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NHTSA Chief Plugs Active Safety

Nicole Nason urges the auto industry to perfect collision-avoidance systems and the public to trust they will save lives.

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DETROIT – Proponents of next-generation active safety technologies designed to prevent accidents or at least mitigate the severity of collisions scored a significant endorsement here at this week’s SAE International World Congress.

In a keynote speech, National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. chief Nicole Nason urges the auto industry to move forward aggressively in developing and perfecting the systems and to make them available in production vehicles.

“Active safety technology is going to play an increasingly significant role in the agency’s injury prevention and reduction strategy,” Nason says.

She says consumers need to become comfortable with active safety technologies that employ vision sensors to identify objects in a vehicle’s path. That information then can be processed by electronically actuated braking systems, such as electronic stability control, to help avoid a collision, or lessen the severity of a crash.

Adaptive cruise control (ACC), rollover mitigation and lane-departure warning are included in the list of active safety technologies. Braking suppliers leading the way are Continental Automotive Systems, Robert Bosch GmbH, TRW Automotive and Delphi Corp.

“Manufacturers will have far greater capabilities to detect unsafe conditions and react faster than the driver can on his or her own,” she says.

“And convincing the public of the safety benefits likely means that people will have to give up control of their vehicle even for a second or two, which means that people will have to learn to trust the safety systems. And that means the systems need to be perfect,” lest the auto industry lose public confidence in the technology.

“That’s something we think about a lot at NHTSA,” she says.

Nason says she test drove a vehicle in Germany last year equipped with ACC, which sets the speed based on that of the vehicle ahead. It also applies the brakes automatically when the lead vehicle stops.

“I have to admit, it takes some getting used to,” she says. “It’s very disconcerting to give up control, to approach that traffic light and think, ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to put my foot down (on the brake)?’ That was a real person’s car that I was about to rear end.”

Yet, Nason says the technology worked as intended every time.

Since the 1960s, safety technologies in vehicles have saved about 330,000 lives, she says.

“And we know that technological advances will continue to be critical to saving lives on the nation’s highways in the future, provided the customer is willing to buy it, use it, trust it,” she says.

Another example of active safety is ESC, which rapidly is becoming common in U.S. vehicles and uses sensors and the braking of specific wheels to prevent a vehicle from skidding out of control. NHTSA recently published the final rule mandating ESC on all U.S. vehicles under 10,000 lbs. (4,536 kg) by the ’12 model year.

Nason quotes a 2005 NHTSA study that estimates ESC reduces fatalities in single-vehicle crashes by 35% for passenger cars and 67% for SUVs.

“And we estimate that when fully deployed, ESC will save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives annually and prevent between 156,000 and 238,000 injuries,” she says.

Some drivers need to be protected from their own bad habits, Nason says.

She tells the story of her aunt, who lives in Florida and bought a car with cruise control simply because it would allow her to paint her toenails while driving.

“This woman does not think she’s a bad driver,” Nason says with a chuckle. “It took some education for my father to convince her that this was a brainless act. She thought she was just multi-tasking.”

Too often, people think they are good drivers when, actually, they need more protection than anyone.

“People may be reluctant to give up some control of their vehicle because they don’t think that they need the help,” Nason says. “They may not want to rely on the vehicle – even on occasion – to make driving decisions that could affect them.”

Nason also uses the speech to plug Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s new campaign to eliminate driving while intoxicated. Nason was chosen as the campaign’s honorary chairperson last year.

Alcohol-related fatalities are down from the 1980s and 1990s. “But our progress since then has been, at best, modest. We are still talking about 60,000 lives lost every year,” she says.

Nason’s parents survived a collision with a drunk driver. “In the case of my family, all we lost was a car, but not everyone is so lucky,” she says.

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