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New technologies improve auto safety

DETROIT -- Called the Kanagawa project, automakers in Japan are studying a system that alerts drivers to the presence of children in a busy urban neighborhood.

As part of the experiment, Nissan Motor Corp. is placing bracelets on young children that relay signals to vehicles in the area. Drivers passing through are told, "Children nearby, please be careful."

The Nissan project, like others in the auto industry, reflect the increased focus on developing ways of preventing crashes and fatalities. From the stages of the North American International Auto Show, new "pre-crash" safety technologies are emerging that target the crucial milliseconds before a crash or help drivers avoid the crashes in the first place.

In the United States, more than 43,000 people die annually on roadways -- the equivalent of an airplane crashing every day with nearly 120 people aboard -- and fatality numbers have remained largely steady for the past two decades.

Safety officials have improved restraint systems such as seat belts and air bags to the point that many believe more research should be focused on the pre-crash systems that help tell the driver and the vehicle when a crash is imminent.

In addition to the basic restraints, most vehicles now have antilock brakes and automakers have been putting anti-rollover technology such as electronic stability control on vehicles in recent years. The government has proposed mandating stability control on all new vehicles by 2012.

"Safety is not a static concept and our approach to improving it cannot be static either," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said Monday.

Reflecting the advancements, Peters announced plans to upgrade the consumer crash test program to take into account electronic stability control, lane departure warnings and other technologies.

At Detroit's auto show, the interest in advanced safety measures was apparent.

Volvo introduced an XC60 crossover concept with a radar system that monitors vehicles about 20 feet in front of the car. When a collision is likely, the technology helps the driver avoid a crash by automatically activating the car's brakes.

Volvo, a division of Ford, is expected to introduce the technology on vehicles in two years.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz division offers advanced safety features on its ultra-luxury vehicles, the S-Class. One uses long-range and short-range radar to avoid crashes by automatically hitting the brakes if the driver fails to stop in time.

Another feature, called Night View Assist, uses infrared beams to detect roadway obstructions far beyond the headlights' reach and transmits an image on the instrument panel.

General Motors has been developing vehicle-to-vehicle technology, which helps vehicles communicate with other vehicles up to a quarter mile away to alert each other to dangerous conditions.

Bob Lange, GM's executive director for structure and safety integration, said the network could be effective even without a large penetration in the marketplace.

"Essentially, in one or two model years, if GM were to decide to do that, you could have enough cars on the roadway, in some areas anyway, where the communications would be pretty valuable," Lange said.

Ford has experimented with using four-point seat belts, similar to belts used by race car drivers, and inflatable seat belts -- seat belts with small air bags inside that deploy in a crash.

The Nissan program, also called the "Sky project," has received positive responses from drivers, who typically slowed down when they received the warnings about children.

Many safety experts say the advancements are mostly limited to luxury vehicles right now, but should be more widely available in the next five years.

David Champion, Consumer Reports' senior director of its automotive test center, said many question marks still remain on the technologies, because drivers do not always react in a positive way to the warning systems.

"What we've seen is unless they have a visual confirmation that something's going on they tend to ignore the warnings," Champion said.


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