Today’s Topic: Cars, Safety and Kids

A few things have come together to inspire today’s expert topic: cars, safety, technology and kids. First – we need a new car chez moi and we’re engaged in a lively debate over getting an SUV with a third row seat, or not, as we stare down many years of carpooling (our old vehicle is a 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee). Second – because our car is old, it seems to me that technology has changed pretty dramatically in vehicles since our last purchase and I need to learn more about what’s out there. So for today’s installment in the Wired Momma DC Moms expert series I turned to Amy Brink, a friend and attorney, who works for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association in DC that represents 12 auto manufacturers. Amy is knee-deep in automotive issues every day, as well as a mom to 2 kids and expecting her third in a few months. So who better to find out what the latest and greatest technology is in vehicles, what the scoop is on saving a few bucks in gas and a few other fun facts for the kids?

Everyone, including Oprah, likes to talk about distracted driving and the importance of not texting while driving. Of course, I am in full agreement and know that my state, Maryland, just this year passed a bill to prohibit texting and driving, or even reading texts while stopped at a red light. But to me, distracted driving is about more than technology  and how we are using it. Frankly, as a mother of 2 young kids, what defines distracted driving in my car is my kids. A trip around the beltway or down the street usually involves kids arguing, instant demands that I retrieve whatever they’ve just dropped and loud fighting over whether we’re listening to the Backyardigans or Little Mermaid soundtrack. To say that I am distracted would be an understatement. Tell me, what kind of new and emerging technologies are auto manufacturers putting in vehicles to help parents stay safe and focused, despite what their kids are doing? 

New model vehicles today are equipped with voice integration systems, so the driver can talk without having to look away from the steering wheel. Additionally, you can talk-to-text, so you can respond to a message without averting your eyes from the road by simply stating a command. Many systems allow you to preset a certain number of different pre-determined text responses like “On the road, be home soon.”  You then can tell the car to respond with that command, we’ll call it command 3, and then you’ve responded without taking your eyes off the road. A recent study found that 80% of all crashes happened because a driver looked away from the road seconds prior to the crash.  Voice recognition is now available in over 90% of models, up from just 70% in 2009.

Also, I’ve found that voice recognition technology keeps the phone out of sight of the kids, which I think is helpful because then when the  kids don’t see it, they don’t want to play with it and they don’t feel like they are competing for my attention. Another newer technology is OnStar. We have OnStar in our vehicle and I will admit, I did put my daughter in one day and then locked the car with the keys inside the vehicle. It was like that episode of Modern Family where Cam locks Lilly into the car, I was totally freaking out. The woman in the shop actually came outside and held an umbrella over the window. Anyhow, OnStar unlocked the doors right away and while I’m confessing things here, would you believe I did it AGAIN – not two minutes later – talk about mommy brain. You have no idea how grateful I was for OnStar.

Loved this scene in Modern Fam of Cam trying to open the car

Finally because your Jeep is a little older, you might not be aware of how many newer models come equipped with a video player in the back seat or satellite radio. The kids can listen to the video with their headphones on and the parents can still carry on a regular conversation.

All of these new features sound fantastic – and I loved that episode of Modern Family. I’ve also been coveting the iPod sync my sister has in her Mini Cooper, especially because I despise listening to the commercials on the radio. As I consider the built-in video players for our next vehicle, I’m torn because it is something I’ve actually ached for when I hit that unexpected traffic jam on the beltway but I can see how there’s likely an issue with setting boundaries and expectations with the kids. What’s your experience on this front? 

Well, as a mom to 2 young kids, I certainly face that battle every day. We’ve worked really hard at setting boundaries with the kids on when they can and can not watch a movie in the car. They know that for the commute to daycare or home, they aren’t going to watch a video, but certainly for longer distances it’s a real treat to have access to it. Just like everything else with them, we try to be consistent so they know what to expect with it, it’s a privilege to watch the movie, not an automatic right.  And for the record, it can be a life-saver in those unexpected Saturday afternoon beltway traffic jams.
That makes sense. Now moving on to safety technology and emerging technologies, everyone has heard of anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. What other types of new safety technologies are automakers installing in vehicles that parents should know about before heading off to the showroom floor?  To me, just the idea of heated or cooled seats seems like wonderful technology.

