Detroit’s Blind Spot

After three days of eco this and enviro that, all the green cars at the Detroit Auto Show have left me feeling a little green around the gills. Oh sure, energy independence, global warming and gas prices are all important, weighty issues. But the eco-car jumped the shark for me yesterday morning when GM car czar Bob Lutz--renowned in Motown for his quick wit and need for speed--put a room full of journalists to sleep explaining the science behind lithium-ion batteries and cellulosic ethanol. Walking out of that interview, I was nearly run down by a go-go-boot wearing ESPN correspondent zipping by on a Segway as she explained the futuristic features of the Saturn Flextreme plug-in electric hybrid. "You're in my shot," she said, swerving her Segway. "But it's OK, we're only rehearsing."

My near-collision got me thinking about another important story I heard nothing about at this auto show: safety. Green technology might save you a buck and even help save the planet, when automakers actually get it on the road. (Like that ESPN correspondent's segment, most of the green cars at the Detroit show are really just rehearsals.) But safety technology can save your life. Safety, though, lacks the buzz of an electric car like the gull-wing Dodge Zeo concept or the egg-shaped Chrysler ecoVoyager fuel-cell minivan (both are miles away from actually hitting the road). "Green is in right now," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "And safety is taking a back seat."

That priority system seems more about PR than the pressing needs on our highways. More than 42,000 people die on American roads every year. That's nearly 11 times the number of deaths U.S. forces have suffered in six years of fighting in Iraq. And like Iraq, car crashes claim a disproportionate number of young people. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people under 25 in America. In 2006, 12,532 people under 25 died on American roads, according to federal statistics. That same year in Iraq, 819 U.S. forces died, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. But despite our sad and staggering highway death toll, the problem can't seem to find a spotlight. "When you have 42,000 fatalities every year, certainly there's not enough being done," says Clarence Ditlow, a veteran safety watchdog and executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

What's worse, the green trend is on a collision course with highway safety. Concern about our carbon footprint and $3 gas is putting small gas sippers into overdrive. Sales of the smallest cars on the market, like the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, jumped 33.7 percent last year. And coming next month is Daimler's Smart car on display in Detroit. It gets 60 miles per gallon and is so small you can park it nose first into a parallel-parking space. But imagine that tiny two-seater coming up against a Hummer in a crash. "It comes down to physics. If you're in a smaller vehicle out there, you're at greater risk," says Lund. "I'm concerned that people are going to put their families into small cars and more people will die trying to save money on gas."

Maybe all of this sounds like kind of a downer. And you're thinking, "I wouldn't talk about death at an auto show, either." But here's the thing, the safety-technology story is just as whiz-bang and techie as the enviro technology. And having sat through that lithium-ion lecture, I'm here to tell you the safety story is far more compelling.

Here are a few safety breakthroughs that carmakers could have spotlighted at the auto show:

Collision mitigation systems. Sensors embedded around the car detect when you're heading for a crash on the highway. First, you receive an audible warning, like a chime or a recorded voice ("Danger, Will Robinson!"). Then, if you don't hit the brakes, the gas pedal starts pulsing against your lead foot to tell you to back off. If you still don't respond, the system actually hits the brakes for you. This all happens in a matter of seconds. And unlike lithium-ion batteries, this technology is already on the road in the Acura RL and the Volvo S80. Look for it to migrate into lower-priced cars.

Lane-departure warnings. If you start to veer out of your lane, sensors in your car notice and give you a warning. In BMW's version, the warning is a vibrating steering wheel that feels like you're driving on those rumble strips on the shoulder of the road. In the Nissan version, bells warn you. Coming soon are systems that will take over the steering if you don't respond to the warning. Once you're safely back on center in your lane, KITT, er, I mean your car, gives you back complete control.

More airbags. Just when you thought airbags couldn't pop out anywhere else in your car, look down. Soon carmakers will install knee airbags just below the dashboard. In the backseat, chest-protecting airbags will pop out of the doors or the sides of the seats. They'll be calibrated for the smaller bodies that often ride back there so that the airbags won't harm when they're trying to help.

All of these technologies should chip away at that death rate--a figure that's remained stubbornly above 40,000 for 15 years. Another lifesaver is electronic stability control, which keeps cars from spinning out. It's already on thousands of cars on the road today. And the Feds are requiring it on all new cars by 2011, which Lund says will ultimately save 10,000 lives a year.

But the most intelligently designed safety technology is, as they say, the nut behind the wheel. If we all just slow down, sober up and buckle up, the highway death rate will plummet. Four in 10 traffic deaths are alcohol-related. And more than half of highway fatalities are people who were not wearing their seatbelt. But since we can't be counted on to reform our bad driving habits, Ford safety VP Sue Cischke told me this week that her company is actively researching ways to boost seat-belt usage (more comfy belts) and to disable cars if the driver is drunk (blow before you go). So perhaps there will be something to say on safety at next year's Detroit Auto Show. Because saving the planet won't be any fun if we all die on the road first.

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