Experts: safety technology is reducing car crashes, but may not lower insurance rates

Auto Associated Press

More cars and trucks are being equipped with cameras, radar, automatic breaking and other safety technology that help avoid accidents, but drivers may not see their insurance bills go down anytime soon, experts in the auto and insurance industries said Thursday.

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Industry representatives gathered in Windsor, Connecticut, near Hartford for an auto safety symposium hosted by the Travelers Companies Inc.

Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia, a nonprofit and industry-funded research organization, said the effects of new safety technologies on auto insurance remain to be seen.

While crash avoidance systems, backup cameras and other safety features avert accidents and injuries, cars and trucks with the technology are more expensive to repair when they do get into crashes, he said. Some safety systems also don't work well in bad weather and at night, and some drivers are turning off the systems because of annoying alarms and false alerts, he said.

"Consumers tell us that there are a lot of false positives," Hazelbaker said. "This stuff doesn't always work."

Automakers have been ramping up installation of crash avoidance technologies in their vehicles over the past few years. Many cars and trucks now come with sensors that can detect an imminent collision and either stop the car automatically or alert the driver. Cameras and radar also can determine when a vehicle is leaving a lane and either alert the driver or steer the vehicle automatically back in between lane lines.

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Sensors and cameras also warn drivers of cars and trucks in their blind spots and of objects behind them when they're backing up.

Up-and-coming technology includes driverless cars popularized by Google and wireless systems that let vehicles send data to each other — including location and speed — to help avoid collisions.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that one in three fatal crashes and one in five accidents with injuries could be prevented if all passenger vehicles were equipped with forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot detection and other safety systems.

The institute also found that some models of Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and other manufacturers with crash avoidance technology had 14 to 16 percent fewer accident insurance claims, compared with the same models without the technology.

Air bags, stability control and other safety systems have made driving safer over the past decade. Passenger car and truck accident fatalities nationwide dropped from about 32,300 in 2003 to about 21,700 in 2012 — a decrease of about 33 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Insurance industry experts say that despite safety technology growing more and more sophisticated, they don't believe auto insurance will become obsolete.

"We don't see that accidents are just going to go away," said Chris Hayes, a vice president of transportation risk control at Travelers. "Technology is great. It's going to keep making us safer. But the human element is always going to be part of the vehicle."