Are Expensive Cars Really Safer?

Car Safety Features Matrix
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Are Expensive Cars Really Safer?

Picture in your mind two cars: the 2014 BMW 740i and the 1991 Ford Probe. One has a base price of $74,000 and features an array of the most advanced technology and safety features available, while the other retailed for just over $13,000 and came standard with an AM/FM stereo. One is the flagship model of the world’s most prestigious automobile manufacturer and the other is, well, a Ford Probe. Comparing these two cars is like comparing apples and orange flavored Tang, but the fact remains that they are both capable of barreling down the freeway at 90 mph and causing massive damage. The question is: does the extra cost of a luxury vehicle loaded with safety features really save lives, or is it purely a status symbol?

The State of Vehicle Safety

U.S. Auto Accident Fatality Rates graph

Car safety has evolved exponentially over the last 15 years. The Bluetooth wireless standard limits distraction by allowing drivers to make phone calls without fumbling for their mobile device. Adaptive cruise control combines convenience and safety by automatically adjusting cruising speed based on surrounding traffic. Emergency assistance contacts help during incidents ranging from a flat tire to a catastrophic car crash. These features were once optional, but now come standard on most vehicles. The aforementioned safety benefits are straightforward, but what about newer technologies like night vision and heads up displays? How about displaying speed limit info? Does it really curb speeding, or is it just a gimmick?

According to a study released in July of 2014, the Highway Loss Data Institute found that property damage liability claims were 14% lower and crashes were reduced by 10% in cars equipped with forward collision avoidance systems compared to similar models without autonomous braking. Adaptive headlights also showed their worth by reducing property damage claims by 10% and injury claims by up to 30% in some Mazda models. Other features like blind-spot-detection and parking-assist systems were tested, but no conclusive evidence was found. Some of these features only inhabit luxury models, but it is speculated that they will become as ubiquitous as the seat belt. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the auto accident fatality rate in the US has been dropping over the last decade for a number of reasons, presumably due in part to advanced safety technology.

Need For Speed

A mother driving her kids to their soccer game doesn't want to risk her family's ife, whie the man in the midst of a midife crisis might want to open up his new Porsche on the interstate.

Speeding is second only to alcohol in terms of fatal crash factors. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cites excessive speeding as the main factor in 30% of all traffic fatalities in 1998. Driving faster than the posted limit or too fast for conditions reduces driver reaction time and increases severity should an accident occur. While traveling at speeds above 50 mph, the crash force impact doubles with every 10 mph increase. Speed kills, but limiting this factor hinges on convincing the driver that putting the pedal to the metal to get to work on time is less important than getting to the office in one piece. There’s no technology that can eliminate the driver’s capacity for recklessness, but an active speed limit display can encourage responsible driving. Or at least show the driver that he’s always breaking the law.

When a driver decides what speed to travel at on a freeway, there are safety, social, monetary, and societal factors at work. A mother driving her kids to their soccer game doesn’t want to risk her family’s life, while the man in the midst of a midlife crisis might want to open up his new Porsche on the interstate. For many the overriding factor is not safety, but the fear of being punished by a speeding ticket. It’s a delicate balance between not frustrating drivers behind you and not attracting the attention of highway patrol in front of you. Many luxury car manufacturers like BMW, Mercedes, and Audi deliver up to date speed limit info directly to the dashboard of their cars in hopes that awareness of the posted speed limit translates to safer driving. No safety studies have been released to confirm this hypothesis, but at least speeders can’t plead ignorance when asked if they knew the posted speed limit.

Step Into The Light

The NHTSA states that 42% of all crashes and 58% of fatal crashes happen after dark, despite a lower volume of traffic. Automobile occupants are not the only ones at risk, as 67% of all pedestrian fatalities occur after the sun has set. Although alcohol, fatigue, and glare can be contributing factors in these accidents, reduced visibility is the preeminent cause for nighttime accidents. Nighttime drivers are essentially reliant on only their headlights to guide them down the road, illuminate obstacles, and provide enough reaction time to avoid hazards. The problem with with the low-beam setting for standard headlights is that when traveling at speeds above 45 mph, the automobile is at risk of out driving the reach of its headlights, drastically reducing visibility and reaction time. High beams provide an additional 100 feet of forward lighting, but are not always used because drivers do not want to blind oncoming traffic, are reluctant to continuously switch them on and off, or do not realize the safety benefits they provide.

