New vehicles safer than ever

Not so long ago, much of the technology that’s aimed at saving lives was reserved for those lucky enough to have the money to purchase a higher-priced ride. Today, thanks to a steady trickle-down of technology, three key safety features are available to those shopping the affordable end of the automotive price ladder – entry-level automobiles priced as low as $20,000. This is typically where younger drivers spend their hard-earned coin.

Perhaps the biggest step forward since the advent of the turn signal is the addition of anti-lock brakes. The need for this system and its operating logic is simple – the objective is to prevent the wheels from locking up during a panic stop. The reason it is such an important safety aid is that the driver retains steering control when the wheels are prevented from locking up. In an emergency, hammer the brake pedal and let the system do the stopping. This allows the driver to focus on avoiding a potential collision. If a crash cannot be avoided, steering away from the incident reduces the impact forces – a glancing blow is much easier on the car and its occupants than a head-on crash.

Most anti-lock systems also include something called brake assist (BA). This extension gives the system the ability to recognize when the driver is making a panic stop. Now, rather than waiting for the driver to build up maximum braking effort, BA applies full pressure the instant it sees a rapid, forceful pedal application. In a panic stop, the precious milliseconds saved shortens the stopping distance by anywhere between 20 per cent and 45 per cent, depending upon the study. Given that a car travels five car lengths every second when travelling at highway speeds, shaving just one-fifth of a second off the stopping time is the difference between a near miss and a crash.

More recently, electronic stability control, or ESP, has moved down market – it is also known as VSA, VSC, StabiliTrak, AdvanceTrac and so on. The acronym means little, as all of these systems use basically the same technology. It uses the anti-lock brakes and modulates the throttle (most cars now feature a drive-by-wire throttle) in an attempt to counter understeer or oversteer.

For example, if the car begins to understeer in a left-hand corner, the system applies the left rear brake. This action counters the understeer by physically turning the car into the corner. Think of it as being akin to steering a canoe – dipping an oar in the water on the left side of a canoe turns it in that direction. Simple.

If the car begins to oversteer, applying one of the rear brakes would do little because the rear tires have already lost traction. However, when the tail begins to swing out to the right, applying the right front brake counters the wayward tendency. In many cases, ESP recognizes the fact the car is about to or is beginning to slide out of control and takes corrective action before the driver actually picks up on the problem.

The hard numbers tell the ESP story: According the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the U.S., ESP reduces all fatal crashes by 43 per cent, and there’s a 56 per cent reduction in fatal single-vehicle crashes. NHTSA adds this sobering statistic – ESP also reduces the risk of rollover by 71 per cent for passenger cars and a staggering 84 per cent for SUVs. The good news is that electronic stability control will be mandated on all passenger cars and light-duty trucks as of Sept. 1, 2011 (essentially all 2012 models).

One word of caution: ESP cannot counter bad driving. Trample on the basic laws of physics and not even this advanced system can save the day.

The third technology is less glamorous, but it is just as important – Bluetooth. This device allows the driver to pair a hand-held cellular phone with the car, which allows the driver to make and receive calls without having to touch the phone.

A microphone picks up the driver’s voice, while the audio system’s speakers act as the earpiece. The need is as simple as the technology itself – more jurisdictions are mandating hands-free cellphone operation. Ontario joined the hands-free revolution this October, although it will not begin ticketing until February 2010.

Again, the numbers tell the story. Yakking on a cellphone is the cause of almost 25 per cent of all crashes. More scary is that 21 per cent of all fatal crashes involving teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 were the result of cellphone usage. Texting is an even more dangerous practice: For every six seconds of drive time, the driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 seconds with his or her eyes away from the road. Think about that for a second – the texter spends three times longer staring at a keypad than watching for changing road conditions. Talk about a crash in the making.

Photograph by: Miguel Villagran