Volvo Attacks Key Safety Problem

Volvo has spent much of its history trying to make its cars safer -- a key part of its heritage and reason-for-being. But now, the Swedish car company has launched in a new direction to try to solve a key safety problem -- the inattentive driver. Studies, including research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States, show that up to 90 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by driver distraction.

To address this issue, Volvo Cars has recently introduced two safety systems. Driver Alert Control alerts the driver when his or her concentration level is negatively affected, for instance, during long journeys where drowsiness can set in, while Lane Departure Warning alerts the driver if the car crosses one of the road markings without an obvious reason. The two systems will be part of the same option package called Driver Alert System available in the Volvo S80, V70 and XC70 at the end of this year.

"Real-life safety is the key to our safety philosophy," said Ingrid Skogsmo, director of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre in Sweden. "When it comes to preventive safety, we have the same approach as when we develop protective systems. In other words, our research and technical development focus on areas where new technology can create significant results in real-life traffic."

According to NHTSA, 100,000 accidents annually are caused by drivers who fall asleep behind the wheel in the United States alone, resulting in 1,500 fatalities and more than 70,000 injuries. And the situation is similar in Europe. The German Insurance Association GDV estimates that about 25 percent of all fatal accidents on the German Autobahn are caused by driver fatigue.

Volvo's Driver Alert Control is primarily intended for situations where the risk of losing concentration is the greatest, and where an accident would have severe consequences. For example, a straight, smooth road that lulls the driver into a sense of relaxation. The system steps in at about 40 miles per hour (65 km/h) and stays active as long as the speed exceeds 37 mph (60 km/h.) The system monitors the car's movements and assesses whether the vehicle is being driven in a controlled or uncontrolled way, and that is a unique approach.

"We do not monitor human behavior, which varies from one person to another, but instead the effect that fatigue or decreased concentration has on driving behavior," said Daniel Levin, project manager for Driver Alert Control at Volvo Cars. "Our system is based on the car's progress on the road. It gives a reliable indication if something is likely to go wrong and alerts the driver before it is too late. We often get questions about why we have chosen this concept instead of monitoring the driver's eyes. The answer is that we don't think that the technology of monitoring the driver's eyes is mature enough yet."

Driver Alert Control can also cover situations where the driver is focusing too much on his/her cell phone or children in the car, thereby not having full control of the vehicle. The device consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a control unit. The camera continuously measures the distance between the car and the road lane markings. The sensors register the car's movements. The control unit stores the information and calculates whether the driver risks losing control of the vehicle. If the risk is assessed as high, the driver is alerted via an audible signal. In addition, a text message appears in the car's information display, alerting him or her with a coffee cup symbol to pull over and rest.

"It is, of course, always the driver's responsibility to take a break when necessary, but sometimes you might not realize that you're not alert enough to drive," Levin said. "In such situations, Driver Alert Control can help the driver make the right decision, like taking a refreshing break or a nap, before the concentration level becomes too low."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes on auto safety issues, the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Keep Your Pets Safe in the Car

If you're a pet owner, you know that your pet is a part of the family. And many pet owners like to involve their pets in family activities, including family vacations. But before you just open the door to let Rover or Tabby climb into the car, you should understand that car trips can be stressful, and perhaps even unsafe, for many household pets. Happily, experts agree that they do not have to be if drivers take some simple precautions.

"There are more than 135 million household dogs and cats in the nation," said Ray Palermo, a spokesperson for Response Insurance, a national car insurer. "They're members of the family and when we take a driving vacation, they are often along for the ride. Unfortunately, too many drivers do not take the time to prepare them for long trips."

To protect your pet and family, there are ways to help ensure a safe driving experience:

  • If the pet is not used to car trips, try a few test runs to help acclimate them for the ride. Spending time in the car while parked and taking short drives to nearby destinations are an easy ways to help your pet get with the driving program.
  • While in your vehicle, cats should be kept in a carrier and dogs should be held in a restraining harness. This will help stabilize your pet if there is a sudden movement or crash.
  • Feed your pet a sufficient amount of food, but don't overdo it, since too much food can upset their stomachs on the road.
  • Don't forget to pack some toys and any other favorite items like bedding, so some of their surroundings will be familiar.
  • When traveling to places previously unvisited by your pet, it is particularly important to have a collar with an ID tag that includes both your permanent and vacation addresses and phone numbers. Bring a photo of your pet in the event you need to put up "Lost Pet" posters. Many veterinarians and animal welfare organizations also offer microchip identification implants.
  • Dogs like to stick their heads out of the car window, but this is very unsafe. Small stones and debris in the air become dangerous at highway speeds and can injure your pet.
  • Never leave your pet in a car in warm or hot weather. Even with windows open or parked in the shade, vehicle interior temperatures can quickly rise to lethal levels. Animals, because of their size, are more susceptible to heat than humans.
  • Pack a first aid kit with tweezers and alcohol for tick removal, in addition to cloth bandages and topical antiseptic.

