Your Next Car Should Save Lives

Photo by Derrick Coetzee, 2005

utomobile accidents are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents under the age of 20 in the US — causing over 4,000 deaths in 2016. As sad as that unfortunate statistic may be, behind it hides stories of indescribable grief and guilt. Consider the following three accidents that occurred within the past year:

As students returned to school in the new year, a Missouri patrol office pulled her SUV onto a sidewalk near a high school to monitor school buses loading and accidentally struck and killed a four-year-old child.

A Colorado woman taking her older children to school one morning accidentally backed over her two-year-old daughter with a pickup truck killing the child.

On Easter Sunday, a Californian mother drove her SUV over her two-year-old daughter as the child ran around the far side of the vehicle hidden from view. The child died.

What makes tragedies like these all the more painful is that many fatal low-speed accidents could be prevented with an available technology — automatic emergency braking (AEB).

The history of automotive safety has shown slow and steady improvement over time. Various safety technologies are introduced to the market and some eventually become mandatory safety equipment as the evidence of their benefit becomes widely accepted. As with most technology, the rate of change has increased with time. It has been fifty years since modern seat belts became required safety equipment in US cars. Air bags became standard equipment in 1998. Anti-lock braking systems and electronic stability control have been mandated since 2012. The next major safety improvement appears to be AEB — a system that uses sensors to detect objects around the vehicle coupled with a computer that applies the vehicle’s brakes without driver action if a crash is imminent. Steady improvement in the technology has resulted in systems that can substantially decrease the rate and severity of collisions with stationary objects, other moving vehicles, and even pedestrians. In particular, many low-speed accidents can be prevented entirely.

The technology is so promising and cost-effective that, in 2016, twenty automakers representing 99 percent of the US automotive market voluntarily agreed to make AEB a standard safety feature in most vehicles by 2022. Earlier this month, 40 countries under the umbrella of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe went a step further and agreed to make low-speed AEB systems mandatory in 2020. The National Transportation Safety Board’s 2019–2020 “Most Wanted List” of the top-ten safety priorities includes increasing the use of collision avoidance systems on all new vehicles.

Given the nearly universal agreement that AEB is essential safety equipment, consumers currently considering a new vehicle should only buy one equipped with an AEB system — preferably one with both forward and rear collision sensors and pedestrian detection. Several automakers already offer standard AEB on a majority of their new models, so there are plenty of options at all price ranges.

Like most safety equipment, one hopes to never need it, but a simple decision now when buying a new car could prevent yet another unnecessary tragedy.

Exploring the intersection of science, technology, and society • Dangerous Science ➜ https://doi.org/10.5334/bci

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