Use Driver Assists, but Rely on Good Judgment
Technologies such as blind-spot detection can help prevent accidents but are never a substitute for driver awareness.
Cars are unquestionably safer these days, and automakers have reached a pinnacle with passive safety systems such as seat belts and airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that seat belts saved 147,246 lives between 1975 and 2001 and that airbags saved 8,369 lives from 1987 to 2001.
More recently, “crumple zones” built into a vehicle’s frame to absorb impact and structural barriers made of high-strength steel further shield occupants from the effects of a crash. Such passive safety systems have helped lead to a historic low in traffic fatalities: In 2010, the number of people who died in traffic accidents fell to the lowest level since 1949, according to NHTSA, despite a substantial increase in miles driven.
The evolutionary next step in making vehicles safer is through active safety technology, collectively known as driver-assist systems, designed to keep accidents from occurring in the first place. Using sophisticated cameras, sensors and processors, driver-assist systems keep watch for hazards that a driver may not notice, and some even take action such as automatically applying the brakes in order to avoid an accident.
While driver-assist systems started out being available only on high-end cars, they’ve started to trickle down to more modestly priced vehicles. One of the most prevalent is blind-spot monitoring, which uses cameras and sensors to detect vehicles in a car’s "no-see-'em" zone and warns the driver with audible and visual alerts. Honda recently unveiled a feature called LaneWatch that uses a camera in the passenger-side exterior mirror to show the driver a wide-angle view on an 8-inch in-dash display of what’s on his right-hand side when the turn signal is activated.
According to a recent survey commissioned by Ford, nearly six in 10 respondents blame blind spots for accidents or near collisions. But some argue that driver-assist technology causes drivers to become lazy and less aware of their surroundings, and instead to rely on a car's electronics rather than their own judgment.
Most drivers never give much thought to their side mirrors and adjusting them. In a recent press release, adhesive manufacturer Permatex offered advice on the proper way to adjust side mirrors -- before starting to drive. For the driver's side mirror, place the side of your head against the window and adjust the mirror until the side of your vehicle comes into view. To adjust the passenger's side mirror, while sitting in the driver's seat, lean to the right so that your head is in the car's centerline. Adjust the mirror until the side of your vehicle comes into view.
If your car doesn’t have blind-spot monitoring or you don’t want to pay extra for the option, several automakers offer side mirrors with a small section that’s designed to highlight a blind spot. Of course, you can also easily add an aftermarket blind-spot mirror. And a Drexel University mathematics professor recently received a patent for a subtly curved side-view mirror that he says dramatically increases the field of view for a driver, with minimal visual distortion -- an invention that he says was inspired by a disco ball.
While technology can help, you should never rely solely on it to keep you safe while driving. It should never be a substitute for properly adjusting your side mirrors so you can see what’s around you -- and being aware of your surroundings and always paying attention to what is going on around you while behind the wheel.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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