Living

ABS to live for

High-tech car gadgets that might save your life

When someone says they don’t build cars like they used to, my reaction is, “Thank goodness!” I really wouldn’t want to return to the days when style took precedence over crash protection and seat-belts were optional.

In recent years, however, safety advances have zoomed ahead and there’s now a dizzying array of innovations to keep track of. Here are some you might want to consider:

Ask if a vehicle’s seat-belts come equipped with pretensioners (which automatically pull a belt snug when a crash is imminent to prevent you from moving forward) and load limiters (which allow seat-belts to give slightly during a severe crash to prevent the shoulder belt from injuring your chest). Very short or tall drivers will want to check if the shoulder belt has a height adjustment so it fits properly across the chest.

Along with the seat-belt, the air bag has undergone an evolution in recent years. Safer, depowered air bags have replaced the first generation of slap-happy air bags, which often deployed with such brutal force that they injured occupants. If you’re short, ensure that the steering wheel tilts and telescopes so you can maintain 25 to 30 centimetres of space between your chest and the hub of the steering wheel. Many Ford vehicles as well as some Chrysler models offer adjustable pedals to help position shorter drivers.

While front air bags are the norm, side air bags, head-curtain air bags and even knee air bags are cropping up in more vehicles. Parents with small children may want to think twice about buying a vehicle equipped with side air bags. No Canadian safety standard has been set for such air bags and children who lean or fall asleep against them may risk injury.

Though you may already be familiar with anti-lock braking systems (ABS), they still aren’t standard on all vehicles. ABS won’t always stop a vehicle in a shorter distance than conventional brakes, but they prevent wheel lockup during panic stops, allowing drivers to steer clear of danger during hard braking. When comparing new car prices, find out if ABS are standard or an option.

On the high-tech front, proximity backup sensors (to avoid running over a child or pet) and interior trunk release latches (to prevent children from being trapped inside a trunk and suffocating) are offered on some vehicles.

Drivers in snowbelt areas may want to consider four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles for added grip in winter. More vehicles now offer traction control (which limits wheel spin) and stability control (which detects and corrects sideways skidding during hard cornering).

Although many devices contribute to the overall safety of a vehicle, one of the best ways to find out how they work together is to check crash-test ratings. Every year, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crashes about 100 of the most popular new vehicles and issues ratings for frontal and side crash protection. While all vehicles sold in Canada must meet minimum standards for crash protection, the NHTSA results show which vehicles really shine. These ratings can be accessed at www.nhtsa.dot.gov. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org) also conducts demanding crash tests that differ slightly from the NHTSA’s. Check out both sites.

Believe it or not, some cars are so sophisticated they will automatically call for help if you’re knocked unconscious in a crash. Like I said, they sure don’t build ’em like they used to.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.