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Kate on Cars February 2012 - Your Automobile - Knight in Shining Aluminum

by Kate Jonasse

A friend of mine was recently involved in a car accident – luckily she’s fine, a little shaken up, but fine. I can’t exactly say the same thing for her Prius, though – it was totaled by the insurance company, as is very common with Prius’s. It wasn’t her fault – apparently some road construction resulted in two green lights being seen from traffic coming from different directions, like that scene from The Italian Job. Some of her car’s safety features helped her to walk away from the collision unscathed.

Car manufacturers design cars with varying degrees of safety features. Some are designed into the structure, some are added on and optional. Let’s cover some basic car safety features:

1. Crumple Zones. These are designed into the way the entire automobile is built. A crumple zone is basically a zone of the vehicle that crumples (go figure) in order to protect the passengers. In a crash, a car decelerates very rapidly while the passengers inside are still moving forward due to momentum. The crumple zone helps slow down that deceleration by fractions of a second. That doesn’t sound like much, but every little bit counts when internal organs are involved.

2. Seat Belts. Every state except New Hampshire has seat belt laws for adults (after all, their state motto is Live Free or Die), and all 50 states require belts for children. Seat belts may save 10,000 lives and injuries per year in the U.S.. Seat belts have gotten more complex over the years, with adjustable shoulder strap heights and seat belt pre-tensioners. Pretensioners pull the seat belt tight to secure the passenger in a collision, almost instantly.

3. Airbags or SRS (Supplemental Restraint System). Airbags rely on seat belts holding the passengers securely in place. They can be unsafe if passengers are not wearing seat belts, and in no way are meant to take the place of seat belts. Always read the owner’s manual regarding what you need to do to be protected by the airbags – there are special precautions involving children and adults. Not all cars have airbags, and some have them in many locations, including inside doors and near the passengers’ heads in the roof area.

4. Head Restraints. Those pony-tail messer-uppers aren’t necessarily designed for comfort, they are there to keep your head from flopping too far backwards in a collision. These are generally passive safety systems, but some high-line cars, like Mercedes-Benz, can have dynamic head restraints which move forward to help catch your head and neck sooner in a collision.

4. Anti-Lock Brakes. A hydraulic unit with complex valving is added to the brake fluid system. This unit is controlled by a computer, and the goal is to prevent the wheels from locking up during braking. When the wheel locks up, the vehicle is harder to control. Ask anyone driving a non-ABS car who has tried to slow down too quickly when going downhill in 6 inches of snow and ended up in a ditch. Yes, ABS can make a big difference.

These are just a few common safety features seen on cars these days. Some cars have many more - like Traction Control, Electronic Stability Control, and All-Wheel Drive - and some have only seat belts and head restraints. If you are unsure about what safety systems your car has, you can check out your owner’s manual or ask your repair technician.

It is important to monitor your vehicle’s instrument cluster for warning lights that relate to these systems. Vehicles equipped with air bags and anti-lock brakes have indicators in the dash (separate indicators, one for each system).  If one of these lights remains on more than a few seconds after starting, the car is telling you something is wrong and needs to be repaired. If a warning light remains on, that safety system may not be protecting you.

Due to human efforts – people wanting themselves and their children to be safer, and doing something about it – as well as improved technology, cars are safer than they were decades ago. But remember to use common sense and take safety precautions whenever you drive. These safety devices go a long way in protecting you and your loved ones, but they are no replacement for common sense.