Ever since my wife fell asleep at the wheel last November and got in a frightening accident, I’ve become a total zealot about car safety, telling anyone who will listen that if they’re driving a car without the most advanced safety features, get a new car now (if they can afford it; if they can’t, then get the safest car they can afford whenever they’re getting a new one). (For more on car safety, see pages 26-35 of my slide presentation, The Five Calamities That Can Destroy Your Life — and How to Avoid Them, which I’ve posted here).
I was just reminded of this when I learned that a close friend, her teenage daughter and three of her friends were in a terrible accident recently that could have killed them all. They were driving late at night down I5 at ~70mph, in the middle of nowhere 40 miles from Bakersfield, California, on their way to Los Angeles, when a car suddenly cut in front of them. My friend swerved to avoid a collision, lost control of the car, and it rolled multiple times. Believe it or not, they walked away — because they were in a safe car: a 1999 Lexus SUV.
But they were also very, very lucky because even though the car was built like a tank — that’s what saved them — it was 20 years old, so it didn’t have the latest safety features that could have given my friend an extra moment of warning that the car was coming into her lane and helped her maintain control of the car after she swerved. Nor did it have side airbags to protect their heads as the car rolled, nor an automatic system to call for help.
This last feature is key. When my wife crashed, the car hit a stump, tearing off the left front wheel and causing the airbags to deploy. Before the car even came to a stop, the Volvo On Call system was ringing and an operator immediately came on the speakers, saying “We have a report that your airbags have deployed. Are you okay?”
After my wife said she was, the operator asked, “Would you like me to call the police?”
“Yes please.” (They were there within two minutes.)
“Would you like me to stay on the phone until the police arrive?”
Without this emergency call system, can you imagine what might have happened to my friend and the four teenagers in the Lexus had the car rolled away from the road and they’d been seriously injured (the other car didn’t stop)? They could have been trapped for hours, unseen and unable to escape their car — in such a case, the emergency call system could have been the difference between life and death. (Every new car sold in the European Union starting in April 2018 is required to have this system, called eCall, but it’s still rare in the U.S.)
Distracted driving is making our roads more dangerous
Car accidents in 2016 killed 37,461 people on U.S. roads, up 14% in two years after a half-century of steady declines. Experts aren’t sure why auto fatalities are rising, but I’m convinced that it’s likely due to increasing electronic distractions. It’s so easy for drivers these days — myself included on occasion, I’ll confess — to take their eyes off the road because of an incoming call or text, looking at Google Maps, etc. Our smartphones are constantly ringing, chirping and vibrating, which is an irritating distraction most of the time — but when you’re driving, it can be deadly!
Safety features in new cars
The good news is that there’s been a quantum leap in the past few years in safety technology that will both help you avoid many types of accidents and, if you’re in one, make sure you walk away unscathed. The more I learn about the various technologies, the more amazed I am — and the more determined I become to persuade as many people as I can to upgrade to safer cars!
Unfortunately, many of the most important features are only available in high-end cars or are expensive options that most buyers don’t pay up for, so most new cars sold in the U.S. don’t have them. That said, Consumer Reports found two dozen models priced under $35,000 (like the Subaru Outback we bought our daughter last year) that have four advanced safety features, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic warning, that “are highly recommended by the automotive testing team here at Consumer Reports, and they’ve proved to have high satisfaction among real-world car owners.”
Consumer Reports’s web page lists nine key safety features and allows you to check which ones are available, either standard or optional, for every car model:
Automatic emergency braking (AEB): Brakes are automatically applied to prevent a collision or reduce collision speed.
Forward-collision warning (FCW): Visual and/or audible warning intended to alert the driver and prevent a collision.
Blind-spot warning (BSW): Visual and/or audible notification of vehicle in blind spot. The system may provide an additional warning if you use your turn signal when there is a car next to you in another lane.
Rear cross-traffic warning: Visual, audible, or haptic notification of object or vehicle out of rear camera range, but could be moving into it.
Rear automatic emergency braking (Rear AEB): Brakes are automatically applied to prevent backing into something behind the vehicle. This could be triggered by the rear cross-traffic system, or other sensors on the vehicle.
Lane-departure warning (LDW): Visual, audible, or haptic warning to alert the driver when they are crossing lane markings.
Lane-keeping assist (LKA): Automatic corrective steering input or braking provided by the vehicle when crossing lane markings.
Lane-centering assist: Continuous active steering to stay in between lanes (active steer, autosteer, etc.)
Adaptive cruise control: Adaptive cruise uses lasers, radar, cameras, or a combination of these systems to keep a constant distance between you and the car ahead, automatically maintaining a safe following distance. If highway traffic slows, some systems will bring the car to a complete stop and automatically come back to speed when traffic gets going again, allowing the driver to do little more than pay attention and steer.
A few more suggestions
If the car you’re driving doesn’t have the latest, best safety features, I urge you to upgrade now (and don’t give your child the old, unsafe car!) — again, if you can afford it. But even if you can’t, I have a couple of suggestions:
Consider buying aftermarket safety technology such as forward-collision and lane departure warning, backup camera, emergency assistance, and blind spot detection monitors, as outlined in this article;
If you’re feeling tired, don’t just keep driving, even if you’re only a few minutes from your destination (which was the case with my wife’s recent accident). Instead, do something: ideally, pull over and rest; if you can’t, then turn on loud music, roll down the window, drink something with caffeine, take NoDoz, or call a friend; and
When you rent a car, get a full-size one or larger (accidents are more likely when you’re driving an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar area).
Safe travels to all!
PS—After my wife’s crash, which totaled our Volvo XC90, we brought the smaller version of this car, the XC60, which according to Euro NCAP ratings, is the safest car money can buy.
Whitney Tilson founded and for nearly two decades managed hedge fund Kase Capital. He is now teaching the next generation of investors via his new business, Kase Learning.