Why Are Cars So Much Safer Than They Used to Be?

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At a time when it seems like all news is bad news, it’s worth celebrating a multi-year trend that’s largely flown under the radar: the long, steady decline in U.S. motor vehicle deaths.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the raw number of U.S. motor vehicle deaths declined from 44,525 in 1975 to 32,675 in 2014. Those figures actually understate the impact, as the U.S. population grew significantly during that time — the rate of highway fatalities, measured per 100,000 population, roughly halved.

The reasons for the decline in highway deaths are manifold. Advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose relentless lobbying resulted in the passage of strict state drunk driving laws and fomented a social backlash against driving under the influence, certainly deserve credit. So do better driver education practices and basic safety systems such as airbags and traction control.

The picture isn’t entirely rosy. Even as risky behaviors such as drunken driving become less common, new dangers are coming to the fore. As blogger Alex Perdikis notes, distracted driving — driving while texting, eating, applying makeup — kills thousands every year. One road death is one too many.

The dream of a day when driving is as safe as walking across the living room remains distant. But it no longer seems like a whimsical hallucination. Car companies in America and across the world are working on a raft of new safety systems and technologies proven to reduce crash frequency and save lives. Existing systems are getting better all the time, and new ones are constantly coming online. Let’s take a closer look at five reasons cars are safer than ever before — and why they’re likely to be even safer in the years to come.

1. Auto Braking

There’s still no substitute for keeping your eyes on the road, but auto braking can at least mitigate the consequences of a momentary lapse. Auto braking systems use sensors capable of detecting obstacles hundreds of feet ahead of a speeding vehicle. When a potentially dangerous impediment is detected, the system triggers the vehicle’s brakes to activate, hopefully stopping the vehicle short (or at least reducing the speed of impact).

2. Blind Spot Warning

Checking your blind spot (should) be reflexive, but it’s not always practiced (or practical). Blind spot warning systems activate when drivers try to turn into occupied lanes, reducing the risk of one of the most common causes of high-speed, multi-vehicle accidents.

3. Forward Collision Warning

It’s not quite as effective as auto braking, but forward collision warning has a similar effect — alerting drivers that there’s a potentially dangerous obstacle ahead, and hopefully prompting them to take action before impact. Forward collision warning systems are especially useful in low-visibility condition, when visual confirmation of an approaching obstacle often comes too late.

4. Lane Departure Warning and Prevention

Nothing combats distracted driving like lane departure warning and prevention systems — especially on high-speed, two-lane roads on which lane departure crashes can be catastrophic. Warning systems passively alert drivers that they’re about to leave their lane, while prevention systems actually nudge vehicles back into the proper track. Both systems are standard or optional on most late-model vehicles.

5. Rearview Camera and Cross Traffic Warning

Backing out of the driveway is a lot safer with rearview camera and cross traffic warning systems. Cameras help drivers see what’s behind them without craning their necks or squinting. They often include color-coded scales that illuminate approximate distance in the display, plus alerts that tell drivers when they’re about to hit something. Cross traffic warning systems alert drivers when vehicles or pedestrians are about to pass behind them, hopefully triggering a preventive response.