Safety innovations can help cut car insurance rates

Tamara E. Holmes

If the ups and downs of the economy have you wishing your living expenses would decrease, take heed. As researchers work to create new innovations in car safety, your dreams of lower bills may be more steeped in reality than you think, at least when it comes to car insurance.

A number of factors go into determining car insurance rates, including the driver’s record, the driver’s location and the type of vehicle he or she drives, says Jim Swegle, vice president of product management at Seattle-based Safeco Insurance. Since insurers charge lower rates for vehicles with better safety records, any initiatives to make vehicles safer can mean money savings for consumers.

The 2011 Infiniti QX comes equipped with lane-departure warning and prevention technology.

“There’s a lot of pressure to get five-star safety crash ratings,” says Jay Baron, president, chairman and CEO of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research.

One reason more attention is paid to safety is that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regularly publicize results of their crash tests. From those tests, the nonprofit institute and the federal agency assign safety ratings to vehicles. The extra attention to safety has paid off: The car crash death rate has dropped from 55 deaths per billion miles of travel in 1966 to 11.3 deaths per billion miles of travel in 2009, according to IIHS.

Brian Lyons, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA, says: “We’re moving into technologies that we hope will avoid collisions altogether."

Different roads to safety

While most car manufacturers would say safety is a top priority, many are taking different paths to get there. One way manufacturers are creating safer cars is by making them technologically "smart." For example, the use of blind-spot detection and lane-change warning systems, which alert drivers if they veer out of their lanes, can help prevent accidents, Baron says.

Dan Bedore, a spokesman for Nissan Motor Co., says Nissan and Infinity vehicles use those technologies. For example, the 2011 Infiniti QX comes with lane-departure warning and prevention systems. A small camera behind the windshield detects lane markers in front of the vehicle and sounds a warning if the driver starts to drift past a marker. If the driver continues to drift, the lane-departure prevention system will gently apply the brakes.

Some Toyota and Lexus models, including the Lexus GX 460, come equipped with a pre-collision system, including a "driver attention monitor" and a lane-departure alert, says Bill Kwong, a spokesman for the Lexus division of Toyota Motor Sales. Two small cameras mounted on the front of the vehicle work with radar to detect obstacles, while a third camera mounted on the steering column monitors the direction of the driver’s face. If the driver doesn’t appear to be looking ahead for a few seconds or more, the system alerts the driver to the obstacle with a warning chime and flashing light. The system also can begin to apply the brakes if the vehicle continues to move toward the obstacle.

Driving into the future

In the future, cars will be even smarter. “You’ll have a car that talks to the car in front of you and won’t let you crash into it,” Baron says. Likewise, two cars approaching an intersection from two different roads might detect each other, causing one of them to automatically slow down or stop.

BMW has taken the first step toward that future by introducing a communications unit that allows two vehicles equipped with the technology to "talk" with one another. If one of the cars detects that the other car plans to make a left turn at an approaching intersection, for example, it might sound an alarm or even put on the brakes to avoid a collision.

Among the innovations Toyota is exploring is emergency response technology. Such a system, embedded in the steering wheel, would detect whether a driver is suffering, say, a heart attack, then would apply the brakes and contact emergency responders, Lyons says.

As this all plays out, consumers stand to be the winners, IIHS' Lund said at a safety conference in May 2011.

“We have had a fantastic 50 years of progress in reducing harm from motor vehicle crashes,” Lund said. “Developing new information and electronic technology promises to do for crash avoidance what prior developments in structure and restraints technology have done for crashworthiness.”

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