A growing array of advanced safety technology is now available as either standard or optional equipment on most new cars, trucks and SUVs. To help you make decisions about which features are most important to you, Edmunds has developed this list of some of the most widely available "active" safety features, along with key information about each one. Active safety features are meant to keep you from getting into an accident, versus "passive" safety equipment, such as seat belts and airbags, which protect you if you're in an accident. We hope this list will make choosing active safety features easier when you're shopping for a new vehicle.
Our list is based on an assessment of research and recommendations from such sources as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the National Safety Council (NSC) and its MyCarDoesWhat.com website.
The first three items — forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive headlights and rearview cameras — generally received the most positive comments or ratings. But some research studies found the other features on the list to be worthwhile, and one or more may be just what you need, depending on your driving environment, driving style and personal preferences.
What you won't find here is safety equipment that is currently government-mandated as standard equipment for passenger cars and light trucks, such as seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control.
Forward Collision Warning with Automatic Emergency Braking
This technology is also called automatic emergency braking or forward collision mitigation. These systems have sensors that detect vehicles or objects in front of you and send a signal to a computer that evaluates the closure rate. If the system decides there's danger of a collision, it triggers a visual or audible signal or both. But if you don't respond quickly enough, it automatically applies the brakes to avoid or lessen the severity of a crash.
Now widely available as standard or optional equipment on many car models, these systems have received generally positive ratings in government and industry evaluations. IIHS research shows that vehicles equipped with this technology are clearly less likely to rear-end other vehicles. And the Highway Loss Data Institute has found that such systems, along with adaptive headlights, show the biggest crash reductions of any automated safety features.
You should be aware, however, that testing by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that automatic braking systems "vary widely in design and performance." In tests, those designed to prevent collisions reduced vehicle speed by 79 percent, while those intended just to lessen crash severity only reduced speed by 40 percent. So take that into consideration if this feature is important to you.
Forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking is standard or available on such models as the 2017 Chevrolet Malibu, 2017 Chrysler 200, 2017 Mazda CX-3, 2017 Subaru Forester and 2017 Volvo S60.
Adaptive headlights, sometimes called intelligent light systems or active headlights, pivot with the steering wheel to illuminate the road in the direction your car is heading. The system uses sensors to detect steering angle and sends a signal to a computer within the system, which in turn processes the information and tells small electric motors to swivel the headlights the appropriate amount.
In addition, some adaptive headlight systems provide improved illumination when you drive up hills. Unlike regular headlights, which point at the sky on sharp inclines, these lights pivot downward to stay aimed at the roadway. Many such systems come packaged with an auto-dimming feature that switches to low beams when the system detects oncoming traffic.
Adaptive headlights have received very positive ratings in government and industry evaluations. Although the technology is relatively new, IIHS data shows that vehicles equipped with adaptive headlights are involved in fewer crashes than those without them. IIHS also notes that these systems might soon be necessary for a vehicle to receive its Top Safety Pick+ rating.
Rearview cameras, also known as backup cameras, use a lens mounted at the rear of a vehicle to project an image onto a dashboard screen to help you see behind your car. Some rearview camera systems provide a color image, some are monochrome (black and white) and some even have night-vision capability. Many display parallel lines over the image to indicate the vehicle's width and most include a warning tone that sounds when you get too close to an object.
Experimentation with rearview cameras has been going on for decades, with one such system mounted on the 1956 Buick Centurion concept car. The first production car in the U.S. with an optional backup camera was the 2002 Infiniti Q45. Today, rearview cameras are either standard or optional equipment on more than 70 percent of new vehicles, according to NHTSA.
Data from IIHS shows that back-up incidents cause approximately 290 fatalities and 18,000 injuries each year, many involving infants or children. The National Safety Council notes that rearview cameras have been shown to be more effective than sensor-based systems that beep when an object is detected. As a result of various studies and other data, NHTSA has mandated that rearview cameras be standard equipment on all light vehicles manufactured on or after May 1, 2018.
Rearview camera systems are standard or optional on current models that include the 2017 Honda Civic, 2017 Mazda CX-3, 2017 Nissan Murano, 2017 Subaru Impreza, 2017 Toyota Camry and 2017 Volkswagen Passat.