One thing to remember about transporting pets in the car is that in a collision they can become harmful projectiles. The force of a crash can result in extremely rapid deceleration of the vehicle and the use of seatbelts helps occupants of the vehicle stay in place during such an episode, but an unrestrained pet can strike occupants of the car with surprising force. So, while it might seem pleasant to have your dog or cat roaming about the cabin, be advised that this could be unsafe.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini is a lover of animals. He often writes on vehicle safety issues from his Cleveland home.

How Safe Are Those Seats?

Your children might well ride in the in your SUV or minivan every day. But just how safe are those seats and their head restraints? Well, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there's about a two-to-one chance that the seats your children ride in are not what they should be. The designs of seats and head restraints in 21 current SUV, pickup, and minivan models are rated good for protecting people in rear impacts, but those in 54 other models are rated marginal or poor. Another 12 are rated acceptable. The takeaway is this: The latest evaluations of occupant protection in rear-end collisions found that the seat/head restraints in more than half of light truck and minivan models fall short of state-of-the-art protection from neck injury or whiplash.

Among the best performers are the seat/head restraint combinations in SUVs made by Subaru and Volvo and new designs from Acura, Ford, Honda and Hyundai. Seat/head restraints in three minivan models from Hyundai and Ford also earned good ratings. The redesigned Toyota Tundra is the only pickup model evaluated with seat/head restraints rated good for rear crash protection.

"In stop and go commuter traffic, you're more likely to get in a rear-end collision than any other crash type," said David Zuby, senior vice president of the Institute's Vehicle Research Center. "It's not a major feat of engineering to design seats and head restraints that afford good protection in these common crashes."

The key to reducing whiplash injury risk is to keep the head and torso moving together. To accomplish this, the geometry of a head restraint has to be adequate -- high enough to be near the back of the head. Then the seat structure and stiffness characteristics must be designed to work in concert with the head restraint to support an occupant's neck and head, accelerating them with the torso as the vehicle is pushed forward. Unsupported, an occupant's head will lag behind this forward torso movement, and the differential motion causes the neck to bend and stretch. The higher the torso acceleration, the more sudden the motion, the higher the forces on the neck, the more likely a neck injury is to occur. Such injuries aren't life-threatening, but they can be painful and debilitating, and they account for two million insurance claims each year, costing at least $8.5 billion.

The IIHS ratings of good, acceptable, marginal or poor for 87 current models are based on geometric measurements of head restraints and simulated crashes that together assess how well people of different sizes would be protected in a typical rear crash. The seats in the BMW X5, Dodge Nitro and Suzuki XL7 are rated poor, and the seats in the Cadillac SRX SUV, Nissan Quest minivan and Ford Ranger pickup were all deemed to be so bad the IIHS didn't attempt to test them.

While there hasn't been much overall improvement among pickups and minivans since the last time the Institute evaluated protection in rear crashes, the performance of the seat/head restraints in SUVs is much better. In 2006 those in only six of 44 SUV models earned a good rating; now 17 of 59 models were rated good.

Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about vehicle safety issues.

Please Talk Safely

Drivers face many distractions in the car -- lunch on-the-go, kids in the back seat, changing radio stations or choosing a new song from their iPods. Yet despite this, wireless phones get a bad rap as a distraction to drivers. What goes underreported is the fact that while the use of mobile phones might play a hand in some accidents, mobile phones are also frequent lifesavers, helping summon help in emergencies far quicker than would otherwise be possible. The fact is that whatever might distract you during driving, whether it's looking at pretty girls or arguing with your spouse, is a danger. So always remember that safety is your first responsibility behind the wheel. If you decide to use a mobile phone while driving, do it correctly. That means using a wireless phone wisely, and recognizing when it's not the appropriate time to make a call.

What are the wrong times to make a mobile call? Times when extra concentration on driving is required -- in heavy traffic, bad weather, unfamiliar territory, or when the conversation might be stressful or emotional. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to never talk to your wife or children while driving.

