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The top five vehicle safety innovations


December 6, 2013
By Dave Brown

by Dave Brown

There have been many advancements in safety since automobiles first hit the roads more than a century ago. Some, such as anti-lock brakes, are huge technological advances that prevent accidents every day but it’s hard to gauge their significance on actual lives saved. Others, such as the 1970s fuel crisis, saved many lives by keeping millions of people off the highways but are not really technical innovations.

While some of us at may seem like we have been driving for a good portion of those hundred years, we were not present for the invention of fire (honest!) but have seen some amazing innovations. Here’s a list of what we consider the top safety features invented since they did away with the actual horse part of horsepower:

{5. Airbags:} These have a special place in my heart as they probably saved a family member’s life in one of the very first documented crashes of an airbag-equipped police vehicle. Hit in the middle of an intersection by a vehicle being pursued by another unit, the officer remembers only a loud bang and then dust floating in the air. The hours it took emergency crews to cut him out of the wreckage – without a scratch – were probably spent thinking of the best way to explain to the chief how he had just wrecked a brand new cruiser not even a week old. I can imagine the phone call went something like, “Good news chief! The airbags work!”

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{4. Seatbelts:} The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that airbags saved approximately 8,000 lives in a ten-year period from 1991 to 2001 in the United States. It is estimated that seat belts saved over 109,000 lives on US streets and highways over the same period.

Before seatbelts can save lives, of course, they must be worn. This is why they are only #4 on our ascending list of top safety innovations. Most Canadian police officers will attest to the fact that the one overwhelming factor in non-fatal versus fatal single-vehicle accidents is the wearing of seatbelts.

{3. Crush zones:) Bump into another car in a mall parking lot today and, no matter how slowly you are going, you could easily do $1,500 in damage. Years ago, vehicles were made a lot stronger and heavier. The problem was, of course, that the human occupants became the crush zones in an accident. Modern car designs and the increasing standards for occupant protection may result in the car being destroyed but the people inside getting to walk away. Personally, I think that is an easy trade off.

{2. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems:} The difference between airbags, seatbelts and crush zones and stability control systems is that the former three help prevent serious injuries in an accident. The latest ESC technology is designed to prevent the accident from happening in the first place. The NHTSA estimates widespread availability of ESC in all new cars could save as many as 10,000 lives every year. Mandated since 2012, they use a sophisticated system of computers and sensors to detect when a driver may be losing control and selectively apply brakes to one or more of the four wheels to help maintain control. They don’t stop stupid people from doing something really, really stupid, but they are probably the greatest ever advancement in car technology.

ESC is still new technology in most vehicles; many of the sensors may be sophisticated but still use a lot of old school technology. If any sensor fails, even momentarily, it completely disables the entire system. has learned of at least one instance of a dealer threatening to disallow a warranty claim for a faulty sensor because a cursory scan of the freeze frame data in the computer showed wildly differing readings between the yaw sensor and the steering wheel position sensor. Thinking that the vehicle must have rolled after a violent skid, they didn’t bother to consider a brand new vehicle without the slightest scratch on it just might have a faulty sensor. Thankfully, the customer went to another dealership.

Until the sensor technology catches up to the promise, we will have to live with the fact that when a failure is detected, the fix may be as simple as restarting the vehicle. The other issue is that the stability control system necessarily includes traction control and anti-locking brakes. Police vehicles generally have special traction control programming that allows a certain amount of wheel spin but regular vehicles don’t. If your new car has traction control, I highly recommend you practice with it rather than being suddenly caught short by a significant lack of acceleration when entering a highway from a gravel road.

{1. Traffic enforcement: All of the above may save many lives but pale in comparison to an active traffic enforcement program. You need to get eyes and cars on the streets, ticketing people for doing stupid stuff. Police agencies are finding they cannot delegate traffic enforcement to red light cameras and photo radar. Those may serve to increase revenue and reduce right-angle collisions at the immediate intersections where they are installed but don’t affect traffic safety as much as police officers actively patrolling the streets.

Some officers don’t like doing traffic enforcement, but others see it as what my publisher often describes as the “pristine beauty of traffic.” Stopping a driver has an immediate impact on behaviour – not to mention that many serious crimes have been solved by the seemingly simple traffic stop.

If one doesn’t appreciate the need for good traffic enforcement in their community, tell them to take a (long) walk – frequently, as I do. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t have to almost leap out of the way as drivers insist on stopping two inches into a controlled intersection instead of behind where the pedestrians are or will be.

All the airbags, seatbelts, crush zones and technology in the world won’t do anything to save a pedestrian’s life if a driver is speeding, texting, running red lights, not paying attention or just plain driving like an idiot.


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