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Seven Auto Safety Features That Could Save Your Life

Technology to look for when shopping for a vehicle.

It's a scary scenario: You're drowsy or distracted by the radio, and you realize you've drifted into another lane. What do you do? Calmly turn the wheel? Overcorrect? What if you don't notice until it's too late?

Imagine a warning system that sounds an alarm and flashes a light to alert you that you've crossed the line, giving you the precious seconds you need to react.

Thankfully, this high-tech safety feature—known as a lane departure warning system—is a reality. It's one of many newer technologies available today as automakers computerize cars, apply radar innovation and expand the use of standard safety features.

Producing safer cars appears to have made a difference. Though Americans are logging more miles on the road, the number and rate of traffic fatalities dropped in 2010 to the lowest level since 1949, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And since 2005, traffic fatalities have dropped 25 percent.

Making Safety Standard

While newer technology typically appears on higher-end vehicles first, the trickle-down effect occurs over time as their benefits impress consumers and demand rises, says Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at TrueCar, an automotive solutions provider.

Take air bags, for instance. "They started with the most expensive cars, and now they're in every car," he says. Today's new cars have as many as 10 per vehicle, including side curtains.

"I recommend consumers go with the maximum amount of safety features they can afford," says Toprak. "They could potentially save the lives of you and your family members."

Here are seven of the latest safety features to look for the next time you're shopping for the safest vehicle you can afford.

Lane departure warning systems. These systems are designed to help prevent head-on collisions and other catastrophes. Cameras placed around the vehicle determine its relative position in the lane. If you leave your lane, a light flashes and a high-pitched beep sounds. Some models have a vibrating steering wheel to alert you.

Automatic braking. This system actually brakes the car to prevent or lessen the impact with whatever is in front of you. Toprak predicts the system will be a standard safety feature in five to ten years. "There's actually radar in front of the car, just like on a boat or plane, but a more simplified version," he explains.

Infrared night vision. This feature helps increase the distance you can see beyond headlight range.

Rearview camera. This technology helps detect people or objects behind your vehicle. It's available in some luxury models, but Toprak says a pending regulation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could make it standard on all vehicles by 2014.

Reverse backup sensors. Operational with or without a camera, this equipment helps alert you if you're about to collide with something. "The closer you get to something as you reverse, the more frequent the beeps get," Toprak explains. "And this technology is not that costly. It's cheaper than the rearview camera."

Pre-crash warning systems. Designed to prevent or reduce the severity of an accident, these systems warn drivers, with visual or auditory clues, if they're about to run into something. Toprak says they can pre-charge brakes, move the passenger seat back, position headrests to help you avoid whiplash, and apply partial or full brakes. Also called forward collision warning systems, this technology is available on 19 vehicle models in 2011, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS estimates that as many as 1.2 million crashes could be stopped or mitigated each year if all vehicles had this feature.

Electronic stability control. Around for several years, this technology helps correct a swerving vehicle by applying brakes on individual wheels, giving drivers a chance to regain control. The IIHS says this technology reduces single vehicle fatal crashes by nearly 50 percent.