Scott SutherlandContributing Writer
My first experience with vehicle safety began at an early age.I was three years old when I took possession of my newest ride. Santa was kind enough to deliver a bright red “Rebel Rider” pseudo-motorcycle made from that wondrous 1970s-grade plastic. And yes… it came with training wheels. But the Rebel Rider was still cool. You see, those training wheels were simply an early example of crash-avoidance technology. Like any fearless three-year-old, I was determined to charge that bike as fast as possible. This caused a great deal of anxiety for my grandparents (who may have convinced Santa to choose the gotta-have-it Rebel Rider). I would blast down the sidewalks on a daily basis, leaning forward and shouting a barrage of vroom-vroom engine sounds just to raise the intimidation factor and warn the neighbourhood that trouble was coming (until the day I accidently drove it into a neighbour’s pool. The Rebel Rider didn’t handle the water very well). Fast forward a few decades and things have changed in a big way. My current ride is a car with an infant child seat in the back. And sadly, I no longer fit on the Rebel Rider.Now, being both an adult and a parent, I value safety more than ever.According to a report by Transport Canada, in 2009 there were 2,209 traffic fatalities and 11,451 serious injuries. As high as those numbers may seem, fortunately, they represent a 25 per cent decline from statistics recorded approximately 10 years earlier.While the reduction in traffic fatalities and injuries may be attributed to a number of reasons, the progress in safety technology in vehicles should take some credit. The newest generation of vehicles are packed with some of the most amazing safety technologies ever imagined. One organization that measures and tests vehicle safety is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA is a U.S.-based agency known for its crash testing and safety reviews. Often, auto makers will aggressively advertise a ‘5-Star Safety Rating,’ if so blessed by the NHTSA. For the 2011 model year, NHTSA introduced tougher testing procedures. While reviewing a vehicle’s integrity for frontal crash, side crash and rollover protection, it also examines ‘recommended technologies’ such as electronic stability control (ESC), forward collision warning and lane departure warning. In extreme situations, ESC systems selectively apply the vehicle brakes and/or modulate engine power to assist the driver and prevent losing control of the vehicle. Forward collision warning systems monitor the area ahead of the vehicle and sense when another vehicle is slowing or has stopped. The system can then alert the driver of a potential crash risk. The third recommended technology, lane departure warning, will monitor the vehicle’s position with regards to road markings and will warn the driver if it senses the vehicle is unintentionally drifting from its lane. Some of the 2011/2012 SUV vehicles that were awarded 5-Star Safety Ratings from NHTSA include: Acura ZDX 4WD, Acura MDX, Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and the Volvo XC60.Another influential organization that reports on vehicle safety is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Much of its research examines insurance data and independent vehicle testing. Those vehicles that earn strong ratings then receive the respected ‘Top Safety Pick’ designation. According to IIHS, “the Institute rates vehicles… based on performance in high-speed front and side crash tests, a rollover test, plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts. To earn Top Safety Pick for 2011 a vehicle must have good ratings in all four Institute tests. In addition, the winning vehicles must offer electronic stability control.”Some of the 2011/2012 SUV vehicles that were awarded ‘Top Safety Pick’ honours include: Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, Honda Element, Infiniti EX35, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Lexus RX, Lincoln MKT, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Saab 9-4X, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan, Volvo XC60 and the Volvo XC90.With pressure from research groups, consumers and government agencies, auto makers are investing heavily into the research and development of safety technology. In fact, Transport Canada has mandated that ESC systems be equipped on passenger cars, multipurpose vehicles and trucks manufactured after Sept 1, 2011. Looking into the future, there are also plenty of advanced safety technologies in development. BMW engineers are working on introducing laser-light technology for production within a few years, an advancement that could be utilized for a vehicle’s exterior lights and would be a safer alternative to today’s LED headlights. Mercedes-Benz is also pioneering a brighter future with its development of 6D-Vision technology. Utilizing an advanced camera system to view outside the front of the vehicle, 6D-Vision is able to differentiate between moving and stationary objects and identify potential hazards. For example, if a child runs unexpectedly into the road, the 6D-Vision system analyzes the situation and will intervene to bring the vehicle to a standstill in approximately half the time it would take for a human. Mercedes-Benz is planning to offer 6D-Vision technology for production in the near future. When lives are at stake, the progress of safety technology will always be at the forefront of automotive development. While the security of those training wheels from your childhood days may be long gone, the latest advancements in vehicle safety technology are there to protect you. So go ahead and give your vehicle a personal name – it may be more intelligent than you previously thought.But I must apologize, the name Rebel Rider has been taken.