Top 7 Advances in Vehicle Safety Technology

These vital vehicle safety technologies could save your life

A crash test dummy tests vehicle safety technologies.

 Steve Hathaway / Photolibrary / Getty

Vehicle safety technologies might not be the most interesting thing in the world, but they're some of the most important. When you hear that old saw about cars being more dangerous than airplanes, it might be tempting to just write it off as hyperbole. But the fact is that there’s actually hard science behind the claim. The reality is that people die in car crashes every day, and many times more are injured, but as technology advances, things are actually getting better.

According to NHTSA statistics, there were 26.9 fatalities per 100,000 miles driven in the United States in 1972, but that number dropped to 12.4 per 100,000 miles driven by 2017.

Some of that reduction can be attributed to crackdowns in the enforcement of drunk driving and seat belt laws, but a huge part of it is also attributable to vital advances in automotive technology, and the steady adoption of those technologies across the industry.

Looking at a graph of automotive fatalities over the years, you can clearly see sharp declines associated with instances of legislation that forced the wide adoption of various vehicle safety technologies.

With that in mind, here are seven of the most important advances in automotive technology that might just save your life some day:

01
of 07

Seat Belts

seat belts
Seat belts might not be fun, but advances like lap belts have saved a tremendous number of lives. Andreas Kuehn / The Image Bank / Getty

The original technology: lap belts

The advance: shoulder belts, seat belt airbags, etc

Why it's so important:

Seat belts are boring and pretty much universal, so it may seem like they don’t belong on this list. If you were born in or after the 1980s, there’s even a good chance that you’ve never even ridden in a car that didn’t come equipped with this most essential of all safety features.

There was a time when seat-belts weren’t standard, and even when governmental regulations forced an industry-wide adoption of the feature, the first lap belts were only a pale reflection of the advanced safety restraints we enjoy today.

According to the CDC, seatbelts save over 15,000 lives a year, and since 1977 this one safety technology has saved more than 260,000 lives. So while “click it or ticket” may be the driving force behind some people grudgingly deciding to buckle up, wearing a seat belt may just be the single most important step you can take toward not becoming a statistic in an NHTSA fatalities graph.

02
of 07

Smart Airbags

seat belt airbag
They're putting airbags everywhere these days. Car Culture / Car Culture ® Collection / Getty

The original technology: basic airbags

The advance: smart airbags

Why it's so important:

Airbag technology has suffered from some bad press over the years. That airbags save lives is undeniable, but they’re also dangerous in some situations, and seating a child in the front seat of an older airbag-equipped vehicle can actually have fatal repercussions.

While airbags are still dangerous in certain circumstances, advances in airbag technology have actually made them much safer, less likely to cause injuries, and even better at saving lives.

One of the most important advances is the smart airbag, which uses an array of sensors to determine when it isn’t safe to deploy. For instance, if a smart airbag determines that a passenger is below a given weight threshold, it will typically fail to deploy in order to avoid causing serious injuries or death.

Other advances, like side curtain and rollover airbags, may save your life during a rollover accident by preventing your forcible ejection from the vehicle.

03
of 07

Adaptive Headlights

headlights night corner
Traditional headlights don't illuminate the road ahead when going around corners. Jared Eygabroad / EyeEm / Getty

The original technology: stationary headlights

The advance: adaptive headlights

Why it's so important:

Some advances in automotive technology have been met with mixed results and unclear data, and the jury is in on adaptive headlights. There are strong indications that this technology could save your life under the right circumstances, but not strong enough to force widespread adoption.

While adaptive headlights aren't especially useful during the day, research has shown that they are particularly helpful when you find yourself on the road during the twilight hours. According to one study, vehicles equipped with adaptive headlights were involved in about 10 percent​ less accidents.

04
of 07

Adaptive Cruise Control

high speed driving
Adaptive cruise control can help prevent a high speed accident if you get cut off or brake checked. Rich Legg / E+ / Getty

The original technology: manual cruise control

The advance: adaptive cruise control

Why it's so important:

The overwhelming perception of adaptive cruise control is that it’s nothing more than a creature comfort, or just one more excuse to be lazy on the road. And there’s some truth to that ​since it takes a lot of the guesswork out of using cruise control. However, adaptive cruise control is also an invaluable safety technology that can help prevent high-speed collisions.

For instance, if a car suddenly cuts you off, adaptive cruise control is capable of detecting the obstruction and slowing, or in some cases even stopping, your car. Of course, that leads us to the next potentially life-saving technology.

05
of 07

Collision Avoidance and Automatic Brakes

rear end accident waiting to happen
So maybe rear ending an elephant isn't something you're super worried about, but better safe than sorry. Thanks automatic brakes!. Christopher Scott / Getty Images

The original technology: based on anti-lock brakes and other systems

The advance: collision avoidance systems and automatic brakes

Why it's so important:

Sometimes human reaction times are sufficient to avoid accidents, and sometimes they aren’t. When they aren’t, collision avoidance systems are there to pick up the slack.

These systems are often extensions of the same basic technologies behind adaptive cruise control, in that some type of forward-facing sensor is used to detect potential hazards in front of the vehicle. In addition to looking for vehicles that have suddenly slowed down, or cut in front, they are also on the lookout for debris, large animals, and anything else that you don’t want to run into.

When an accident is imminent, a basic collision avoidance system may sound an alarm to alert the driver, while one that’s equipped with some type of automatic brake system may precharge the brakes or even apply them.

Automatic brake systems are also useful in stopping incidences of runaway cars due to either operator error or mechanical malfunctions. For instance, if the gas pedal gets stuck for whatever reason, an automatic brake system may be capable of both applying the brakes and cutting the throttle to prevent the vehicle from careening out of control.

06
of 07

Lane Departure Warning Systems

car in a ditch
I'm not trying to say that you're going to end up in a ditch if you don't have a lane keeping system in your car, but you might end up in a ditch if you don't have a lane keeping system in your car. MarcusRudolph.nl / Getty Images

The original technology: some similarities to adaptive cruise control

The advance: lane departure warning systems

Why it's so important:

Although lane departure warning systems are seen as an annoyance by some drivers, this is a technology that is absolutely capable of saving lives. One of the most dangerous types of accidents you can experience is a rollover, and tripped rollovers often occur as a natural part of run-off-road accidents, where a vehicle veers off the road.

When a lane departure system detects that a vehicle is straying from its lane, either into traffic or off the road, it can either sound an alarm or take corrective action. Potentially annoying, but also potentially life-saving.

Some studies have shown lane-keeping systems to cause more accidents than they prevent, typically due to less than ideal interactions between these systems and drivers. As this technology matures, and drivers become more comfortable with the idea, that trend is likely to reverse.

07
of 07

Electronic Stability Control

Flipping your car is nowhere near this fun in real life. In fact, it isn't fun at all. It is extremely terrible. Philip Lee Harvey / Taxi / Getty

The original technology: built on anti-lock brake and traction control technologies

The advance: electronic stability control

Why it's so important:

Electronic stability control (ESC) is possibly the most important, life-saving technology, behind seat belts. In fact, the only reason that anti-lock brakes are now standard on all new cars is because new cars are required to include ESC.

Of course, electronic stability control would be nothing without the related technologies of anti-lock brakes and traction control systems, both of which are intrinsically linked to ESC.