Who Says Safety Isn't Sexy?

Cool gizmos check your tires, watch your back, and more

Despite all the scary news about Ford Explorers (F) with exploding tires, cars are definitely safer than they used to be. You can find air bags, antilock brakes, and side collision rails inside most late-model cars. And you can be pretty sure that each new model year will bring further safety improvements. Next year's offerings, for example, due out this fall, will have an emergency escape latch with a fluorescent handle inside the trunk, mostly so kids don't lock themselves in by mistake. By 2004, the government will require that tires automatically display an alert on the dashboard if they are under- or over-inflated.

But all those whiz-bang new features won't help the cars already on the road. So for those of us who don't buy a new automobile every year, I've rounded up a few simple fixes that can keep you and your family a little safer.

Take the emergency trunk release. You can get one installed for $50 at any General Motors (GM) dealership if you own a GM car going back as far as the 1990 models (table). And that release is actually better than what most carmakers plan to use in their new cars. GM researchers found that small children wouldn't touch a fluorescent handle for fear it was hot, so its version is painted yellow and lit with a soft light on the trunk wall behind it. As part of the deal, it also modifies the main latch: It must be manually reset each time you close the trunk, which will prevent young kids from locking themselves in to begin with.

Tire-pressure monitors are a more expensive proposition. They will run you about $300 installed, although many tire dealers offer free installation, a $50 to $100 savings, if you buy them with a new set of tires. The monitors use battery-operated pressure sensors and radio transmitters that ride inside each tire and continuously send signals to the passenger cabin. All but the simplest models display the air pressure in each tire, and all of them will sound an alert should the pressure in any tire drop. The payoff, besides safety: You'll get better gas mileage and increased tire life with properly inflated tires.

KEEPING TRACK. SmarTire (www.smartire.com) makes air-pressure monitors that mount on the dash or plug into the cigarette lighter. Johnson Controls (www.johnsoncontrols.com) is testing a similar system with the tire pressure displayed on a special rearview mirror that replaces the one in your car now. It's $249, plus $50 for installation at Detroit-area Goodyear (GT) dealers now and will be more widely available this summer. If an electronic monitor is too expensive, pick up a set of tire valve caps with red or green indicators that let you check tire pressure at a glance by simply walking around the car. They're $20 to $40 for a set of four at auto-parts stores, or look for Folia Tec's Aircontrols at www.jcwhitney.com or Tire Minders at www.garage-toys.com.

Backup warning systems are another good bet, given that a quarter of all accidents occur when the car is in reverse. If you've ever backed into a pole, you know that fixing a bumper can be expensive--about $500, or just enough to eat up the deductible on your insurance policy. Simple systems help prevent you from backing into a wall or car while parking. The more sophisticated ones are sensitive enough to keep you from running over a tricycle or child as well.

Installed on the rear of the car, they send out a signal that reflects back if it hits an object. That triggers a speaker, which emits a series of beeps that get more insistent as you approach the obstruction. Some use a light mounted on the rear window that changes from green to yellow to red, just like a traffic signal, the closer you get. The simplest one, with a beeper only, is made by American Technologies Network (www.atncorp.com). Called AutoPark 2000, it attaches to your license plate frame and sells for about $50 at auto-parts stores and alarm system dealers, or $46 online at www.kwmuth.com. Another one, Sonar Vision, costs $69 and includes the warning lights.

EYES IN BACK. A top-of-the-line backup system is Donnelly's VideoMirror system (www.donnelly.com). It's a flip-down video screen mounted underneath the rearview mirror that shows what's behind you, captured by a tiny camera on the rear of the car. It will set you back $500, and professional installation can run $150 more. Donnelly also offers you a $150 option of adding an in-car camera to monitor kids in the back seat, especially important for infants under 12 months or 20 pounds who are required to sit in a rear-facing car seat. While you're at it, pick up a backup beeper to warn people outside that the car's in reverse. DesignTech (www.designtech-intl.com) makes a combination beeper and backup bulb for $25.

Besides decking out your car with safety features, you can match almost anything luxury carmakers offer--and add options they haven't thought of yet. Rain Tracker ($209 at www.raintracker.com) starts your wipers when it senses raindrops, and speeds them up when that 18-wheeler passes you, flooding your windshield. Need a leg up getting into that behemoth of a sport-utility vehicle? A $200 SideWinder (www.kodiakproducts.com) electric step will swing down and out when you open the door. Or how about a heated back massager, less than $100 from Obus Forme (www.obusforme.com)?

Oh, those are just gadgets, you say? Go ahead, splurge. They may not be as important as outfitting your car with gear that makes it safer. But if you've decided that a visit to your local auto-parts store is now in order, treat yourself to the creature comforts as well.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.