Well, personally, the blind-spot assist technology has been really wonderful. Basically when another vehicle is in your blind spot, as detected by sensors built into your vehicle, a small light will illuminate in your rearview mirror to let you know. It can be really helpful, again, especially when you are in a rush or the kids are distracting you. In terms of emerging technology, vehicle-t0-vehicle communication is really pretty amazing.  What it means is that vehicles will be able to talk to one another.  For example, say that a monitoring system picks up that all cars are turning on their windshield wipers at mile marker 48, your vehicle can then ready itself for inclement weather and alert you to an upcoming weather front. Or, maybe cars are all suddenly shifting to the far right of a lane – this driver behavior can then alert the city that there’s a pothole in the road. Another example might be when two cars are approaching the same intersection, vehicle-to-vehicle communications can determine that one of the vehicles isn’t preparing to stop – even though they have a stop sign, and can warn the other driver. 

Very cool stuff to look out for. So these are technologies to look for in the future?

There’s lots of cool stuff in the works.  One thing to keep in mind is that car shoppers value safety – so, automakers compete against one another to build cars consumers know are safe.  That means each company is doing lots of research and experimenting with things behind closed doors to beat the competition.  In the end, the consumers win.  In general, though, I think you’re seeing automakers take on the next generation of safety technologies – which are the types of technologies that help a driver avoid a crash in the first place.  Things like lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control are great examples of that.

Until then, off topic, but still fun for families, kids as young as 3 and 4 are learning about the environment and the importance of recycling in preschool. I’ve heard that many parts of the vehicle are recycled, can you give me some fun facts that I can relay to my kids about what’s been recycled in vehicles today?

Sure, they might like to know that old blue jeans are used for trunk liners and carpets inside the cars.

Some sweet 80s jeans as carpet liners, anyone?

 The auto manufacturers also study nature to help learn how to build new technologies into vehicles. For example, one manufacturer is studying locusts because they fly in tight formations and are masters of collision avoidance. So what can we learn from how they locusts travel and avoid collisions, and apply it to safety technology in vehicles? Really interesting stuff.

Final question – gas prices are still pretty high. As we head into the July 4 holiday, long road trips and traffic, do you have any tips on getting the most out of our mileage?

Sure. Before you hit the road, check your tire pressure. Keeping your tires properly inflated can improve your fuel efficiency by almost 3%, which translates into about a tank of gas per year. On distance drives, maintain a steady speed. Most people don’t realize that every 5 mph over 60 mph they are driving is the equivalent to spending an extra 20 cents per gallon on gas. And a third tip that is easy to remember is be sure you tighten your gas cap all the way – you can check your owners manual for specifics on your vehicle but typically you should hear the cap click as you tighten it. A loose gas cap is an easy escape route for gas.

Thank you to Amy for her great advice on autos today. And I’ll keep you all posted on if we end up with a vehicle with a third row seat or not – I’d love to hear from readers who do have an SUV with a third row and if it’s been as used as you expected it would be.

One Response to Today’s Topic: Cars, Safety and Kids
  1. Sam
    June 29, 2011 | 2:49 pm

    I live in an area that is chock full of SUV’s and most of the drivers are tiny behind the wheel of a huge Escalade or even a Highlander. I’m anti-SUV. If you’re going to cart your kids around for the next 10+ years just get a minivan. That’s what I want. A FOB that unlocks the sliding doors, auto-start, navigation, the works. I’m hunkering for a Toyota Sienna. I’m tired of opening doors in parking lots and being afraid of scratching up other cars and mine. With 2 kids it’s worth it.

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