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High-tech headlights cut crashes, study finds

Des Toups

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CarInsurance.com

Car insurance companies are accused of overcharging the poor.The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) says two newer safety technologies are emerging as clear successes in preventing auto accidents.

Both safety features  -- adaptive headlights that steer with the car’s wheels and autonomous braking that kicks in automatically when the car senses an impending crash -- significantly cut the frequency of insurance claims, HLDI data analysis shows. The study found no benefit to lane-departure warning systems; in fact, claims on cars so equipped actually rose slightly.

"As more automakers offer advanced technologies on their vehicles, insurance data provide an early glimpse of how these features perform in the real world," says Matt Moore, spokesperson for HLDI. (See “5 safety features that do what drivers used to.”)

HLDI compared insurance claims on cars equipped with the optional technologies with those without.

Forward collision-avoidance technologies, as they are known, are meant to prevent rear-enders.  A radar- or sonar-based system senses an obstacle and either flashes a warning or brakes automatically. Property-damage insurance claims for Acura and Mercedes models that brake automatically were 14 percent lower.

But it was the effects of adaptive headlights that surprised researchers.

Claims for cars with adaptive headlights were 10 percent lower -- a significant reduction, researchers said, because only about 7 percent of reported two-vehicle crashes occur after dark, and an even smaller proportion happen on a curve where steerable headlights might have a positive effect.

"All four adaptive headlight systems we looked at show benefits for most insurance coverages, and many of these estimated reductions are statistically significant," Moore says. "These lights appear to help in more situations than we anticipated, though we don't yet know why."

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a list of cars equipped with the new technologies.

Discount? Don’t count on it

Neither adaptive headlights nor autonomous braking is mandatory on new cars. (Air bags and electronic stability control are the most recently standardized technologies; rearview camera rules are in the works.)

Car insurance discounts tend to lag technology considerably; for example, most companies still offer discounts to cars with antilock brakes and air bags. Most safety features take about three decades to filter down to 95 percent of the cars on the road, researchers reported earlier this year.

The car buyers spending hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, on the optional high-tech systems won’t easily find insurance discounts tied directly to the technology.  Though safety regulators have long forecast that advanced safety systems would prevent accidents and save lives, the real-world data needed to back those predictions up is only now emerging.

But the decline in insurance claims for specific cars that the HLDI found is likely to mean lower base liability, collision and comprehensive coverage rates for their owners.  (You can see claims comparisons for car models at http://www.iihs.org/research/hldi/composite.) The discounts -- if and when they come -- would cut those rates even further.

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