Automatic high beams take the monotony out of turning the brights on and off and on again depending on incoming traffic. Automobiles equipped with this feature use an integrated camera to monitor ambient light and surrounding traffic to determine if high beams are appropriate for current conditions and safe for the eyes of oncoming drivers. Automatic high beams are intelligent too. BMW’s system can detect approaching traffic over half a mile away, while Porsche’s lights only activate at speeds above 37 mph so as not to blind city dwellers. Of course, it’s ultimately up to the human driver to determine when high beams are needed, but the automatic setting takes some of the guesswork out of the equation.

Night Rider

This feature works exactly how one might expect: oncoming pedestrians and animals are detected by an infrared or thermal camera and the driver is made aware of an impending coision through the navigation system.

Another tactic luxury car manufacturers are using to combat the perils of night driving is equipping their cars with night vision cameras. This feature works exactly how one might expect: oncoming pedestrians and animals are detected by an infrared or thermal camera and the driver is made aware of an impending collision through the navigation system, heads up display, or instrument cluster. Night vision in cars has had a fairly limited rollout, so testing and data is sparse for now. Early tests show that night vision systems are capable of detecting objects 500 feet away while average headlights only provide illumination up to 180 feet ahead. Night vision looks great on paper, but the driver must not only remember to activate the system, but also pay attention to it. The NHTSA did indicate, however, that drivers with cars equipped with night vision may be willing to drive faster at night, possibly leading to more accidents.

Night vision systems come in two flavors – passive and active.

  • Passive systems work by detecting thermal radiation, also known as heat, to identify joggers and deer alike. This type of night vision is useful for its range, but has trouble identifying inanimate objects due to their lack of heat emission.
  • Active night vision projects infrared light to illuminate the road ahead with greater range than high beams. This produces a clear picture of oncoming hazards, but does not work well in adverse weather conditions like snow and fog.

Manufacturers who offer this feature tend to be split between the technologies – Mercedes and Lexus use active systems while Audi and BMW go the passive route.

Heads Up!

Heads-up displays aim to reduce the statistic of 9 deaths and 1,060 injuries per day due to distracted driving by altering the way drivers deal with distractions.

The oldest and most sage safety advice for drivers is to keep one’s eyes on the road. As simple as this life saving tip is, many drivers are easily distracted by a number of things while driving including:

  • Cell Phones
  • Navigation Systems
  • Entertainment Controls

These distractions cannot be eliminated, but their impact can be mitigated by having information displayed closer to the driver’s line of vision. A head-up display (HUD) shows information like current speed, navigation instructions, or cruise control settings on the windshield instead of on a screen at the middle of the car. This keeps eyes on the road, or at least close to the road, in hopes of limiting distractions. Like many other advanced safety features, HUDs are primarily available in higher-end models like Cadillac, BMW, and Mercedes, but are becoming more widespread as their worth is proven. As the technology behind HUDs advances, so too do their applications. Real time traffic information, social media information, and augmented reality are a few of the features on the horizon for HUD systems of the future.

Distracted driving is one of the most deadly yet preventable classifications of accidents. There are three types of distractions for drivers:

  • Visual (taking eyes off the road)
  • Manual (taking hands off the wheel)
  • Cognitive (taking mind off driving)

Head-up displays aim to reduce the statistic of 9 deaths and 1,060 injuries per day due to distracted driving by altering the way drivers deal with distractions. If navigation instructions are displayed on the windshield, there’s no reason to fiddle with controls on the dashboard. When text messages are shown near the driver’s line of sight, he doesn’t need to take his hands off the wheel to locate a cell phone. A HUD can’t fully prevent cognitive distractions, but it can focus the driver’s attention on the most pressing information: the road ahead.

But What Does It All Mean?

All the car safety features in the world can’t compensate for human error and negligence. Until cars are self-driven, drivers will send emails while doing 85 mph, smash into deer on country roads, drive with their knees while applying makeup, and attempt to drink scalding hot coffee in crowded parking lots. Many luxury cars offer the tools to keep their passengers safe, but it’s up to the operators to utilize those features to make responsible decisions, whether they’re in a Dodge Dart or a Fisker Karma.

While safety features may be able to help in the event of an accident, they cannot prevent them all. If you’ve been injured and need a car or truck accident attorney in Dallas, contact The Benton Law Firm today at (214) 219-4878

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