Exclusive: New Technology Successful in Reducing Severity of Car Crashes

Study says high-tech features in car could prevent nearly 10,000 fataliies a yr.

ByABC News
September 9, 2009, 6:36 AM

Sept. 10, 2009— -- 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.