The Accident: BMW’s Safety Systems to the Rescue

By Jonathan Spira on 30 October 2009
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Most people consider themselves to be good drivers, myself included.  IMG00235-20091010-1151I signal for every turn, I don’t overtake on the right, I don’t text while driving , I limit my hands-free telephone conversations, and I try to always be aware of my surroundings.

I’ve gone through multiple BMW, BMW CCA, and Skip Barber driving schools and each has given me new insights into what my car is capable of and, more importantly, how to best react in an emergency situation.

I know from personal experience how important it is to be able to react appropriately as well as how important it is to be in a very safe vehicle.  When I was a student at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich, my 3er series hydroplaned on the Autobahn A1 near Amstetten as I was en route from Vienna to Munich.  Hydroplaning occurs when a layer of water builds between the road surface and the tires, causing the vehicle not to respond to inputs such as steering or braking. There is little one can do and my Polaris Silver 3er series ended up on its roof.  Thanks to the safety features built into the car, including a crumple zone that absorbed most of the impact, I emerged with a minor scratch on my forehead.  For this I owe multiple thank yous to the engineers who designed the vehicle.

Even as more and more drivers are distracted by texting or applying makeup or shaving, it turns out that driving has nonetheless become safer.  According to data recently released by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the roads in the U.S. are safer than they have been in decades as the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles of vehicle travel is now the lowest that it’s been since the NHTSA started tracking such data in the 1970s.

In-vehicle safety technology may be one significant factor.  Ten years ago, side-impact airbags were available on only 10% of cars; today, almost 90% of vehicles offer them.   The same goes for electronic stability control; ten years ago, this key safety feature that uses the car’s brakes to prevent skids was available on only 9% of cars sold in the U.S.  Today that number is 74% for cars and 100% for SUVs.

Beyond this, many car makers have added numerous electronic safety features to their vehicles.


New lighting systems in the 7er increase all-around safety.

For example, BMW, in the new 7er series, includes:

Lane Departure Warning (LDW) – the steering wheel vibrates if you drift out of your lane without signaling
Blind-spot detection (BSD) – the steering wheel vibrates if you signal an intent to change lanes and another car is next to yours in your blind spot
Night vision with pedestrian detection – night vision, which uses a thermal imager to display the road ahead, is nothing new but its ability to sense pedestrians and other objects (large animals, for example) is.
Cameras all around (my term, not BMW’s) – a rear backup camera is fairly common as is the use of sonar to detect objects, but BMW adds front-end side cameras in the front fender, allowing the driver to see what’s ahead from a unique vantage point
Active Cruise Control (ACC) with stop-and-go functionality – not only does ACC bring the car to a complete stop and then return it to a safe driving speed (based on the speed of the vehicle in front), but it features an imminent collision warning
Adaptive Vertical Beam Control, Variable Light Distribution, Adaptive and Cornering Lights, and High-Beam Assistant for extra safety in the dark and in bad weather
BMW Assist with injury assessment (see sidebar)

In addition, while not perfect, features such as real-time traffic reporting via the navigation system, which provides information about any accidents ahead and other traffic patterns, and head-up display, projecting navigation, road geometry, and speed information in the driver’s field of vision, add to overall safety.

But there is one thing that none of these systems can do and that’s protect against other drivers who have made a huge miscalculation and, in an instant, are hurtling towards your car without apparently seeing it.

In my case, this happened two weeks ago as I was proceeding on a major street with a green light.  An Acura SUV made a left turn from opposing traffic and entered my path a second or so before impact.  This gave me barely enough time to react, let alone successfully complete an evasive maneuver.  I instinctively stomped on the brakes and tried to steer my way out of its way.  The braking slowed the car down sufficiently so that I avoided a side impact to my car (which could have caused significant injury) but nonetheless, we still made contact as the SUV passed in front of me.

I heard the accident take place but I didn’t feel it at all. The car’s front crumple zone absorbed the impact so well that it was a minor thud to me at most.

I’m not sure of the speed when we hit, but I would guess it to be about 20 mph. The other driver, after realizing I had a green light, was extremely apologetic even though he suffered minor injuries from the accident and had to go to hospital to be checked out.

BMW Night Vision catches pedestrians.

BMW Night Vision catches pedestrians.

The most important thing is that the car I was driving, a new BMW 7er series, not only allowed me to walk away from the accident but absorbed so much of the impact that I was left completely unscathed.    No safety system that currently exists can stop another driver from executing a maneuver that may result in an accident.  What matters most is that the car you are in can keep the consequences of the impact to a minimum.

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.


“This is Mr. Smith’s car calling.  He’s been in an accident and he probably has internal bleeding.”

Sound a bit futuristic?  Most 2009 and later BMWs now transmit data used to calculate the extent of injuries that passengers may have received in an accident.  This information will then be relayed to emergency responders by the BMW Assist response center.  In the first few minutes after an accident, especially if the occupants of a vehicle are not able to respond to questions, determining the extent of injuries can be daunting – and time critical.   P0051888

Developed by BMW and the William Lehman Injury Research Center in Miami, the enhanced system determines the potential of severe injuries by analyzing multiple factors including whether passengers were wearing seat belts, the direction and the severity of the impact, and whether or not airbags or side curtains were deployed. When emergency responders have timely access to this information, according to Dr. Jeffrey Augenstein, the center’s director, the chances for survival of injured occupants increase significantly, possibly saving thousands of lives. – JS

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