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Can Smart Cars Save Lives?

'Intelligent vehicle' systems aim to cut car crashes, but some experts remain skeptics

SATURDAY, Dec. 29, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- When engineers talk about "intelligent vehicles," they don't mean that the car of the future will offer you a cup of java and engage you in witty conversation during your morning commute.

The idea of so-called "smart cars" is to use computers, radar, lasers and other advanced technologies to reduce the chances of collisions and make driving safer for you and your family.

While air bags, seat belts and other safety features help reduce death and injury in car crashes, engineers reason that preventing vehicles from slamming into each other or hitting other objects may be the ultimate solution.

Adaptive cruise control, stability control and night vision systems are examples of innovations that may drastically reduce the potential for accidents, says Dave Van Sickle, director of automotive and consumer information at the American Automobile Association's national office in Washington, D.C.

"It's a kind of incremental thing where it evolves every year just a little bit more and a little bit more," Van Sickle says.

He notes a few recently introduced examples of intelligent vehicle technology. One is adaptive cruise control. It's a radar device that senses the distance and speed of the car in front of you and adjusts the speed of your car so you don't get too close.

Another new technology is stability control. Van Sickle says a sensor detects when your car is going into a sideways skid and also senses the position of the steering wheel. The stability-control system automatically applies the brakes to correct the skid and make the car go in the direction dictated by the steering wheel.

"It's the next big thing with SUVs [sport utility vehicles] because of the tendency for SUVs to roll over when they get into a skid situation," Van Sickle says.

One decidedly futuristic device now available on some luxury cars is a night vision system that uses an infrared sensing device mounted in the front of the car's grille.

"When it gets dark and you can't see things down the road past the headlights, or off to the side [of the road] where the headlights don't shine, it will actually sense the infrared radiation from an object like a deer or a person walking along the edge of the road ... and will actually project that image on the windshield of the car," Van Sickle says.

He has tried it and says it's a remarkable system.

Van Sickle says some researchers are even striving for cars that will drive themselves and eliminate all possibility of crashes caused by people making mistakes.

"It would be great to take the human-error aspect out of it, but the logistics of making cars drive themselves are just mind boggling," he says.

But the people who do crash tests and provide safety ratings on cars aren't convinced intelligent vehicles do much to improve road safety.

"Many of these intelligent vehicle technologies may perform great on a test track, but they sometimes fall flat when they're in use on a real highway," says Russ Rader, director of media relations for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

He's not saying such technology shouldn't be developed and used, "but we inject some caution in terms of some of the wild claims that are made that these are somehow silver bullets that will reduce crashes by large percentages. There just presently is no evidence of that," Rader says.

He points to anti-lock brakes.

"That was one of the new technologies promised as part of the intelligent vehicle systems that hasn't really lived up to its hype," Rader says.

He says IIHS studies found anti-lock brakes provide almost no benefit in reducing crashes.

"We do know what does work in terms of reducing injuries and death," Rader says. That includes seat belts, air bags, enforcement of traffic laws, improved road designs and graduated licensing for new drivers.

What To Do

Traffic accidents are a major health issue. The U.S. Department of Transportation says 41,611 Americans died and 3,236,000 were injured in motor vehicle accidents last year. The total estimated societal cost of vehicle crashes in the United States is more than $150 billion annually.

For more information about car safety, go to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dave Van Sickle, director of automotive and consumer information, American Automobile Association, Washington, D.C.; Russ Rader, director of media relations, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.
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