Speaking to a crowd of state and national traffic officials at the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) annual meeting in San Diego, Calif., David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said technological advances are the biggest hope for decreasing the number of traffic deaths resulting from “booze, belts and error.”
Traffic fatalities have been steadily declining since the 1980s. According to NHTSA, there were 32,367 vehicular deaths in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Comparing that to numbers from the 1970s and 80s, decades that saw traffic deaths frequently top 50,000 per year, that number is quite low.
While overall traffic fatalities have dropped, the percentage of “booze, belts and error” accidents are stubbornly unchanged. There are often multiple factors leading to a car accident, and about 50 percent of fatalities still occur because the passenger wasn’t wearing a seat belt. About 33 percent of fatalities occur because of an impaired driver, and about 90 percent happen because of driver error.
Safety tech on the way
Strickland outlined three new safety technologies that he thinks will drastically reduce these kinds of crashes. He wants to see these funded, tested and ultimately implemented into our vehicles in order to achieve what he called, “safety with no or little input from the driver.” In other words, safety provided by the car itself. These technologies are:
1. Seat belt interlocks
Seat belt interlocks aren’t a new technology. In fact, they were first implemented due to a NHTSA mandate back in 1974. The basic idea behind them was pretty simple: The car could not be started unless the driver and front seat passenger (if there was one) had buckled their seat belts.
Unfortunately, the technology was a good deal ahead of its time when it first appeared, and was also rife with flaws. For instance, sensors on the passenger seat could be triggered by heavier bags or other cargo, causing the driver to need to buckle the passenger belt in order to start the car. There was nothing to prevent someone from unbuckling after the car had started. And people didn’t take very kindly to being forced by the government into doing something they didn’t want to do. After harsh public outcry, interlocks were quickly scrapped and outlawed.
Administrator Strickland, however, thinks that the time is ripe to bring them back. With huge advances in in-car computers and sensors since 1974, along with a law change that may allow manufacturers to voluntarily install interlock systems as a way of complying with the occupant safety standard, the seat belt interlock could soon see a renaissance.
2. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS)
This one is a little controversial. This technology would essentially turn your car into a roving breathalyzer test. If a device in the car sensed that you had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit, the engine simply wouldn’t start.
As of now, this technology doesn’t really exist in any kind of workable form, though funds have been put towards developing it. It has its share of opponents. Critics argue that adding it to cars would essentially end social drinking in the U.S., mostly because the cars would have to be set to shut down when the driver has a BAC much lower than the nationwide .08% limit.
“Our main complaint is that (the in-car systems) will not be set at .08%,” Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute (ABI), told USA Today back in 2012. “It will have to be set lower, because after five drinks, your BAC level is not .08 right away. It will increase, and cross the legal threshold while you’re driving. The vehicle can’t just shut down mid-trip. So, for legal and liability reasons, it will have to be set below .08. We believe they will set it around .02 or .03.”
Still, Administrator Strickland has proposed developing the technology quickly in order to combat the appallingly high number of fatalities on the road resulting from intoxicated drivers. He said that by early next year, a research vehicle with two different approaches to measuring BAC — touch-based and breath-based — will be ready.
3. Forward Collision Avoidance and Mitigation (FCAM)
This crash avoidance category includes safety features like crash imminent braking and pedestrian protection, and is already in use on cars from manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. Using sophisticated systems that employ sensors and technology that allow the car to react much faster than the human driver, vehicles can avoid crashes with objects, other cars and people on the street that would have otherwise occurred as a result of human error.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class, for instance, will sense pedestrians or cross-traffic and automatically increase brake pressure to avoid a collision. With the inclusion of the Pre-Safe Plus system, the E-Class will also automatically tighten seat belts and apply more brake pressure in the event of a rear end collision, helping to mitigate injury to the driver and passengers, as well as further vehicular damage by preventing the car from sliding into another vehicle.
Strickland said he wants this technology to see speedy adoption into the fleet. Making this a priority means that NHTSA will be able to put more resources towards ensuring the systems are effective.
Administrator Strickland called for a three-year research and prioritization program to move these technologies forward — which he is calling the “Significant and Seamless Initiative” — in order to combat the amount of traffic fatalities that continue to be caused by belts, booze and errors.
With more funding and resources now going towards developing these new safety technologies, it’s conceivable that you’ll see them in your next car very soon.
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