Once upon a time, we bought cars with safety features designed to protect us during a crash. These days, the goal is to keep that crash from happening in the first place. Forward collision warning systems are an increasingly common safety feature in today’s cars, and with good reason.
Studies show the technology saves lives. The challenge for consumers is in understanding how differing systems work. Each has the same goal of avoiding forward collisions, but they don’t all work the same way or provide the same protections.
Here’s what you need to know before you go car shopping.
Forward is the Only Direction Protected
These systems are designed to warn you when you’re about to hit something head on. They won’t warn about potential collisions with the side or rear of your vehicle. They’re focused only on keeping you from rear-ending another car or running directly into an obstacle like a sign or debris in the road.
Exactly what your forward collision warning system sees depends on the car you buy. Don’t assume your system will see everything. Some see only large obstacles like cars while others can detect people, bicyclists, or animals. Do some research so you fully understand what you’re getting when you buy your car.
There are other systems like lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic alert to cover other areas of your car. Sometimes these are bundled together as safety packages, but not always. Ask about the available systems on your car and see if you’d do better to opt for a package with several safety features rather than trying to get forward collision warning as a stand alone feature.
Warning Methods Vary
The way a car warns you about a potential collision varies from company to company. Obviously, this isn’t something you can try out before you buy a car, so ask plenty of questions and see if there’s a video of how your new car’s warning system works.
Often the warning is a flashing row of lights in the instrument cluster or up on the windshield in cars equipped with a head-up display. The color of the lights can vary with yellow, orange, or red displaying depending on the system’s assessment of how close you are to having a collision.
Others systems flash words and some add in a warning tone. There are even some that will make your seat vibrate. The warning is supposed to startle you into action, but it’s not supposed to be such a surprise that you freeze up and don’t know how to react.
Understand what kind of warning your car provides in the event of a potential collision so you’re not caught completely off-guard the first time it activates.
Weather Can be a Problem
Forward collision warning systems can have trouble seeing in bad weather, just like human eyes. Radar sensors can handle a little dirt and snow. Lasers and cameras, however, can be obstructed by dirt and snow making them ineffective. They aren’t foolproof.
Much like a warning light will activate when your oil is low or you’re running out of washer fluid, there are warning lights when forward collision systems can’t operate properly. If it’s safe, then clear off the obstructed sensors.
If it’s not safe to get out of your car, then be prepared to drive without their benefit for a period of time. These systems are a backup for the driver, not a substitute for one.
These Systems Come at a Premium
This technology is still new, so you won’t find it on every car. The National Transportation Safety Board would like to see that change, but for now, you’ll have to shop around to find a car with forward collision warning as an available feature.
The most affordable cars and the base trims on many models don’t even offer this kind of safety technology, even as an option. Sometimes even when it is available it comes at a high cost. In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to opt for a higher trim level to get access to these systems and then end up paying for a bunch of other features you don’t want to buy.
Shop carefully so you know what’s available on your potential new car and be prepared to look at different models to find this safety feature at a price that still fits within your budget. Be ready to switch brands to get forward collision warning in a car you can afford.
Forward Collision Warning with Braking
Forward collision warning systems warn you about a crash, but they don’t do anything to stop the car. The only time they’ll stop you is if they also include automatic emergency braking. This is tricky. You may find a lower end model with forward collision warning, but have to go up a level to get the automatic emergency braking, too.
Again, this varies from company to company so don’t assume a forward collision warning system will stop your car. Having both the warning and braking together is ideal, but they don’t always come as a package. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says it could prevent up to 700,000 accidents a year so it’s a worthwhile investment when you’re buying a new car.
More and more automakers are adding these features to their cars, but it will take some time to find them everywhere. One day they could be as commonplace as seat belts, but for now, they’re still an option. If you can afford to get both, then do, but even forward collision warning alone will offer significant protection.
Emergency Braking is Limited
There are limits to what emergency braking can do to prevent a crash. It can bring a car to a complete stop before impact, but not in every situation. At low speeds, it can often stop a car before the collision happens and prevent minor fender benders. This is particularly helpful in slow, heavy traffic if the car in front of you suddenly stops.
At higher speeds, it’s a different story. Depending on how fast the car is moving, the emergency braking may slow you down, but it might not be able to prevent an accident. It’s still valuable in these situations, however, since it can greatly reduce your speed on impact and reduce any associated injuries.
The key here is to remember that emergency braking helps, but it’s not a cure-all. There is no guarantee that your car will never be involved in a forward collision simply because it has the ability to stop on its own.
Forward Collision Warning Isn’t a Substitute for Driver Attention
Distracted driving is a serious problem and forward collision warning systems help in the event a driver isn’t paying attention. This doesn’t mean they’re a substitute for human eyes.
There may come a time when cars are capable of operating without a human behind the wheel, but that time is still years in the future. No matter how many safety systems you have in your car and no matter how much you spend to make sure you have the latest and greatest technology, you’re still the one in charge.
The best way to avoid a potential forward collision is to pay attention to the road. Do not expect any forward collision warning or emergency braking system to take the place of your attention behind the wheel.