How Car Safety Features Can Be Dangerous

Last Updated May 3, 2010 3:37 PM EDT

Although some of the latest technology makes cars safer, it can also distract and baffle drivers. Ironically, these tech systems might actually increase your danger, especially if they conflict with the way you're used to driving.

That may explain what happened to a California state trooper driving the loaner Lexus ES 350 in the horrific crash that kicked off the massive Toyota and Lexus sudden-acceleration recalls.

The engine of that Lexus and several Toyota models can't be shut off with a key the traditional way. Instead, you have to push the starter button and hold it for three seconds.

So before you buy a new car, spend some time with the salesman to master its technology. Then, once you own it, drill yourself on the new controls until your driving instincts match the new technology. "You need to practice turning off the car and quickly shifting it into neutral before you get in a dangerous spot," says Bill Buff, CEO of Driving Dynamics, a Newark, Del.-based firm that trains corporate employees to be safer drivers.

Similarly, when you rent a type of car you've never driven before, spend a few minutes looking through the manual and familiarizing yourself with the vehicle's safety features. (For details on the most important safety features, see Highway Safety: 3 Features that Could Save Lives.)
Learning the controls means not only being ready to react in dangerous situations but also avoiding distractions that take your eyes off the road. Technology built into a car - such as a GPS system and complicated controls for the radio and air conditioning - can be major distractions.

Three useful tech safety tips from Buff and other safe driving experts:

1. Learn your dashboard controls so you won't look down. All-purpose screens that are low on the dash take more time looking away from the road than old-style radio and clock displays or climate-control dials. So, pre-set your favorite radio stations as well as heating and a/c temperatures. Then practice adjusting them without looking away from the road. If you need to read the map on your GPS screen in detail while driving, pull over and stop.

2. If you have steering wheel or voice controls, use them. Many models now have thumb buttons on the steering wheel to change the radio or climate control. Using these is much safer than looking and reaching over to the center of the dash. And Ford's SYNC system, among others, lets you give voice commands to make Bluetooth phone calls and select music from your iPod. Research done by Ford and the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that using voice commands to make a call while driving is significantly less risky than dialing by hand.

3. Be sure you know how to use your ABS brakes. Anti-lock braking safety systems now come on 70% of new vehicles, but many drivers don't take advantage of them. Used correctly, your ABS pumps the brakes on and off swiftly to keep you from sliding on slick roads and let you steer straight until you can slow down. But they only work if you hit the brakes very hard and hold the pedal down. "Using ABS correctly is the biggest thing we have to make our students re-learn," says Buff. "Unless you push the pedal to the floor and hold it, the system isn't working for you."

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.