Passive systems are critical to ensuring the safety of vehicle occupants when a crash occurs, but the industry is putting growing emphasis on so-called active safety systems designed to prevent crashes in the first place.
Electronic stability control, or ESP, now required on all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. "is having a stunning effect in reducing crashes and crash deaths" by preventing the sort of slides and skids that were all too common in the past, Rader said.
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But that's only a starting point. A growing number of vehicles are now equipped with radar-guided collision avoidance systems that can, for example, detect if another vehicle might run a red light ahead of you. Even more advanced technology can automatically apply the brakes if the driver doesn't respond quickly enough.
The completely redesigned Mercedes-Benz launched last year is a technological showcase, even featuring infrared night vision that can spot a deer, dog or pedestrian.
There is a price to be paid. By various estimates, motorists are paying thousands of dollars more for new safety systems. The good news is that digital technologies, such as ESP, are showing the same downward pricing trend as consumer electronics, meaning more features for less money.
So how much further can the industry go? Nissan is one of a number of automakers—as well as high-tech firms like Google—planning to put fully autonomous vehicles on the road, perhaps as early as 2020.
"Today, the automobile finds itself at a significant turning point," Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn wrote in an op-ed for the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "With the help of policy-makers providing clear regulatory oversight, [new] technologies could lead to 'zero fatality' roads within our lifetimes."
—By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.