Will high-tech auto features pay big safety dividend?

Will the latest crop of high-tech auto features pay a huge safety dividend? That's the hope of the hard-headed number crunchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety the killjoys who have voiced skepticism about the real-world advantages of such earlier advances as antilock brakes.

I looked into the IIHS data for today's Tech Life column on cutting-edge auto technology, and was amazed at what I found.  As an infrequent shopper for new cars, I hadn't kept close tabs on all the recent advances that are slowly making their way into high-end cars.

In a study last year, IIHS estimated that four new technologies alone forward-collision-warning systems, lane-departure-warning systems, blind-spot-warning systems and "adaptive headlights" that adjust as a car turns could prevent or mitigate nearly one-third of the annual toll of passenger-vehicle crashes.

The study was based on data from 2008, when there were a total of 5.8 million such crashes reported to police in the United States, including 698,000 that caused injuries and 33,035 that caused deaths. It says the four technologies, if installed on all passenger vehicles, could prevent or lessen the severity of 1.9 million of those crashes  including 10,238 of the fatal crashes.

I asked Russ Rader, a spokesman for the institute, what that meant. Could these safety features and crash-avoidance systems really make such a crucial difference?

"If everything worked perfectly, as advertised, you could potentially save 10,000 lives," he says. "That’s the potential in a perfect world. But we know the world’s not perfect."

The systems have differing kinds of effects. Frontal-crash warnings, or even the automatic-braking system offered in some Volvos, would avert or mitigate 1.2 million crashes, by far the largest fraction, and avert or lessen the harm from 66,000 crashes that cause injury. But they would only save 879 lives, perhaps because such crashes are well-guarded against by seatbelts and airbags, and perhaps because they happen in front of a driver who is more likely to take defensive steps like slamming on the brakes.

The biggest bang in reducing fatal crashes, the study says, would come from installation of lane-depature-warning systems, which could prevent head-on collisions on two-lane roads and other crashes that occur at higher speeds. Lane-departure warnings would affect 37,000 injury crashes and 7,529 that involved fatalities.

You can see the whole study here.  One other intriguing finding gives a boost to technology that Volvo has introduced: a system that scans the area in front of a car, identifies objects that are pedestrians (a harder technological task than you might think), and can slow or even stop a car that's traveling under 20 m.p.h.  The study says that "systems that can detect pedestrians or bicyclists" could prevent or mitigate an additional 80,000 nonfatal injury crashes and 4,754 fatal crashes each year. (It doesn't evaluate the potential value of drowsiness-alert systems, though lane-departure warnings would presumably affect some of the same incidents.)

What's the potential for unintended consequences from these systems? The answer isn't clear, of course, since systems engineers do their utmost to identify all possible consequences. Except at slow speeds, none of the new systems on the market do anything close to seizing control of a car's systems.

"Our philosophy is the safest piece of equipment in there is the driver," Dan Barile of Mercedes told me as we discussed Mercedes' new systems to protect drivers from the perils of blind spots, lane departures, and drowsiness. "We try to give the driver as much control as possible."

Rader says antilock brakes are a cautionary tale. "ABS is the poster child for a feature that everyone touted as the next big thing, but it fell flat out on the road," he says.  They work as promised on the test track, but they don't seem to cut down on insurance claims. You can read IIHS's Q&A on the subject here one theory it mentions is that despite the users' manuals and years of advice from experts, many drivers still don't know how to use antilock brakes. Some studies have shown that many drivers still pump their brakes.

My own pet theory and I'm not alone in this centers on what insurers call "moral hazard," which suggests that if you're at least partly protected from a risk, you may be more likely to take that and undermine the value of the protection

I've seen it myself, as I cruise the snow- and ice-covered streets of my Philadelphia neighborhood.  With antilock brakes, I no longer worry about the hazards I learned years ago: fishtailing, or skidding sideways as I try to stop.  My car or minivan stays straight, and eventually comes to a stop. And here's my confession of moral hazard: I'm no longer as wary or ice and snow as I once was, so I may be nearly as prone to rear-ending another car as ever. (Since I'm cautious in general, that doesn't tend to happen.)

Will I skip turning my head and acting cautiously during lane changes if I have blid-spot protection? I hope not, because if that happens and the system isn't perfect, I could have a lot worse than a fender-bender at a stop sign.  But it's hard not to see these new technologies as exactly what the experts say they are: genuine life-savers that we all should welcome into the mix of auto technology.