Despite heavily congested roadways, distracted driving and even road rage incidents, today’s drivers enjoy the safest period in history to sit behind a wheel. That's largely thanks to safer cars.

Paving the way to future, when autonomous (self-driving) cars will rule the road, are technologies that are making today's cars even safer, says Lisa D'Ambrosio, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, which studies longevity, transportation and other issues affecting an aging population. The trick is knowing how to use the equipment and using it to supplement, not replace, good driving habits. 

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So what new technologies are making the biggest safety differences?

Auto braking: experts' favorite safety option

AgeLab’s Bryan Reimer, PhD, led a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study that looked into just that. Reimer's top choice would be a forward collision mitigation system, which senses if the car in front of you has slowed down or stopped and automatically applies the brakes.

“There’s no question about the technology, and it continues to get better," Reimer said. "These systems are at the point that they're worth investing in. They can make the difference between life and death."

Russ Evans, a car expert and co-host of the radio show “ Under The Hood,” which airs in 24 states, agrees, saying the forward collision mitigation system is solid technology, which will become more affordable and available in future vehicle models.

“These systems use a sensor to look forward to see if something is in the vehicle’s path, and if it is judged to be too close, it can slow the vehicle to help avoid the collision,” he says. “As we move into the near future, we can expect these and many other new safety items to become a permanent place in our automotive driving experience.”

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Other safety options to consider 

Many of these technologies come in the form of options and packages when you buy a car. Here are some other safety options you should consider.

  • Adaptive cruise control. Similar to auto braking, this system keeps your car at a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you while cruise control is on. It will slow your car if the one in front of you is too close.
  • Lane departure warning systems. This system warns a driver when he drifts out of a lane without making intentional moves to do so, such as using the turn signal.
  • Rearview backup cameras. These systems allow you to easily see what’s behind your car while in reverse. They will become mandatory on all new vehicles starting in 2018.
  • Blind spot detection/collision warning. This provides a warning if you start switching lanes while another vehicle is in your mirror’s blind spot.
  • Adaptive headlights. The technology keeps your headlights on the road in front of you, so if you’re rounding a corner, you won’t temporarily lose sight of the roadway.
  • Rollover prevention/mitigation. These sensors know when the car may roll over and automatically help keep all four tires on the road by modulating the brake and accelerator.
  • Occupant-sensitive/dual-stage airbags. The system senses the weight and size of the occupant and deploys airbags more safely to compensate, reducing the risk of injury to smaller passengers.

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D’Ambrosio notes, however, that the technologies can come with a hefty price tag that may be prohibitive for many consumers, especially younger ones. "Price is still a consideration now, especially when it's as a percentage of the car's value," she said. “As the value of a car goes up, they may be less swayed by price because $2,000 more on a $70,000 car is less of an issue for those buyers than $2,000 is on a $20,000 car."

Related: How to Buy a Safe Used Car

Ronald Agrella is a freelance writer and former editor of The Boston Globe’s