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How to make emergency flasher hazard lights much better

This simple safety technology hasn't changed much in generations, but it may soon.

Your car's flashing hazard lights are pretty simple, right? You push a button, they flash; you push the button again and they stop. But that simple system is more nuanced than you might think -- and way overdue for an update. Here's how your emergency hazard flashers might be improved in the near future to keep you safe. 

Red turn signal and emergency flasher

Red hazard lights of indiscriminate shape are far from the best design for an effective emergency flasher, but that's what we mostly have on cars.

CNET

A recent report by Impact Research in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention indicates that over 70,000 people annually are involved in car emergencies and collisions from what scientists call "low conspicuity events" - in other words, your disabled car wasn't very visible and someone hit it and you.

The first step to reduce those numbers might be a faster, more visually arresting flash rate. A company called Emergency Safety Solutions is focused on getting that and other improvements allowed by federal vehicle regulations and then adopted by carmakers. Its technology patent includes a two-setting button for slower or faster flash rate, depending on the situation your car is in. Its tech would also trigger the flashers automatically in an accident.

Research by NASA's Color Usage Research Lab tells us the size and shape of any warning indicator, like a car's hazard flasher, makes a difference in perception of alerts. But in cars we're largely stuck with whatever size and shape of taillight the stylists chose for the car's look, not a shape that makes for the most effective warning icon.

Bike_traffic_light.jpg

Amber and green are probably more effective than red at sheer attention-grabbing, but they're already been assigned very different meanings on the road.

Candace Lombardi/CNET

And studies dating back as far as 1953 indicate that amber and green light registers best in our center of vision while blue seems to register better in our peripheral vision.  But, of course, yellow and green are already taken by traffic signals and blue is exclusively used by law enforcement, so our cars are usually stuck with the red lights that are already available in the form of brake and tail lights.

Watch my video for the story behind the move to modernize emergency flashers and learn how your car might already have better features, by sheer accident.