Drive Time


Safety Worth the Cost

Jessica L. Anderson

Your next new car could come with safety features once
only dreamed of by science-fiction writers.



Automotive safety used to consist solely of such do-it-yourself tasks as buckling your seat belt and checking your mirrors. But now technology is helping you make some critical accident-prevention maneuvers. Some cars on the road today warn you when another vehicle is in your blind spot, steer you back into your lane when you stray, and even slam on the brakes and tighten your seat belts when the vehicle senses an imminent crash.

High-tech safety features debut mainly on luxury cars but trickle down to mass-market cars later. For example, electronic stability control was introduced in 1995 by Mercedes-Benz on its top-of-the-line S-Class coupe. By 2012, it will be standard equipment on every vehicle sold in the U.S. Your next new car could come with safety features once only dreamed of by science-fiction writers.

Keep your distance. Piggybacking on adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to keep a safe distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, collision-mitigation systems sense when you're getting too close too fast and give you a visual and auditory warning. If you don't respond to that, the system "precharges" your brakes (to give them more power when you first step on the brake pedal). Some systems, such as those from Hyundai, Lexus and Mercedes, tighten your seat belts and automatically apply the brakes. The cost of this option ranges from $1,195 (on the Ford Taurus) to $1,500 (on most Lexus models). Some systems are available only as packages -- for example, the $2,900 Mercedes-Benz package that also includes lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitoring.

Lane-departure warning systems use cameras to scan the road ahead to determine your position in a lane, then give you a cue if you stray from it (a turn signal overrides the warning). This technology is still limited mostly to the luxury makes, such as Audi, BMW and Cadillac. Prices start at about $700 as a part of driver-assistance packages.

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A couple of Japanese carmakers have introduced a Big Brother-like version of the technology that gently steers you back into your lane if the system detects drifting. The top trim level of the Toyota Prius offers Lane Keep Assist as an option (as part of the $5,180 advanced-technology package). Infiniti's Lane Departure Prevention is available on the EX35 in the $2,250 technology package (also available on the FX and M models).

Eyes all around. How many times have you attempted to change lanes when a car is in your blind spot? Blind-spot monitoring systems use radar to let you know a car is there before you hear the other driver's horn. Most work by triggering a warning light near your side mirrors as cars approach and pass; some ring out an audible warning if you attempt to move over or put on your turn signal while a car is in that space. Once a luxury-only feature, this is now an option on the Chrysler Town & Country, Mazda6 and Ford Fusion (prices start at about $700 but can run a few thousand in a big option package). Infiniti's Blind Spot Intervention (available on the 2011 M in a $3,000 package) not only gives you a warning but also steers you back into your lane.

Cross-path cameras alert you when another car is approaching as you're backing out of a parking spot or pulling out of a blind drive. Ford and Chrysler already have versions of this system, and it's coming in the 2011 BMW 5 series.

Volvo, Mercedes and BMW also have pedestrian-detection systems. Volvo's system ($2,100), for example, will bring the car to a full stop if it detects a person in your path and you're traveling at less than 22 miles per hour. Volvo also has a City Safety feature (on the XC60 and new S60) that works the same way for a car that stops short in front of you. Prices for camera-based systems vary widely depending on the type; expect to pay at least a grand.



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