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Last Updated: April 2, 2008: 10:27 AM EDT
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Solving the highway death epidemic

Can nighttime vision aids reduce accidents on the roadways?

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor

autoliv.03.jpg
The night vision screen is in the center of the instrument panel, and is expensive - $2,200 in the BMW 650i Coupe.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- If you are a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. If you are the World Health Organization, everything looks like a disease - even traffic accidents.

So back in 2001, WHO turned its attention to deaths and injuries caused by automobiles, in an effort to develop a five-year strategy to prevent them. Although its findings received little attention at the time, they are genuinely alarming. Both automakers and auto parts suppliers are beginning to take action by developing night vision technologies.

A killer reputation

Measured by years lost due to premature death, road traffic injuries ranked as the ninth deadliest killer worldwide in 1998, behind such better-known scourges as HIV/AIDS, malaria and diarrhea.

By 2020, the WHO projects that road traffic injuries will climb to number three on the mortality list, trailing only heart disease and clinical depression. HIV/AIDS will have slipped to 10th by that time and malaria falls off the list entirely.

Why the sharp increase in auto fatalities? The reason is economic progress: the motorization of the Third World. Deaths per vehicle in countries like China and India run at a rate of 20 to 70 per 10,000 vehicles, so more cars mean more fatalities.

In the Western world, by comparison, deaths per 10,000 vehicles are around two. Drivers in less-developed countries tend to be less skilled, yet face far greater hazards - poorly maintained roads, teeming numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists and wandering animals, plus other untrained drivers.

Some of the measures you'd think would reduce the carnage don't, according the WHO. It concluded that driver's education, for instance, "not only wastes resources but sometimes actually increases motor vehicle crash losses by increasing high-risk exposure or rewarding risky behavior."

Among the measures the WHO does recommend are common-sense strategies: upgrades to road and highway design; specific provisions for pedestrians crossing roads; crash helmets for motorbike riders and improved design of car, bus and truck exteriors.

Seeing in the dark

One WHO recommendation is perhaps less intuitive: improved nighttime vision. Since lighting every highway and back road is impractical, automakers have been exploring technologies that enable drivers to see better at night.

All drivers are familiar with the phenomenon of people or animals suddenly appearing out of the dark when illuminated by headlights - often when it's too late to swerve or brake.

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) took a crack at night-vision technology back in 1999 when it made an infrared system developed by Raytheon optional on Cadillac Devilles. But the system was expensive at $2,250, and the windshield display small and hard to read. The option was eventually dropped.

In 2005, BMW introduced its own system, developed by Autoliv, the Swedish auto parts maker. Its infrared system provides a larger, better-defined image and is said to recognize pedestrians far enough away so that the driver has time to react.

To see if the Autoliv system performs as advertised, I recently tested it for four nights in a BMW 650i Coupe. At least when installed in a BMW, the system is still expensive: At $2,200, it helped boost the sticker price to $91,870. The display occupies the space used for the navigation system map and is indeed larger and sharper. But its location in the center of the instrument panel made it hard to see when looking straight ahead - especially for people like me with poor peripheral vision.

Twice during those four nights, I found pedestrians walking on the side of unlighted roads. But both times, they were illuminated by the headlights more quickly than they were by the night vision system.

But my experience was more anecdotal than conclusive. It's likely that with practice, I would become more comfortable with the center display and better-experienced at identifying potential trouble spots.

Autoliv has big plans for night vision. It can imagine linking it to emergency measures, preparing the brakes and arming the airbags if the devise recognizes a potential or real danger.

But the price will have to come way down - say to around $500 - to make this option widely available to car buyers. And it is probably a long way away from making big inroads in the highway death epidemic in countries where even $500 represents one-fifth of car's purchase price. To top of page

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