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By Larry Magid

A lot has been written about how technology can make driving more dangerous, and it’s certainly risky to text, fiddle with your phone, configure your GPS, mess with your radio or even speak on the phone while driving.

But tech can also make us safer. For example, my car is equipped with a rear-view camera, which will be a requirement starting in 2018. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 210 fatalities and 15,000 injuries per year on average are caused by “backover” crashes, and about a third of the victims are children under 5. It’s rare that I spot a person in my rear-view camera, but it does help prevent me from bumping into parked cars while trying to shoehorn my way into a tight space.

On occasion, I’ve even used that camera while driving on the freeway to make up for my car’s blind spot, which makes it hard to tell if someone is passing me from behind as I change lanes.

Lots of carmakers have a feature that will automatically park the car for you and an increasing number are offering collision avoidance systems. Audi, for example, has what it calls Pre Sense that, depending on the model, uses radar and cameras to anticipate a possible collision. It not only can automatically tighten safety belts and close windows and the sunroof, but also can warn the driver that an accident is likely and, if the driver doesn’t respond quickly enough, can apply the brakes.

Other automakers, including Ford and GM, have similar features in some cars. Last year Ford showed off a test car that can automatically steer and brake to avoid collisions.

Other safety-related technologies to consider, according to USAA insurance company, include adaptive cruise control that slows you down when you approach traffic, adaptive headlights that help drivers see better as they round a curve, backup sensors that beep if you’re about to hit something or someone and side-view assist that can detect a car in your blind spot.

Toyota’s Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist uses radar, a stereo camera, and a near-infrared ray projector that can detect vehicles, stationary objects and pedestrians and, like Audi’s system, can warn the driver, apply the brakes and tighten the seat belts,

Most of these systems require that you get a new car, and typically an expensive one at that. But there are also aftermarket products that you can add to existing vehicles.

Jerusalem-based Mobileye, for example, has a product that can add what it calls “artificial vision” to any vehicle. The device, which costs $849, plus installation fees, employs a vision sensor mounted on the windshield and a display and audio signals that warn you about a likely forward collision, not just with another car, but with a pedestrian, bicycle or object. There is also a lane-departure warning that alerts you if you start to veer without having used your turn signal to tell the system (and other drivers) that it’s a deliberate lane change. It can also read speed limit signs and let you know if you’re going too fast.

Mobileye develops some of the technologies used in carmaker-installed safety systems and is also working on technology for self-driving vehicles, according to its website. The company went public this month and, as of last week, has a market cap of over $1 billion.

The U.S. government is encouraging not just the development of new technologies, but consumer adoption of what’s already available. The NHTSA operates the website that recommends that people purchase cars with lane-departure warning systems and rearview backup cameras, and says that automatic crash notification (that alerts first responders to a crash) and frontal pedestrian impact mitigation braking “may improve overall vehicle safety.” The website also has some low-tech safety advice, including how to use child seats and how not be one of the nearly 11,000 tire related annual U.S. crash victims.

You don’t need four-wheels to get the latest safety technology. Skully has raised nearly $1 million on Indiegogo to develop “the world’s smartest motorcycle helmet,” which provides a heads-up display on the face shield with a 180 degree rear-view camera that helps eliminate blind spots. It also gives you visual and audio GPS navigation and the ability to answer your phone. The company is taking pre-orders for the Skully AR-1 at $1,399, which it expects to ship by the middle of next year.

All of these technologies make you safer, but not completely safe. There is always the possibility of something going wrong, usually as a result of human error or carelessness. Even Google’s self-driving cars — which take the human out of the driving equation — can get into crashes because they share the road with other cars that are driven by people.

Safety technology is advancing at a very rapid pace, so it’s only a matter of time before our vehicles become safer. Humans, however, evolve very slowly, so if your car did have a sensor that detected human error, it might put up the following warning message: “PEBSWAS” — problem exists between steering wheel and seat.

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

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