Mark Phelan: Your car’s emergency flashers could get a major upgrade soon — and here’s why

One of the oldest — and possibly least effective — auto safety features might be getting a 21st-century upgrade.

A new system to improve the visibility of vehicles stranded by the side of the road could help reduce thousands of collisions and hundreds of deaths a year. The system could be available nearly immediately, if supplier Emergency Safety Solutions (ESS) gets regulatory approval.

“Vehicles on the side of the road pose a significant danger,” said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports magazine. Fisher hasn’t evaluated Houston-based ESS’s system, but he liked the idea of updating emergency flashers quickly and inexpensively.

“We should absolutely look to see if emergency flashers are optimized,” he said. “There’s a big push for complicated auto safety systems. There are simple things we can do to save lives and make driving safer.”

More than 64,000 people have been involved this year in the United States in crashes with disabled vehicle, according to an ominous real time ticker on ESS’ website.

70,000-plus crashes, 500-plus deaths

Every year from 2016 through 2018, nearly 72,000 people in the U.S. were involved in a crash that included a disabled vehicle, according to research ESS commissioned.

More than 14,000 people were injured and an average of 566 killed each year, according to the study. This year is tracking below those figures, possibly because pandemic shutdowns and precautions affected travel patterns.

“Our objective is to completely change how people receive information about roadside hazards,” ESS co-founder and COO Stephen Powers said. The company hopes to start that with a patented system that uses software to speed up emergency flashers from the current pace, which was set in in 1951, when the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote the regulation that governs the lights.

The 70-year-old regulation was written when the speed at which incandescent bulbs could be switched on and off was the limiting factor and there’d been no research into what kind of lights work best to warn drivers, Powers said.

A deceptively simple solution

Current emergency flashers blink at the same rate as turn signals, about 1.5 flashes per second. About 5 hertz — five flashes a second — is best, according to research ESS used to develop its system, which it calls the Hazard Enhanced Lighting Package (HELP). Even then, faster is better but only up to a point. Rates faster than five flashes per second become less effective for alerting people without distracting them.

ESS uses software to change how the vehicle’s existing lights work. HELP works on any vehicle with LED lights and electronic controls that are common on new vehicles. It could be beamed into existing vehicles in a smartphone-style over the air software update, or built into vehicles’ body control computer, Stephens said. The over the air update could happen as soon as the feature gets NHTSA’s approval.

That could come quickly if HELP is classified as a modification to an existing safety system rather than an all-new feature. That’s possible because vehicles with the ESS system retain their old-style slower flashers for use when the vehicle is moving — going slowly up a long hill, for instance.

“We don’t want to become a nuisance or something people ignore because they see it all the time on moving vehicles,” Powers said.

The 5 hertz flashes can only be activated when the vehicle is motionless. Pressing the existing flasher control once activates old-style flashing. A second push in a motionless vehicle accelerates to five cycles per second.

The fast lights are automatically activated if the vehicle’s air bags deploy.

NHTSA is evaluating the system. There’s no announced schedule for a decision, but Powers said it’s a “front burner” item at the regulator. The company also is talking to European regulators.

Why are police flashers distracting?

ESS also is working on digital alerts that could alert navigation systems like Waze when a vehicle is disabled on the side of the road.

“We’re working with tech companies to make that communication widespread, even without (direct) vehicle-to-vehicle communication,” Powers said.

ESS will license its intellectual property to manufacturers who want the feature. The company has 46 patents, covering its concept and technology in every major automaking and auto buying country.

The quicker flashes do not mimic the sometimes disorientating pattern of lights on police cars, Powers said. The police lights flash the lights on a rooftop lightbar and conventional lights at different times, a pattern that’s reserved for emergency vehicles.

HELP is less distracting because of its flash rate, single color and the “outlining effect,” which Powers said allows people to identify the shape and location of a vehicle more easily when all the lights flash at the same time.

No automaker has committed to using the system, but ESS is talking with several and expects quick implementation when it gets regulatory approval.