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Automakers focus on technology to prevent crashes

DETROIT -- Automakers in Japan are studying a system that alerts drivers to the presence of children in a busy urban neighborhood.

As part of the experiment, called the Kanagawa project, Nissan Motor Corp. is placing bracelets on young children that relay signals to vehicles in the area. Drivers passing through are told, "Children nearby, please be careful."

The Nissan project, like others in the auto industry, reflect the increased focus on developing ways of preventing crashes and fatalities. From the stages of the North American International Auto Show, new "pre-crash" technologies are emerging that target the crucial milliseconds before a crash or help drivers avoid the crashes in the first place.

In the United States, more than 43,000 people die annually on roadways -- the equivalent of an airplane crashing every day with nearly 120 people aboard -- and fatality numbers have remained largely stagnant .

Safety officials have improved restraint systems such as seat belts and air bags to the point that many believe more research should be focused on the pre-crash systems that help tell the driver and the vehicle when a crash is imminent.

In addition to the basic restraints, most vehicles now have antilock brakes and automakers have been putting anti rollover technology such as electronic stability control on vehicles in recent years. The government has proposed mandating ESC on all new vehicles by 2012. "Safety is not a static concept and our approach to improving it cannot be static either," said Transportation Secretary Mary Peters .

Reflecting the advancements, Peters announced plans to upgrade the consumer crash test program to take into account ESC, lane departure warnings, and other technologies.

Many safety experts say the advancements are mostly limited to luxury vehicles , but should be more widely available in the next five years.

David Champion, Consumer Reports' senior director of its automotive test center, said many question marks still remain on the technologies because drivers do not always react in a positive way to the warning systems.

"What we've seen is unless they have a visual confirmation that something's going on they tend to ignore the warnings," he said.

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