PITTSFIELD -- They never saw the deer before it appeared in front of their car.
Alan and Laurie Walker of Becket were traveling on Washington Mountain Road in Dalton, returning home from a gathering on New Year's Eve, when a large deer came off a snowbank and ran in front of their Subaru Forester.
When the Forester struck the deer, the collision caused the vehicle's hood to fly into the air, and the car careened into an embankment. Laurie initially thought the vehicle had rolled over and that the couple might be trapped.
But the Walkers were able to get out of the car, and when they did, they saw a welcoming sight.
Their car hadn't flipped. And instead of coming through the dashboard, the engine was beginning to descend under the vehicle.
"I thought, 'Thank God,' " Laurie said.
Descending engines, stability control, multiple air bags, crumple zones, and sophisticated security systems designed to thwart motor vehicle theft. These are just some of the safety features that local auto dealers offer on motor vehicles to heighten passenger safety and to help prevent crime.
All of these safety features benefit the driver's wallet, too, because safer vehicles cause expenses to decrease when injuries are less severe, and car thefts go down.
"Any time you reduce passenger injury, there's going to be less medical bills and less expense," said John Paul, the manager of traffic safety for AAA Southern New England. "Lower insurance costs ultimately help every consumer and driver.
"Years ago, [then-Chrysler CEO] Lee Iacocca said that ‘safety doesn't sell,' " Paul said. "Now it does. People look at fuel economy and safety as reasons to buy a car."
Enhanced safety features are just as important to consumers in the Berkshires as they are anywhere else.
"They're huge, absolutely huge," said Bryan Welch, the Hyundai sales manager at Haddad Motors in Pittsfield. "The first thing [customers] ask about is the safety features and the air bags."
Sabic Innovative Plastics, whose world headquarters are in Pittsfield, supplies the materials for some of these safety features. Five Sabic products, ranging from the world's first all-plastic door module to a lighter-weight instrument panel, received honors from the Society of Plastic Engineers in 2011.
While some safety features protect passengers better, the new security systems cut down on crime. An estimated 715,000 motor vehicle thefts occurred nationally in 2011, and $4.3 billion was lost because of them, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
But the rate of motor vehicle thefts -- 229.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 -- declined 3.3 percent from 2010, 35 percent from 2007, and 42.6 percent from 2002.
In Berkshire County, only 13 motor vehicle thefts were reported in 2011, with six occurring in Pittsfield, according to the FBI.
As the numbers decrease, car security systems become more sophisticated. They range from LoJack, which uses radio signals to find and recover stolen motor vehicles, to systems such as OnStar and Blue Link, which rely on tracking devices and global positioning systems to follow and locate them.
More car keys come with computer chips that have made it very difficult to take a vehicle without the right key.
"It's almost impossible to trick the car into letting you start it without the chip code for that car," said Jim Russell, the general sales manager at Johnson Ford Lincoln in Pittsfield.
No wonder car thefts have declined.
"The old idea of joyriding," said Paul, "lives only in the movies now."
To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
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Top motor-vehicle safety features
Seat belts: More than half of the 425,000 lives saved in motor vehicle accidents between 1960 and 2008 were because the occupants were wearing seat belts properly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Electronic stability control: ESC is a system of sensors that monitors how a motor vehicle responds to brake applications, steering inputs and reductions in engine power when the vehicle suddenly swerves or skids. Beginning with the 2012 model year, ESC was required on all passenger vehicles.
Side airbags: Depending on the type of airbag and the vehicle model, they can reduce fatalities from 29 to 52 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Active head restraints: Research is still going on, but early reports indicate that head restraints protect motorists from whiplash and help reduce injuries in rear-end collisions.
Source: Eagle news services