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Nearly half a century after seat belts became mandatory in American cars, experts cite them and other safety devices for the drastic reduction in the annual death toll on the nation's roadways. In fact, more than a few industry leaders and safety advocates predict zero fatalities from car accidents someday.
Though we probably won't reach that milestone for years, preliminary data show we are moving in the right direction, with manufacturers pressing forward with a two-pronged effort to advance automotive safety.
One is in so-called passive safety systems, including seat belts and airbags, designed to improve the odds of surviving a crash. But today's big push is in active safety—to prevent accidents.
"We have a clear vision of accident-free driving," said Steffen Linkenbach, director of engineering systems and technology for the German automotive supplier Continental AG.
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We can credit advanced electronics, much of it based on the same microprocessing technology found in smartphones, for making the latest safety features possible and increasingly affordable. Two decades ago, you'd pay a premium of up to $2,000 for an optional electronic stability control system—designed to prevent skids—in your car.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required the systems in all new passenger cars since 2011.
CrossTraffic Alert is another safety technology rapidly migrating from the luxury car market into the mainstream. It's made to prevent the collisions that happen in places such as parking lots, where you're blindly backing out into traffic. Radar "blisters" mounted on the rear fenders look left and right and sound an alert to get you to wait until it's clear.
Today's cars increasingly feature what Dieter Zetsche, head of the Mercedes-Benz brand and CEO of parent Daimler AG, calls a "sensor fusion," a blend of such unblinking technologies as radar, sonar and lasers.
A fully loaded 2014 Mercedes S-Class is as close as you can get to a true autonomous vehicle (which several makers promise to have in production by 2020). Among its features are Distronic Plus, which lets the S-Class keep up with traffic flow, and come to a complete stop in a tie-up and then start rolling again. It also will trigger the brakes if a collision seems likely and even turn on the flashers when one does occur.
The 2014 S-Class also features the latest in infrared Night Vision, which helps spot pedestrians, as well as deer and other animals. It even flashes a spotlight to warn people out of the path.
Collisions involving pedestrians have risen in recent years, perhaps as a result of distractions caused by texting and phoning. Whatever the reason, manufacturers are introducing a growing number of systems to help prevent such accidents.
Volvo pioneered such technologies with its City Safety system. The latest version will alert the driver if a vehicle, a pedestrian or a large animal is in the car's path. Such systems can automatically apply the brakes at speeds of up to 25 mph if the driver doesn't react quickly enough.
Meanwhile, Infiniti, the luxury arm of Japanese maker Nissan, has a rear pedestrian alert system on its QX60, the latest version of its JX35 3-row crossover-utility vehicle.
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A number of insurers offer discounts for cars equipped with these collision-mitigation systems, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently began rating manufacturers' different versions.
Despite the delay in implementing a proposed mandate by the NHTSA, a growing number of models are equipped with rearview cameras.
Cameras of all sorts are improving safety on the 2014 models.
Subaru's EyeSight system uses a pair of stereoscopic cameras mounted on the windshield, just above the rearview mirror, to control seven safety features, including Pre-collision Braking, Lane Departure Warning, Active Cruise Control and Pre-Collision Throttle Management.
The approach makes it easy and affordable to combine many features, according to Dave Sullivan, vehicle line director at Subaru. The Japanese maker plans to "eventually … offer this in every car line" it sells in the United States, he said.
Meanwhile, Honda is offering a new blind-spot detection system on several models, including the Accord, that relies on a camera to track traffic a mirror might miss on the passenger side. The image is displayed on a screen at the top of the center console.
Blind-spot detection using radar and other sensors has become a widely available option across the industry, as has a lane-departure warning to alert drivers who inadvertently drift across the double-yellow lines. The new Infiniti Q50 offers a steer-by-wire system that can hold the lane even if your hands are off the wheel for a moment.
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While the big breakthroughs are in active safety systems, makers haven't forgotten passive safety. The new Chevrolet Malibu offers 10 airbags. Parent General Motors has introduced an airbag system to keep front-seat passengers from bumping heads in a side-impact collision.
Ford is expanding the use of a new seat belt with a built-in airbag. Now in models including the Explorer, it is designed for rear-seat passengers, especially young children and senior citizens, who are especially vulnerable to injury in collisions.
While the vision of a crash-free world is still years away from reality, the new 2014 models introduce a range of technologies that should reduce your likelihood of an accident and improve your odds if you do have one.
—By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter or at thedetroitbureau.com.