driver audibly.
Some systems also will activate brake or steering controls to prevent the vehicle from changing lanes. The IIHS says this technology has the potential to impact about one-fourth of the 1.7 million lane-changing crashes that occur each year.
3. Emergency response systems
Several types of safety systems now respond instantly after a crash.
For example, purchase a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and you'll get an Enhanced Accident Response System (EARS), which activates interior lighting, unlocks doors, rolls down windows and shuts off fuel whenever the air bags deploy.
Volkswagen vehicles come equipped with the Intelligent Crash Response System, which unlocks all doors, disables the fuel pump and turns on the hazard lights when air bags deploy.
Other systems -- such as GM's OnStar and BMW Assist -- alert accident response centers in the event of a crash, so emergency help will be on the way quickly. "Built-in sensors in the vehicle can automatically send an alert to a central receiving center," Ulczycki says.
A company called Splitsecnd offers a version of a crash-response system that plugs into a car's cigarette lighter. The device can detect your exact location, allowing an operator to send emergency personnel to the scene. It costs $99.95, with service costing $14.95 per month.
4. Front-crash avoidance
This technology senses when a car or pedestrian looms in a vehicle's pathway. Sensors in the front of the car determine the distance between the car and the next object, and it measures the relative speed if the object is another car.
Systems use an audible alert to warn the driver a crash is imminent. The system also may flash a warning on the instrument panel or windshield, or issue a physical warning such as a tug on the driver's safety belt, or pulsing of the brakes. Some systems also apply the brakes automatically.
This technology adds $1,000 or more to a vehicle's sticker price, according to IIHS, but notes that these systems are effective, particularly if they have an auto-br ake feature.
5. Adaptive headlights and adaptive cruise control
These technologies add a 21st century edge to features with a long pedigree -- headlights and cruise control.
Adaptive headlights allow drivers to see better when it's dark and they're driving on a curved road. When the driver steers around a corner, the lights pivot in the direction of traffic.
With adaptive cruise control, the driver sets a desired speed. Sensors at the front of the car further regulate the speed to maintain a safe gap between the driver's car and the car ahead of it.
Ulczycki says these adaptive technologies are especially effective in two key driving situations:
- Low visibility due to rain, snow or fog.
- When vehicles ahead of you slow or stop suddenly.
Each of these technologies can cost more than $1,000.
6. Lane-departure warning systems
This technology keeps your car traveling down the road in its proper lane.
Typically, a camera is mounted on or near the rearview mirror. If the system detects that the driver has moved out of his or her lane -- or is about to -- it sends an alert to the driver. The alert may be audible, or it may be something like a vibrating seat or steering wheel. Some systems display a visual warning on the instrument panel.
Some cars also have lane-departure-prevention technology. These systems use a combination of light steering and braking to guide the vehicle back into its proper lane.
Despite the promise of these systems, an IIHS study found that these systems aren’t preventing crashes as expected. In fact, IIHS found a statistically insignificant increase in the number of crashes among cars that have this system.
IIHS says it's unclear why crashes have not decreased, but speculates some drivers may have found the system annoying and shut it off.
A lane-departure warning system typically costs between $1,000 and $2,000, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.