Volvo Car Corp. not only doesn’t mind competition in the area of vehicular safety, it actually welcomes it, says the auto maker’s top safety engineer.

“From a safety perspective, competitors are increasing, and I think that’s good,” Thomas Broberg, a senior engineer at the Volvo Cars Safety Centre in Gothenburg, Sweden, tells Ward’s in a recent interview. “It keeps us on our toes and also is recognition that what we’ve been doing for 80 years is right, which I think is positive.”

Furthermore, the more auto makers adopt advanced safety technology, the more lives that are saved, Broberg says. “If you look at the sheer number of people getting killed or injured in traffic accidents around the globe, something must be done, and we can’t do it alone.”

Volvo has focused on safety since it was founded in 1927 in Gothenburg. Since then, it has been developing safety systems that have proliferated throughout the industry, saving countless lives, Broberg says. For instance, the auto maker introduced a 3-point seatbelt in 1959.

Although Volvo held the patent, it chose to license the technology to competitors, a practice the auto maker continues today. “I think (licensing) is open from a business perspective,” Broberg says. “Once the technology is out there, it’s available…and others can follow.”

While seatbelts are not a recent development, they continue to be one of the most effective systems when it comes to saving lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., 5,000 of the 43,000 motorists killed on U.S. roads in 2005 could have been saved had they worn seatbelts.

Broberg says Volvo continues to strive to develop new innovations, a goal that benefits the entire auto industry. The auto maker’s latest safety system, dubbed City Safety, was unveiled on the XC60 cross/utility vehicle at last year’s Geneva auto show, just before the CUV hit dealerships in Europe.

The March arrival of the XC60 in the U.S. this year marks the first time the system will be offered in a North American production car.

Designed to prevent or mitigate low-speed collisions, City Safety utilizes a laser sensor embedded in the top of the windshield to detect vehicles traveling up to 18 ft. (5 m) in front of a car’s bumper. The system, which only is active at speeds up to 19 mph (31 km/h), determines if a collision is likely and pre-charges the brakes.

If the closing speed between the two vehicles is less than 9 mph (15 km/h) and no action is taken by the driver, City Safety activates the brakes automatically, stopping the vehicle just short of a collision.

Many of Volvo’s safety technologies stem from its traffic-investigation team, first formed in the early 1970s. The team often is called to traffic accidents in Sweden, where members study how the incident occurred, its effects and how damage could have been mitigated or the collision avoided.

“That has given us a lot of knowledge about what is occurring in real traffic,” Broberg says.

“And that gives us an advantage. By knowing that, we can do the right thing and make the right priorities.”

Because alcohol plays a role in a large number of traffic accidents, Volvo offers a technology in Europe that requires a driver to blow into a device to confirm sobriety before the vehicle will start.

The system is used widely by fleets, which have seen their insurance rates decline as a result.

Fleet operators, such as cab companies, advertise their use of the system to ensure customers the drivers have not been drinking. And fleet repair costs are reduced because vehicles spend less time in the shop.

Volvo now wants to stress safety awareness in emerging markets, such as China and India, which have some of the highest traffic-fatality rates in the world.

Two years ago, the auto maker aligned with the Thai government to form a traffic-accident research team that collects and analyzes accident data. “We try to support (safety) through conventions and seminars in Third-World countries,” Broberg says.

In its effort to eliminate vehicular fatalities, Volvo knows the key is in overcoming human nature.

“When we (humans) developed, the fastest we could go was 5-20 mph (28-32 km/h), because that’s as fast as you can run, so we don’t have a natural fear of speed,” Broberg says. “However, we do have a natural fear of heights, because we know that if you fall from something high, you will hurt yourself.

“(Therefore), we host a safety exhibition for school kids using height, because it’s a simple way to educate people on what kind of forces you’re exposed to when you’re involved in a crash.”

Volvo also demonstrates this is with vehicles that have been crash-tested at 35 mph (56 km/h), Broberg says. “When you see the damage to the car, it usually leaves an impression.”

Broberg says Volvo’s attention to such detail may seem over-the-top to some. But when it comes to safety, the Swedish auto maker leaves no stone unturned. “Our objective is clear,” he says. “We want to have leadership in safety.”

bpope@wardsauto.com