Auto Safety Must-Haves

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crashtestdummiesLeaving aside the moment in January when I gracefully pirouetted an Infiniti QX70 into a snowbank, all my near misses for years now have involved an A-pillar.

A car’s A-pillars are the windshield frame alongside the front doors. (The B-pillars are where the front and back doors meet, and the C-pillars are at the rear corners of the cabin: A – B – C, front to back.) Rollover and crush standards being what they are now, car roof supports—these pillars—have become really substantial, which makes them harder to see around. For comparison, look at the windshield of any American car from the 1960s.

And so every now and then I get caught out when a pedestrian in a crosswalk is covered up for a critical second or two. It hasn’t led to any accidents, yet, but it makes me jumpy as hell. Not to mention the pedestrian. If the angles are really bad, a bulky A-pillar can even hide another vehicle at an intersection.

Lots of cars now have rear cross-traffic alerts, to warn us while backing blindly out of a parking spot; why don’t we have them at the front too? Probably because carmakers figure the driver is already looking in that direction . . . but A-pillars still make lousy windows.

As do C-pillars. But no one’s nearly sideswiped me on the highway for some time now, maybe because newer cars can sense another vehicle lurking in that blind spot behind the C-pillar, and then flash a warning before the driver makes a bad lane change. This is truly useful, and I wouldn’t have a new car without blind-spot monitors.

Same goes for backup cameras. If only we’d had these things back in the tailfin era. I don’t recall what it was like to parallel-park my father’s ’63 Olds Rocket 88 station wagon, but somehow we maneuvered those barges around even in the city. Sightlines were better, for one thing; the fins were six feet long, but we could see where they ended because there was an entire bay window at the back of the car, and no seat headrests to block the view. Now we have backup cameras and sensors.

(Sure, many cars now can parallel-park themselves. But it takes forever, and it kills off one more basic skill, like automatic transmissions are killing the clutch.)

Some cars have cameras in the front too, and a few have them all around, to give us a 360-degree view. This can be useful, although sometimes it verges on information overload; how many things can one set of eyes watch?

The very best backing-up aid is a sensor that beeps to tell us how close we’re getting to another car, or a fire hydrant or the neighbor kid’s Big Wheel. Along with the camera, this too is safety feature I’d order on a new car. I’d have to religiously clean the lenses and sensors, though, to make sure they’re working.

Adaptive cruise control is on my must-have list also. On long highway stints, cruise control frees up my right leg, which makes me more comfortable and therefore mentally centered. (It also keeps me within shouting distance of the speed limit, but that’s a different story.) Adaptive cruise control automatically adjusts to traffic and—even more to the safety point—it can throw out the anchors, to avoid running into things. Yes, I’m paying attention, but just in case.

Note that my safety choices are all fairly simple: a few sensors, a microprocessor or two, and some lights (or chimes). More complex systems are generally integrated by a computer, and this brings up a concern that once was unimaginable: hacking. A couple of weeks ago, the Marussia Formula One team had to park its No. 1 car after just three laps of testing in Bahrain because a virus had invaded its digital brain. This might have been a bit of malware from a bored teenager, but imagine the havoc a hacker could cause on a highway full of drive-by-wire vehicles, all on the Interweb.

Finally, I wouldn’t order a family car without all-wheel drive. But no matter what’s on the options list, the best safety “system” is now and always will be a clued-in driver. The challenge is going to be staying alert and paying attention when the modern connected car does more and more of the driving.

—Silvio Calabi


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