Dana Lane / Flickr

That’s how many lives would have been saved in 2011-12, according to a new federal report.

If one U.S. federal agency has its way, a self-braking system that prevents rear-end crashes will become as standard in American cars as seatbelts and airbags. The National Transportation Safety Board made this recommendation to safety officials and automakers alike in a new report detailing the benefits of collision avoidance technology. Here’s the head of the NTSB, via press release:

“You don’t pay extra for your seatbelt,” said Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “And you shouldn’t have to pay extra for technology that can help prevent a collision altogether.”

When it comes to driverless technology, it’s fair to say the federal government has assumed a backseat role. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken some initial steps toward mandated connected vehicle systems (think: cars that can converse to avoid collisions), and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently supported self-driving developments. In general, though, the type of strong oversight that might make autonomous safety features mandatory, as opposed to expensive add-ons, has been missing.

The NTSB report lays out a strong case for requiring collision avoidance in future car models. First, a quick primer on what the agency has in mind with such technology. NTSB defines a complete “collision avoidance system” as a “suite of technologies”: driver alerts (when a collision seems possible), dynamic brakes (which prepare the car for a hard stop), and autonomous emergency braking (which applies the brakes on its own if the driver doesn’t do so).

NTSB analyzed the details of rear-end car crashes that led to 2,700 fatalities during 2011 and 2012. (The actual number of fatalities during this period was higher, at 3,491, though that figure includes cases with incomplete information or that involved motorcycles or buses.) Of these deaths, NTSB estimates that 2,220 lives would have been saved if the cars involved had complete collision avoidance systems—or 82 percent. For passenger cars, in particular, the fatality savings reached 94 percent.

NTSB

The true social benefit of this technology is even greater when you factor in time, money, and health lost to less severe fender benders. NTSB reports a total of 1.74 million rear-end crashes in 2012 alone in the United States, with more than half a million people reporting injuries.

Officials face an uphill battle when it comes to making collision avoidance technology standard. The latest count shows that only four of the 684 new vehicle models for 2014 included a full collision avoidance system as a standard feature. (These are, for the record, the Mercedes G Class and the Subaru Forester, Legacy, and Outback.) Some 41 percent offered at least part of these systems as options, with more than half of new models offering no such technology at all.

To be sure, collision avoidance systems won’t eliminate car crashes or traffic deaths. But they’re largely ready for deployment—unlike truly connected vehicle systems, which might be decades away—and would have an immediate and dramatic impact on road safety. It’s time for both federal regulators and car companies alike to treat these systems as necessities for all, instead of extras to be afforded by a few.

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