Generally speaking, America's roads are safer than ever. Traffic fatality rates have hit historic lows, and that's due in part to the vehicles we drive -- vehicles that may soon become even safer if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has anything to say about it.
Countless improvements have led us to this point in automotive history. Safety belts and airbags have played a huge role in protecting drivers and passengers, as have other, less visible improvements, like electronic stability control.
Today, a host of high-tech gizmos stand to boost vehicle safety for folks inside and outside the car. For example, NHTSA is hoping to make rearview cameras standard equipment in the near future, which will reduce the number of accidents caused by motorists backing into children and other pedestrians. Event data recorders or "black boxes" -- already found on most U.S. vehicles -- will soon roll out to holdouts, providing ways for automakers and regulators to identify safety problems.
Also on the drawing board: brake-override systems, which would allow drivers to apply their brakes, even in cases of unintended acceleration. (This became a major issue after the high-profile Toyota recalls of 2010.) There's even a possibility that NHTSA will update an existing law to allow always-on high-beam headlights -- like those developed by Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Toyota -- which boost driving safety by activating high-beams when a vehicle detects that there are no vehicles or pedestrians ahead of it.
Now, according to Auto News, NHTSA may add one more mandatory safety feature to America's cars: brake-assist. That tidbit was made public yesterday, when NHTSA announced the appointment of David Friedman as the agency's deputy administrator.
Brake-assist is already found on a number of luxury and near-luxury vehicles. Typically, it relies on a system of cameras or radar to detect obstacles in a vehicle's path (e.g. other cars, pedestrians, etc.). If the brake-assist system sees that the driver can't or won't stop in time, it slows the vehicle on its own, minimizing the impact or avoiding a collision altogether.
Initial studies suggest that such systems could cut fatality rates even further (not to mention insurance claims). And the U.S. isn't the only country considering brake-assist: such devices may soon be required throughout Europe.
Some of us are wary of mandating new equipment on automobiles. Others don't mind, so long as the devices show substantial benefit to the public.
Of all of the gadgets proposed by NHTSA, this is perhaps the one that shows the most promise. And since it appears that fatality rates may be on the rise for the first time in years, improving vehicle safety is probably a good idea -- at least until NHTSA is able to hammer out its guidelines on distracted driving, anyway.