Automatic Crash Notification
This technology uses sensors to detect when your vehicle has crashed and automatically contacts an emergency operator who can then speak to the occupants. One major advantage of the system is that it works even without driver or passenger input, providing the operator with location and other information that can be passed along to emergency responders.
If you are severely injured, care at a Level 1 trauma center lowers the risk of death by 25 percent, according to NHTSA, and notification time is critical to this process. NHTSA data shows that notifying emergency responders within 1 to 2 minutes of a crash "would significantly improve survival rates compared with later notifications" of even 3 to 15 minutes.
Automatic crash notification requires either a smartphone link or in-vehicle wireless connectivity and often comes as part of a larger telematics package. It's standard or optional on such models as the 2017 Chevrolet Malibu, 2017 Subaru Forester and 2017 Volvo S60.
Also called blind-spot monitors, these systems sound a warning or flash a light in the sideview mirror or on the "A" pillar when another vehicle enters your car's side blind spots. Some also use haptic feedback — vibration, usually through the steering wheel or seat &mdash to let you know there's danger in an adjacent lane.
Almost 840,000 blind-spot crashes occur each year resulting in about 300 fatalities, NHTSA estimates. This technology has been shown to increase driver awareness considerably. But you should be aware that it has its limitations. Research from AAA shows that some systems aren't very good at detecting motorcycles or vehicles that are moving very fast. And since many systems are optimized for standard highway speeds, they can also miss slower moving dangers, such as pedestrians or bicyclists. In addition, some are so sensitive that drivers often find the false alerts to be annoying and they turn off the systems, which defeats their purpose.
Lane Departure Warning
If you begin to drift out of your traffic lane, a lane departure warning system will sound an alarm or trigger haptic feedback to get your attention. Lane departure warnings work through sensors that "read" lane and side-of-road lines, so it's important to keep the sensors clean and be aware that these systems may not work if road markings are obscured by snow, leaves or fog.
According to AAA, lane departure warning systems have been shown to improve lane-keeping by up to 34 percent, and NHTSA includes them in its list of potential significant advances in vehicle safety. But, as the National Safety Council points out, lane departure warnings only work if drivers heed them. And unfortunately, IIHS data reveals that vehicle owners find overly sensitive LDW systems "more annoying than other crash avoidance technologies" and tend to turn the systems off.
Lane Keeping Assist
Closely related to lane departure warning is lane keeping assist, which takes the technology one step further by gently steering the vehicle back into your lane if you don't do it yourself after the initial warning. In most models, the system is defeated when a turn signal is activated and will disengage if you nudge the steering wheel even slightly.
Many of the issues that apply to lane departure warning also hold true for lane keeping assist. It can prevent many of the same types of vehicle collisions, including running off the road, but is only effective when the sensors are able to "see" road markings. Depending on the sensitivity of its sensors, a lane keeping assist system may return many false positives, especially on country roads with many tight turns. As a result, research indicates that some drivers also tend to turn off these systems.
Also called pedestrian detection, these systems are optimized to detect a pedestrian in your path and sound an alert when you're driving below a certain speed, usually around 20 or 25 miles per hour. Some are also designed to detect bicycles and other objects as well, and some will even apply the brakes for you if you don't respond to the initial warning.
Although those pedestrian alert systems with automatic braking may not always be able to avoid a crash, they are usually able to reduce impact speed significantly, thus reducing injury or damage. And at low speeds they may help avoid a collision completely. If you live in an urban area with a lot of foot traffic, pedestrian alert with or without automatic braking, may be a useful choice.
Rear cross-traffic alert
These systems sound a warning if a car, pedestrian or bicycle is entering your path as you back up. Although this technology is not part of the NHTSA mandate for rearview cameras, it's likely to become more available from many automakers as backup-camera legislation takes effect, since it complements the camera systems.
AAA research indicates that while rear cross-traffic alert sensors do a good job of recognizing objects directly behind a vehicle when it's backing straight out of a driveway or parking space, they're less effective if your car is parked between two larger vehicles. And the National Safety Council notes that they also don't work as well if you're backing out of an angled space.
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