In most car accidents it is often the driver who messes up -- they weren't paying attention, didn't react quickly enough, drove too fast -- but what if the car itself could react when the driver fails to do so?
New automotive technology on the road today could reduce car crashes by as much as one-third, according to the findings of an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study obtained exclusively by ABC News.
The report reveals that new crash avoidance technology is becoming more effective in protecting passengers in a number of different kinds of crashes, including severe frontal crashes, the most common fatal accident. Equipping vehicles with this technology could result in the prevention or reduced severity of as many as 32 percent of the 5.8 million crashes that occur annually.
Each year, there are nearly 700,000 automobile accidents that result in injury. Approximately 148,000, or 21 percent, could be mitigated by these technologies; of the 33,035 fatal accidents annually, as many as 31 percent could be prevented or have an altered outcome, as revealed by this new study.
"Human behavior has always been the main problem in motor vehicle crashes," IIHS President Adrian Lund told ABC News.
The new crash avoidance technologies range from features that offer the driver a visual or audio alert signaling he or she should take corrective action to avoid an imminent accident, to more active measures that allow the car's computer to intervene and apply the brakes to prevent a collision.
The safety systems include forward collision warning, which alerts a driver to brake more quickly when he or she is closing in on a car ahead; blind spot detection to make drivers aware of vehicles in adjacent lanes; headlights that map to the steering wheel so that they adjust as the car turns; and lane departure warning, which alerts the driver if the vehicle is drifting off of the road unintentionally. Such advanced innovations even take into account driver distraction.
"This is the game changer," said Stephen Kozak, Ford Motor Company's global safety chief engineer, who has been with the company for 33 years. "We've now moved from inside the vehicle, where seatbelts and airbags were doing all the work, to outside the vehicle with sensor technology that allows us to avoid the accident rather than protecting once an accident has happened.
"The potential of these new active safety features is even greater than anything airbags and seatbelts can do alone," he added.
The institute breaks down its findings by type of technology. Of the nearly 180,000 annual crashes that could possibly be prevented by lane departure warning systems, almost 40,000 injuries could be mitigated. When examining the effects of forward collision warning on 1.2 million accidents per year, 66,000 injuries and 742 fatal accidents could potentially be averted. Blind zone detection could impact nearly 400,000 accidents a year, helping to mitigate more than 20,000 injuries, while adaptive headlights have the potential to effect 142,000 collisions annually and prevent nearly 2,500 fatal crashes.
IIHS computes its statistics by examining the way the technology functions in relation to what types of accidents occur on a regular basis.
To demonstrate the evolution of automotive technology, IIHS gave ABC News exclusive access to a head-on collision test between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu on Wednesday at a center outside of Charlottesville, Va. The automobiles were among the best-selling models produced by Chevrolet in the late '50s and 2009 respectively.
The Chevy Bel Air and its driver were decimated after smashing into the Malibu, both traveling 40 miles an hour at impact. The Malibu interior, however, remained largely intact. The Malibu's dummy had something his friend in the other car lacked -- a seatbelt and airbag.
Manufacturers Implement New Technology
The institute's test was presented as a graphic illustration of how many miles we've traveled in auto safety. A second message was that now the industry is poised for another big leap forward.
"Not only are there going to be fewer collisions, fewer claims for neck injuries, front-to-rear collisions," said IIHS president Lund, "it is actually going to make traffic flow more smoothly because one of the main problems in commuter traffic is the crash that occurred earlier -- that they waited for the police to come, so they backed up traffic."
The study released Wednesday is consistent with the findings of a 2008 IIHS report on crash avoidance which asserted that forward collision warning and lane departure warning systems have the most potential to mitigate collisions.
Volvo, which has built its reputation on safety, has implemented a new technology in its XC60 SUV called "city safety," a system for preventing low-speed collisions on roads congested with traffic. According to Volvo, surveys suggest that 75 percent of collisions occur at speeds of about 19 miles per hour or less. The city safety system is geared toward preventing or lessening the number of accidents that occur at that speed.
Dependent on laser sensor monitors, city safety can sense when the vehicle in front of the SUV abruptly stops and if the brakes are not applied immediately by the driver, the car will automatically activate the brakes. Of course the laser technology also has its limitations. It can be obscured by precipitation and other factors.
The new Infiniti M performance luxury sedan, set to go on the market in Spring 2010, will offer several protective features, including a side-collision-prevention system to alert the driver if a vehicle is detected in his or her blind spot.
While the technology is most prevalent in luxury vehicles, some features now are being offered in more mainstream vehicles such as the 2010 Ford Taurus.
"This is the way new technology always enters," Lund said. "Because it is expensive to develop new technology, it comes in the most expensive vehicles, because they can recoup the development costs quickly.
"But when it is popular, when it works, and people want it," he added, "then you see it move into subsequent, less-expensive vehicles until it is standard equipment. "
The Taurus has optional safety equipment, including a radar that reaches out 325 feet in front of the vehicle to warn the driver if he or she is getting too close to another automobile.
"Ford Motor Company is going to democratize our technologies -- and the idea is that we take the same technologies and cascade it across our lines of vehicles," Kozak told ABC News. "The new 2010 Taurus has three radars available, one in the front that is forward collision warning with brake support, and two radars -- one in each corner in the back -- that are for blind spot information and cross traffic alert."
Kozak said the radar warning, which issues an audio alert or turns on a dashboard light that is also projected onto the windshield -- can be the "difference between life and death."
The Future of High-Tech Systems
As a trend, the number of traffic fatalities per miles driven is declining, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2008, traffic fatalities hit their lowest level since 1961, and preliminary data reported by the Federal Highway Administration revealed that deaths registered for the first quarter of 2009, showed a nine percent decline compared to fatalities in the first quarter of last year.
What is contributing to this decline? One factor is that people are traveling fewer miles. The primary causes for car accidents are reckless and negligent driving. While laser sensors and automatic brakes cannot omit all of the effects of reckless driving, IIHA's findings indicate the new high-tech features could help prevent a large percentage of crashes. As more vehicles are equipped with this technology, the goal is that these systems will contribute to safer driving.
"I think we have a system that will draw customer acceptance and once we get a customer to buy the stuff and they understand the importance, it will be like buying a car without air conditioning, or without power windows," said Kozak. "I think it's that kind of importance."
One big unknown, however, is how people will react to these systems and if, ultimately, the technology will positively affect a driver's safety.
"Some of these are going to be very effective technologies, we think, but we just don't know which ones or whether they are being implemented in the best way," said Lund. "For this to work, you have to give warnings that people can respond to and will respond quickly."
Another potential risk is that the advanced safety system could cause people to pay less attention on the road.
"If people get used to this technology taking care of them, they might start paying less attention, thinking they can drive faster, that they don't have to obey speed limit, that the car would take care of them," said Lund. "That would lead to a big problem."
Only time will tell.