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Top 10 Safety SystemsNotes From the Road

Top 10 Safety Systems - Lifesaving motoring developments
By Joe Hollingsworth /

This year about 42,500 people, give or take 1,000, will die in traffic accidents in the U.S. Though terrible, it could be a lot worse. Without the advances on our following list of Top 10 Safety Systems, the per-mile death rate might be the same as 1966. That would mean more than 160,000 would be killed. This year and next year—and the next. And 1966 was far from the worst for per-mile fatalities.

10. Quick-Response Emergency Care
Of the 6 million vehicle crashes each year in the U.S., only about 0.6 percent result in fatalities. Part of the reason: When skilled emergency workers quickly stabilize crash victims and rapidly transport them to advanced trauma centers, chances for survival increase dramatically.

9. Drunk-Driving Laws and Enforcement
In 1982, more than half of fatal accidents involved a drunk driver. Today, a third of deadly crashes involve a driver with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 or greater. State-by-state, punishment for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is getting tougher, but it's still minor compared to the long-term suffering that impaired drivers can cause others, and themselves.

8. Disc Brakes
A car should be able to stop better than it accelerates. That wasn't the case when drum brakes were widespread. A veteran car-magazine tester tells of a four-wheel-drum-brake-equipped car that could not perform three consecutive 60-0 mph stops. On the final attempt, the drums overheated and faded so badly that the car just coasted to a stop. Those of us who experienced the bad old days of drum brakes recall similar sickening feelings: Descending a mountain grade, negotiating deep water, or stopping from high speed caused drums to unconditionally surrender. Associated advances include dual brake master-cylinders, which retain some stopping power when part of the system fails, and ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), which maximizes the benefits of brakes that can overpower tires. ABS would have its own place on this list except for one flaw: drivers. They don't use it effectively.

7. Pneumatic, Steel-Belted, Radial Tires
The only thing that allows accident-avoidance systems to function are the four hand-sized areas of rubber touching the road. Without good tires, useless are disc brakes, ABS, ESC (Electronic Stability Control), and nimble suspension. Seventy-five years ago, a grandmother's 60-mile journey required the replacement of more than a half-dozen cut or blown tires. Thirty-five years back, bias-ply tires failed far less frequently, but traction—wet or dry—was poor. Today's tires are grippy, long-lived, and abuse- and neglect-resistant—to a degree. Frequently check your tires' air pressure.

6. Deformable Structure
Imagine a driver runs a stoplight directly into your path. It's not a bad crash, except that your hood detaches and slices back through the passenger compartment like a guillotine. Or the steering column spears through your chest. Before engineers focused on making cars crashworthy, such bloody occurrences were common. Today, deformable structure absorbs the energy of a crash without transmitting it to the occupants. Included in this category is laminated safety glass, perhaps the first automotive safety system.

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