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Automakers Pledge Safer, Greener Cars

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WebMD Health News

Jan. 12, 2001 -- Welcome to the North American International Auto Show, where automakers annually unveil their latest bells and whistles. In the wake of bad publicity over SUV tire and rollover problems, the focus this year is on safety features.

Among the new features introduced: a seatbelt that inflates after an accident and a car that beeps when something comes too close when the driver backs up. The Ford Motor Company even announced a new system it says allows an SUV to sense it's about to flip, and prevents this by activating brakes on individual tires.

Some of these may be real -- and necessary -- innovations. But environmentalists and vehicle safety experts say most manufacturers are too slow to adopt existing technology that would do a lot more to ensure the vehicles we drive don't pollute and keep us safer from injuries in wrecks. But they also offer a reminder that simple things -- like choosing vehicles wisely and obeying traffic laws -- also are important.

"There is certainly a lot less pollution than from comparable vehicles made in the '70s," says Kevin Mills, senior attorney with Environmental Defense, a not-for-profit environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "But there are many more vehicles on the roads, there has been a massive increase in the number of miles traveled, and now there is a different fleet on the road -- the growth in the truck segment," which does not have to meet the lower government emission standards passenger cars do.

Before any new "concept" cars had even been unveiled, the start of the auto show was the scene of an environmental rally Sunday. A convoy of about a dozen Honda Insight and Toyota Prius drivers circled around the front of the convention center to call attention to these "green," environmentally friendlier cars made by foreign automakers. Sales of these cars, whose engines are electric-gasoline hybrids, have outstripped the amount produced, and only a limited number have been made. No similar cars are yet available from a U.S. automaker.

The Prius gets 48 miles to the gallon and puts out less than half the amount of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons as other cars. These pollutants contribute to global warming, and studies, such as the one in last month's The New England Journal of Medicine, have linked them to early deaths and increases in asthma and other lung disorders.

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