Cars are safer> than ever, traffic fatalities are at an all-time low, and still the auto industry is adding to its arsenal of auto safety technology. But with all the new high-tech options available back-up camera? Crash control? Hands-free 911 access? are drivers really getting a safer ride?
Though fuel economy is top of mind right now, safety remains a huge sell for the auto industry especially for parents of teen drivers and for elderly drivers. Top-of-the-line optional technology quickly becomes standard, so it's hard to compare even one year to another, but today, about 60% of Mercedes-Benz CL-class buyers pay an extra $2,700 for a safety package that includes a blind-spot sensor; some 80% of Ford buyers choose that company's hands-free 911-dialer. This spring, OnStar, known for the built-in technology that automatically reports crashes, recently began offering an after-market unit starting at $299. And as the threat of distracted driving grows, the newest devices offer to disable mobile phones and block text messages when a car is moving. A spokesman for one such company, tXtBlocker, says thousands of users have signed up for the $7-per-month service since it launched less than two years ago.
Some of the newest gadgetry may truly be as ground-breaking as, say, airbags were in the 1990s. Federal regulators have already mandated that, by the end of 2012, all cars must come equipped with electronic stability control, which applies individual brakes and reduces throttle when it senses that the car is moving in a way that differs from how the driver is steering for example, if you're fishtailing on an icy road. Congress is also considering a measure that would have back-up cameras in all vehicles by end of 2014.
The after-market and optional features, though, like cruise-control that changes with the speed of traffic and blind-spot sensors, may not yet be absolutely necessary. Although the auto industry and its watchdogs have high hopes for the life-saving potential of features like these, there aren't enough cars with such systems are on the road yet to conduct an adequate study of their effectiveness, says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And insurers like Allstate and Progressive, which offer discounts of up to 30% for well-proven features like airbags and motorized seatbelts, have yet to give drivers a break for any of the newer technologies.
A Ford spokesman says its hands-free system is more about entertainment than safety, and no one from Mercedes Benz was available to comment. But early results do indicate that such technology could prevent or reduce the severity of one in three fatal crashes, and one in five crashes with injuries, Rader says. And technology that helps avoid accidents is hard to measure. "How do you know how many collisions you've avoided?" says Thomas Plueinsky, a spokesman for BMW. "Do you go back and ask drivers to recollect?"
Which nods to another reason some of the new safety features may not deliver quite the peace of mind they suggest: there's no guarantee that drivers will use them appropriately, if at all. The combination of visual and audible warnings might be confusing for elderly drivers. Or teens could decide it's OK to text and drive because the high-tech car will automatically adjust its speed or brake to avoid a collision, says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a collective of state highway safety offices.
Automakers agree that it's the driver's responsibility to use their systems safely. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study showed that handling a phone -- picking it up, dialing and texting is far more risky than talking, according to Ford spokesman Alan Hall. He also says that the company's hands-free Sync voice control system is primarily marketed as a way to safely connect with your devices, not as safety feature of its own. But it's also why the biggest insurer discounts are still calculated on the most basic measure of safety: A driver's own record.