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5 Future Safety Features on the Road Right Now

By Lee Michael Katz

  • There's no substitute for sensible driving, but cars themselves are increasingly helping drivers stay safe on the road.

    The once imaginary, high-tech "car of the future" could be in your driveway today. Safety features that not too long ago seemed like science fiction — such as automatic braking when a car senses an impending collision and headlights that follow your turns — can be found in today's vehicles.

    According to David Zuby, chief research officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), advanced safety features started out in higher-end cars, but are now more mainstream.

    Here are some of the available and upcoming safety features that can help save lives and prevent injuries:

    • Forward-collision avoidance systems. This technology sounds an alarm when it senses that you may crash into something ahead. Some models even automatically apply the brakes under certain circumstances, if needed, to avoid the crash. IIHS statistics show that the warning systems reduce collisions by about 7 percent, Zuby says, "but if you add auto-brake, it can double the crash reduction."
    • Lane departure warning systems. These increasingly available systems are designed to warn you if you stray from your lane without using a turn signal. They're like a high-tech version of "rumble strips" that make noise if you're about to drive off a road. "The jury's still out" on lane-departure warning systems, Zuby says. "It may be beneficial, but our analysis hasn't shown it yet."
    • Adaptive headlights. With this option, headlights follow your turns instead of staying stationary — for example, as you go around dark curves. "They steer with the car," Zuby explains. "If you turn to the right, the headlight points to the road." The IIHS expert believes adaptive headlights increase safety. "We've seen significant reductions in crashes reported to insurers associated with vehicles equipped with that system."
    • Speed and curve warnings. Your current GPS system might offer a warning feature if you exceed the speed limit. More powerful examples of GPS-based vehicle technology are just around the corner. Already being tested in Europe and Australia is built-in Intelligent Speed Adaptation, which issues speeding alerts and can also make it harder to press further down on the accelerator — or it can even automatically decelerate the vehicle. Taking curves too fast, another common cause of accidents, is also the focus of warning-device research and field-testing. Such a device would warn you to slow down when a sharp curve is ahead — before it's too late. "It's another application of GPS technology that could improve driver safety," says Zuby.
    • Event data recorder. Similar to the airplane "black box" that records flight information, this device documents data during an automobile crash: the date and time of the incident, as well as the vehicle speed, engine speed, throttle position, braking status, force of impact and which seatbelts were buckled at the time. They're already found in many newer model cars and may be getting more common — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing that all automakers equip their cars with these devices starting in September 2014.
    You still can't buy a self-driving car, although prototypes exist. You can, however, benefit now from adding advanced safety features.

    See how well your current vehicle measures up with the Liberty Mutual car safety score and crash test ratings tools.