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By Jim Kerr

When it comes to vehicle safety, some people believe that bigger is always better. What would you rather hit – another car or a big truck? Your chances are better against the car, but when you start looking at vehicles overall, big doesn’t necessarily mean safer. Compared to the huge boats we called automobiles back in the 70s, modern cars are much safer thanks to technology.

Safety can be grouped into two categories: active and passive. Active safety includes vehicle design and features that help drivers avoid a crash, while passive safety features help protect occupants during a crash. Let’s look at active safety first.

Anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control are active safety systems but so are the suspension, tires, brakes, steering and lighting. A vehicle that handles well allows the driver better control, and keeping control of your vehicle allows you to not only stay on the road but also avoid a collision when necessary. In this context, the large floaty “boats” of the past were not as safe as modern cars.

Worn parts can compromise your safety: for example, worn tires; they are your only contact with the road and maintaining proper tire pressures and minimum tread depths is critical to safe vehicle control.

Shock absorbers are also important in maintaining vehicle control. Shock absorbers or struts wear gradually so the loss of control isn’t always obvious. A new set of shocks can make a vehicle both safer and more relaxing to drive.

ABS brakes are found on many vehicles, but when it comes to avoiding a collision, most drivers still don’t use them to their full advantage. With ABS brakes, you need to step on the brake pedal HARD and let the system do the braking. Brake Assist, a system now found on several vehicles, will apply the brakes fully if you step on the pedal fast enough and it is a great safety feature. With ABS operating, the vehicle can now be controlled while stopping, so if you think quickly, look where you want to go and don’t panic, it is sometimes possible to steer around a collision. The ability to steer with the brakes applied is a big advantage of ABS, which is often not used enough by drivers.

Stability control is a great equalizer. Skilled drivers may be able to drive better – if they are alert, refreshed and practiced, but stability control helps all drivers maintain control. Transport Canada has been testing vehicles with stability control systems since 2004 and has introduced a new Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standard that will make stability control mandatory on most vehicles under 4,536 kg manufactured after the end of August 2011.

Passive safety includes technology such as airbags, seatbelts, head restraints, collapsible steering columns, vehicle crumple zones and the use of high strength steel in some body areas. Of all these systems, seat belts are one of the most effective and their use is legislated across Canada. However, there are still some people, including children, who don’t wear them or wear them improperly. This includes the use of child seats, booster seats and child restraints! Vehicle Owner’s manuals have many pages describing the proper use of seat belts, and many fire departments, ambulance companies and insurance companies operate clinics that will show you how to install child seats properly. They don’t want to see you after a collision any more than you want to be involved in one.

Airbag technology is continually improving. The addition of side impact and side curtain systems on many vehicles protects occupants in side impact and rollover situations. You don’t have to be at fault to have the airbags help. Imagine sitting at a stop light when another vehicle goes out of control and hits you. The airbags can reduce serious injuries, but remember they are designed to work with seatbelts, so buckle up.

A modern vehicle may look bad after an accident, but that is because the body is designed to crumple. By absorbing the energy in the sheet metal, the passengers are protected from the full force of the impact. A crumpled car may look bad but they are much safer than the big tanks we used to drive many years ago.

Safety technology comes in many forms, but in the end it is the driver and the decisions they make that will have the biggest impact. Make wise decisions and drive safely.

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