While some safety experts have called for a complete ban on mobile phone use when driving, we have heard of no groundswell of support for a ban on talking with your passengers, listening to music or eating a cheeseburger while at the wheel. Instead, we suggest that you understand that talking on a mobile phone when driving can distract you from the important task at hand -- piloting your vehicle safely. With that understanding, it is also worth considering the lessons of the wireless industry's educational campaign "Safety: Your Most Important Call."

The Wireless Association offers its top 10 tips for driving safely with a wireless phone:

1. Get to know your wireless phone's features, such as speed dial and voice activation. Further, learn those features and how to use them safely and effortlessly before you try to use them behind the wheel of your car.

2. Use a hands-free device. While not a panacea, a hands-free device can help you maintain solid control of your vehicle by allowing you to steer with both hands. Because this device is so inexpensive, it's almost inexcusable NOT to use it.

3. Position your wireless phone within easy reach of your driving position before you get your vehicle underway. Reaching for a ringing phone in a briefcase located in the backseat is an invitation for disaster.

4. Let voicemail take your call if you can't reach your phone or if you are driving in difficult conditions. Remember, just because it rings doesn't mean you have to answer it.

5. Let the person you are speaking with know that you are driving. It is not rude but actually very prudent to suspend your call if necessary.

6. Dial your phone sensibly. Dialing lengthy numbers while traveling at freeway speeds can expose you and those around you to deadly dangers. Instead, place calls when stopped or before pulling into traffic.

7. Do not engage in stressful or emotional conversations while driving. This holds true whether these conversations take place on the phone or with another passenger.

8. Dial 9-1-1 or other local emergency numbers to help others or yourself. The phone can be a lifesaving tool, helping you to guide help to emergency situations.

9. Do not look up phone numbers or take notes while driving. 

10. Realize there are times you should not call while driving, like in hazardous weather conditions, heavy traffic or on unfamiliar roadways.

Driving Today contributor Tom Ripley is based in Villeperce, France, where he studies international automotive trends, safety advances, brunettes, and the human condition.

Mobile Phone to Improve Pedestrian Safety

Worldwide efforts are underway to improve pedestrian safety. In Europe, new vehicle design standards have been implemented to protect pedestrians in crashes. In Japan, officials are taking an intriguingly alternative approach.  Among other efforts, they hope to use mobile phone technology to warn pedestrians of impending accident situations to prevent vehicle-pedestrian crashes.

Under the "New IT Reform Strategy" announced by Japan's Cabinet Office, Japan plans to develop necessary technologies that can reduce the number of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents. The government and private sectors will start large-scale trials for systems to improve safety driving from the fiscal year ending March 2009, with plans to start operations from the fiscal year ending March 2011.

Part of the response to this initiative comes in a mobile phone with smart features that can help both pedestrians and drivers avoid collisions. The Safety Mobile Phone prototype developed by Oki Electric Industry is able to interconnect the so-called "DSRC" inter-vehicle communication function and the GPS location positioning function with each mobile phone. Pedestrians with this device can create a DSRC wireless area within a several hundred meters radius around them that enables their phone to "talk" with vehicles equipped with inter-vehicle communication equipment. The device sends out its location information at a regular time interval. When car and pedestrian become close, location information will constantly be exchanged between the car and the pedestrian's mobile phone. And when there is a high possibility of a traffic accident based on the location information, it will warn the users beforehand.

"We focused our attention on leveraging mobile phones, since they are used by over 80 percent of the population in Japan," said Masao Miyashita, president of Systems Solutions Company at Oki Electric Industry. "Our goal is to improve the safety of vulnerable road users including pedestrians and those on bicycles."

In the future, phones with this technology will be able to analyze the behavior of other parties instantly based on exchanged location information and the passage of time. When there is a possibility that two parties are near collision, pedestrians will be warned through the vibration function on their mobile phones, and drivers will be informed through voice guidance function on the inter-vehicle communication equipment, helping avoid danger for both drivers and pedestrians.

Although a prototype is working now, there are obstacles to be overcome. OKI will work to lower the power consumption, achieve smaller sized DSRC wireless modules, and improve the user interface. OKI will also make efforts to integrate 3G mobile phones, PHS, and wireless LAN functions into a single mobile handset as part of a large-scale public-private experiment to be conducted in Japan.

So in the future when someone tells you, "My mobile phone was really a lifesaver today," they might actually mean it.