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A new car safety feature from Toyota Motor Corp. doesn’t wait for a crash to happen.

Equipped with a wallet-size radar on the front grille that keeps track of the distance of oncoming objects, the car knows when it’s about to crash and tightens seat belts and adds braking force within a second before a collision, reducing damage and saving lives, the automaker says.

In a tryout for reporters Tuesday, drivers speeding toward a cone on a test course could feel the safety belt tweak suddenly before the car struck the cone. I found it a spookily strange feeling to drive a car that seems to know what’s about to happen and reacts on its own.

The system will be available in Japan next month in a Lexus model but will not be offered overseas for now, the company said. Toyota did not say whether the feature will be an option or standard and refused to comment on pricing and research costs.

If added to all cars on the streets of Japan, the technology will save 100 lives a year out of an estimated 3,870 annual traffic fatalities here, according to Toyota. Even fractions of centimeters of slack in a seat belt can mean the difference between life and death, Toyota officials said.

The car market has become so competitive, safety and ecology are the key to winning a greater share, they said. Most accidents are caused by drivers not reacting quickly enough, rather than faulty judgments or steering, Toyota said.

The new feature softens the blow of the crash in two ways — by causing stronger braking and eliminating slackness in safety belts. The radar emits WiFi wireless networking waves of an experimental kind that are presently not on the market, Toyota engineer Setsuo Tokoro said.

Toyota developed a computerized electronic unit that connects the radar to seat-belt controls as well as to a brake-assist system that generates greater force after the driver hits the brake pedal.

The way it works is similar to adaptive cruise control, which allows cars to keep a safe distance from the car in front, but it is unique in kicking in “pre-emptively,” Tokoro said.

Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said the feature was just one more way to maximize safety, with air bags and antilock brakes already standard items aboard modern vehicles.

“People don’t have to think about wanting safety,” he said.

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