As active safety systems mature and we testers have more wheel time with them, the ones that work are coming into focus.
Without a doubt, some of the new systems work and have been proven to work. Not only have we had them save us from accidents during normal driving, studies are now being completed that show some of the systems’ dramatic effectiveness, and also showing that some may actually be increasing accidents. Here’s a combination of facts from scientific studies and our opinions based on real-world testing.
Rear View Camera (Back-up Camera)
In 2014, NHTSA issued its final rule, mandating that backup cameras be in every passenger vehicle – sort of. The deadline has stretched on and on since the Bush Administration’s authorization in 2007. Still, backup cameras work. When the IIHS studied whether or not rear-view cameras worked, nearly 100 percent of volunteer participants drove into a child-sized foam dummy placed at the rear of a vehicle without a camera. With the camera, 43 percent of subjects were able to avoid the obstacle.
Don’t like the system? You don’t have to use it, but we’d be surprised if you didn’t find it useful, especially in today’s cars with such limited visibility at the rear.
Forward Collision Prevention (FCP) With Automatic Emergency Braking
FCP is the one on this list that has been proven effective in scientific testing, real-world comparison testing, and that we ourselves have had save us from a crash in normal driving. Forward collision prevention systems with automatic emergency braking reduce front to rear impact crashes by about 40% in the real world. That is a huge number.
The myths you hear about it “taking control” when unwarranted are baloney. Since the systems, like Subaru’s EyeSight, are optical, they do once in a while flash a visual warning you didn’t need. Aside from that, this one is a slam dunk. Toyota will ship every 2018 model with its version of the system, and every automaker will follow about a year later. Buy this now so your car will fetch full value when you are ready to trade or sell on.
Reverse Impact Intervention
Another almost free technology, reverse impact intervention keeps you from backing over things or into things. Many cars have it now. According to NHTSA’s report just before backup cameras were made mandatory, 221 people were killed, and 14,000 people were injured every year by being backed over, usually in parking lots. Backup cameras provide drivers with a good chance of avoidance, but a system that actually stops the car goes that one better.
Automatic High Beams
Here’s a technology that both works, and drives you crazy. Automatic high beams activate by themselves. That is the good news. That they seem to shut off every time you pass a sign that reflects their own light back at them makes them infuriating. They automatically dim when they think they see another car’s headlights, but they are too sensitive to reflected light and you can’t override them on some cars. Your option is to switch to “manual” light operation, meaning you drive around all the time with your headlights on. The experts say they do help, but their lack of discretion can be maddening on the back roads.
Adaptive headlights swing from left to right when you drive at night. AAA indicates a five to 10 percent drop in insurance claims in cars with adaptive headlights, versus those without, indicating that there is a safety benefit. These are available on surprisingly affordable cars (the Mazda3 comes to mind). Get them. Have fun, be safe, and impress your friends.
Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM)
When one drives, situational awareness is key. The driver should be using the rearview mirror, side mirrors and the view over each shoulder in combination to keep track of all the other cars on the road. If you are not doing this, blindspot monitoring attempts to help you do it with flashing warnings.
BSM is intended to augment your already keen awareness of what is around you and how it got there. The moral hazard with this system is that it is easy to skip all that and just trust the little blinky thing in your side mirror to tell you if it is safe to merge lanes. The problem is, in many real-world driving situations you have to change lanes quickly and need to know without looking what’s there – or not there. BSM trains you not to know.
When NHTSA tested three types of blind spot monitoring systems commonly available in 2014, it concluded “All three BSMs alerted the driver to the presence of a vehicle in adjacent lanes and performed mostly as expected during the tests,” which seems like faint praise. Watch the video by IIHS here and note that the vehicle being detected in the “blindspot” is visible in the side mirror of the car.
Lane Departure Warning
Like automatic engine stop/start, Lane Departure Warning (LDW) is that feature nobody wants, but automakers insist we take. Our first suggestion if you opt for this “feature”, or are forced to take it, is to look for a car in in which you can disable it without seeing an idiot light appear on your dash.
We’re not just offering opinion here. A study conducted by HDLI, the data-driven arm of IIHS, showed that cars with LDW have a higher rate of crashes than those without.
The basic problem with LDW is that the warning goes off with such frequency that it makes it easy to ignore (and despise.) On the off-chance you actually could’ve used its help, you will be immune to its warble. Whether you are touching the yellow line to avoid a jogger, using a little bit of the lane next to you to avoid a pot-hole, or simply switching lanes when all alone on a deserted roadway, that little beeper and illuminated warning are going to bark at you. This is one safety feature that’s possible benefits are defeated by constant false alarms.
Lane Keeping Assist
Lane Keeping Assist Systems, or LKAS as many call it, are not all created equal. We will cut to the chase; Honda’s rocks, the rest, not so much. Honda’s will allow a highway driver to stay centered in a lane on the highway. After a few minutes of using it any weirdness goes away and it is a system most learn to love. We drove ten hours with it on a road trip and swear it reduces fatigue.
This system actually takes the wheel – sort of. You can override it of course. It also acts to steer the car on the highway. We drove from Boston to Providence without steering to prove it. The system does require that your hands contact the wheel and make some slight movements every fifteen seconds or so. If you don’t it flashes a warning. If you don’t respond, the system will shut off. The system uses most of what automakers are planning to deploy when autonomous cars are ready to go.
LKAS is intended to keep you from drifting out of a lane when you reach to adjust the radio or nav or to turn around and scream at children to “Settle down back there!” It does much more. One warning; some of the systems we have sampled, including one from a pricey German automaker, don’t work as effectively. They bounce you from lane marker to lane marker instead of keeping you in the middle of the lane.
If you could select these systems a la carte the world would be a better place. Sadly, many are packaged together and you must take them all, or skip them all.
Advanced safety technology is here to stay, whether we like it or not. According to a recent study by the New England Motor Press Association and the MIT AgeLab, car shoppers are interested in buying exactly this kind of technology that helps them either avoid or minimize crashes. But at the same time, drivers are not receiving the kind of training they need to understand how they work.
We’re in an odd time with this type of advanced safety technology. Most of it isn’t mandatory, and unlike technologies like airbags and ABS, there’s nothing close to standardization, so they all work a little differently from manufacturer to manufacturer. You need to carefully evaluate whether the car you’re interested in buying has it or not, and then you need to ask lots of questions to understand how it works.