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UMTRI conference highlights automotive safety

February 16, 2011

A steady decline in traffic fatalities over the past several decades is good news, but the number of people killed in motor-vehicle crashes is still "way too high," said John Maddox of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Maddox was the keynote speaker at a February 16 automotive-safety conference hosted by UMTRI at the University of Michigan.

"We have a lot of work to do," Maddox told about eighty conference participants. He went on to highlight NHTSA's strategic areas and programs that play a key role in improving traffic safety including driver monitoring and support systems for crash avoidance, connected vehicles, pedestrian safety with relation to quiet, electric vehicles, and addressing the problem of driver distraction. (For information on these and other programs, visit the NHTSA website.)

UMTRI research professor Paul Green also highlighted the problem of driver distraction. He stressed the importance of distinguishing between distracted drivers, whose attention is diverted away from driving, and driver workload, which refers to the tasks a driver may be attempting at any given time. "How do you determine what's too much for people to do?" asked Green, who emphasized the need for performance criteria.

Alan Korn of MeritorWabco discussed the safety issues related to the heavy-truck industry. He noted that heavy trucks are much more prone to roll over around curves than passenger cars and sport-utility vehicles, and he cited several technologies that are helping to address the problem, including antilock braking systems (ABS), automatic traction control, and ABS-based stability control. Korn said he expects continued development of these vehicle control systems in the future. However, he added, "These systems are meant to be an aid to drivers, not a replacement."

UMTRI's Jonathan Rupp, assistant research scientist in the Biosciences Group, noted the recent decline in traffic fatalities and attributed the improvement to a number of factors, including advancements in vehicle structures (such as stiffening of the occupant compartment), infrastructure improvements, and the use of seatbelts and airbags.

Despite the advancements, Rupp noted that motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 4 and 34. There are approximately 34,000 fatalities and 2.1 million injuries each year in road-traffic crashes. The annual economic cost is estimated at $231 billion.

Improvements in vehicle structures, new safety technologies such as electronic stability control, and enhancements in vehicle restraint systems will all play a role in improving automotive safety in the future, Rupp said. However, he added, new technologies, which are slow to penetrate into the vehicle fleet, are only part of the solution to preventing crash-induced injuries. Behavioral changes--such as increases in seatbelt use and decreases in intoxicated driving--are critically important, as these changes can have immediate effects.

Other speakers at the daylong conference included Kurt Fischer of TRW, who provided a safety supplier's perspective on the business side of safety as well as future product trends, and Jennifer Timian of NHTSA, who discussed the automotive recall process and the recent history of recalls. Timian emphasized that the manufacturer always performs the recall, but NHTSA takes responsibility to assist in the success of the recall campaigns. She also highlighted NHTSA's automotive recall notification system, which allows auto owners to sign up to be notified of any recalls on their vehicles.

UMTRI assistant research scientist Bruce Belzowski moderated the conference, which was part of UMTRI's Focus on the Future conference series. For details about upcoming events, see UMTRI Automotive Analysis Conference Schedule.

Photo courtesy of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.