(MoneyWatch) Even as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was announcing Monday that , Hyundai said that it was putting brake override technology aimed at preventing runaway cars into all its models. The timing may have been coincidental, but the substance was not: The spread of high-tech safety equipment from luxury cars to affordable mainstream vehicles seems to be saving lives.
The NHTSA's preliminary figures showed traffic deaths fell 1.7 percent in 2011 to 32,310. That is the lowest rate per miles driven since records began in 1949. In addition to safer cars, the agency cited wider seat belt use and crackdowns on drunk driving as contributing to the trend of fewer deaths.
In the Hyundai news, the company says all its models produced beginning this month will include brake override, a system aimed at preventing the kind of runaway cars that led to massive Toyota recalls in 2009 and 2010. Other companies now making this standard equipment include Chrysler, Toyota in its 2011 and newer models and General Motors in 2012 and newer vehicles.
System will become mandatory
The NHTSA has begun proceedings to make brake override technology mandatory, but Hyundai said it decided to move ahead without waiting for final adoption of these rules. Brake override assures that if the brake and accelerator are engaged at the same time, the brake will still be able to stop the car.
That situation could occur with an accelerator that is stuck or trapped under a floormat. Some of the original 2009 Toyota recalls involved floor mat problems. Brake override would not help, however, when the driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake by mistake -- as investigators determined was the case in some reports of unintended acceleration.
While NHTSA moves ahead with that ruling, some other safety technologies that it encourages but does not require are spreading from luxury cars where they were first adopted to more affordable mainstream vehicles. For instance, rearview cameras that allow a drivers to see something immediately behind their cars before they back up is now available on 68 percent of the 328 2012 models in a database kept by the automotive information web site Edmunds.com.
Here's a closer look at the new safety features and how they are spreading:
- Rearview cameras: These systems can help avoid some of the most heartbreaking accidents, where a driver is backing up and cannot see a small child behind the car. The rear camera shows an image of any people or objects either on the navigation screen or the rearview mirror. For 2012, the technology is available on 223 models, in most cases as an option. But Honda, for instance, says rear cameras will be standard equipment on most of its 2013 models. NHTSA is proposing to require the cameras in all vehicles by September 2014.
- Lane departure warning: This aid to drowsy drivers sounds chimes, buzzers or other alarms if your car begins drifting out of its lane. Of all the new systems, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates this the most likely to reduce fatal accidents, and in its crash test star ratings, NHTSA gives extra points to vehicles equipped with this feature. Luxury models still predominate, with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus offering it on most models. But General Motors has added it to mainstream family SUVs, including the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain. A related technology, blind-spot warning, is more widespread. While less helpful to the drowsy, this system flashes a light if a camera detects a vehicle adjacent to your car as you start to change lanes.
- Forward collision warning: This system uses radar sensors to tell when you are so close to a vehicle ahead and closing so fast that a crash is imminent. A loud signal goes off and the car either activates the brakes slightly or hits them hard. This warning usually is integrated with adaptive or "smart" cruise control, which will keep you a fixed distance from the car ahead when activated. NHTSA also gives extra points for this feature. Although largely still in luxury models, the technology is beginning to spread. Ford Edge and Explorer SUVs offer it, as do Toyota's hybrid Prius and Sienna minivan.
- Adaptive headlights: Standard headlights shine straight ahead no matter how you are turning, and often illuminate the roadside more than the pavement on winding roads. Adaptive headlights angle when you turn the steering wheel to give you a better chance to see a deer or stopped vehicle in the curve ahead. Adaptive headlights are now available on about one-third of 2012 models, according to Edmunds. In addition to luxury models, including Cadillac and Lincoln, the headlights come on all Mini Cooper models, the Chrysler 300, Mazda3 and Buick Enclave and Lacrosse.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety continues to do research on the effectiveness of the new technologies. But in a 2010 study, the IIHS estimated that if all vehicles were equipped with lane departure, blind spot warning, forward collision warning, and adaptive headlights, about one in three fatal crashes might be avoided.