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Notes From the Road

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

5. Airbags
Some estimates say airbags save 12,000 lives every year. They prevent you from smashing into steering wheels, A-pillars and other hard objects. Airbags also help stop basal skull fractures of the type that killed Dale Earnhardt. Current or "Second-Generation" airbags are "depowered" to cause less injury upon activation while still providing enough cushioning upon impact to reduce fatalities.

4. Limited-Access, Divided Highways
Dwight Eisenhower did more for traffic safety in the U.S. than any other single person. Motivated partially by the German autobahn system he experienced after World War II, Ike was a prime motivator for the Interstate highway system. When evaluated by miles driven, there are about 70 percent fewer fatalities on Interstates as on other roads. Nostalgia for the two-lane Route 66 escapes us when we remember either being stuck behind slow-moving trucks or scared witless when Dad was passing a long line of cars.

3. Stability Control
Computer-assisted Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is better than having racing greats Jeff Gordon or Michael Schumacher take the wheel in an emergency. Its purpose is to help a driver maintain control of his or her vehicle. ESC uses sensors to monitor variables such as wheel speed and vehicle direction. If the system determines that the vehicle is in danger of going out of the driver’s control, ESC manipulates the throttle and/or individual wheel brakes until it considers the danger to be gone. Stability control (called ESC, DSC, ESP, VSC, VSA, AdvanceTrac, Stabilitrak and other names) requires no driver action. That's good: In an emergency most drivers fail to do the right thing and cause themselves further damage or injury. ESC is not diplomatic immunity from the laws of physics. Ice, deep water, an under-inflated or worn tire, or entering a tight turn too fast can still result in a wreck. (Some imprecisely call ESC "anti-rollover" technology. The only way ESC can prevent a rollover is to keep the vehicle on the pavement. That's okay: Almost all rollovers are caused by running off the road or hitting something like a curb.)

2. Seatbelts
If you're not firmly affixed to the vehicle, nothing—not a NASCAR car or an Abrams M1A2 tank—will protect you in a crash. The government says seatbelts save about 15,000 lives a year. In recent years, the venerable seatbelt has enjoyed some timely updates. Pretensioners—some of which employ firework-like pyrotechnic charges—cinch the belts racecar-tight the instant the car's computer senses a crash. Load limiters—some built into the belts' webbing and stitching—soften the force. Still, some 7,000 people will die this year because they weren't wearing seatbelts. Again, buckle up.

1. Computers
Without powerful computers to assist vehicle design and manufacturing, and potent on-board miniature computers, we'd be driving underpowered, overweight, unreliable cars that spewed pollutants and did little to protect occupants. That reminds us again of 1966, or 1972. Without computers, ESC and ABS (along with a host of other driver aids) would not be possible and airbags wouldn't be as effective. However, there is one type of computer in every vehicle that fails with sickening regularity and can overwhelm other processors. Engineers call it the "organic software" or you, the driver. Drivers are the weakest link in the automotive safety system—and engineers are on the verge of inventing replacements.

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