How does my car keep me safe? - Car safety features explained
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A comprehensive guide to your car's safety features
Want to know how your car keeps you safe? Confused between AEB and ABS and ESC? Look no further than our list of the most important modern car safety features.
The days of having to crank the engine to get your car started and receiving a speeding ticket for tearing down the road at a whopping 8mph (four times the 1896 2mph speed limit) are long over.
Phenomenal advances in technology have meant phenomenal advances in car safety, particularly over the last decade or so. And as we become more reliant on our cars, it’s important they keep us safe.
While charities like Brake are working hard to educate the public on road safety, manufacturers are continually working to develop new technologies that’ll help to not only mitigate the effects of a collision, but to try and avoid one in the first place.
Car safety is split into two camps.
Passive safety helps protect those inside and outside the car if a crash cannot be avoided – this includes features like crash zones, where the car body is designed to crumple and absorb the energy of a crash, airbags and seatbelts.
Active safety is the technology included that helps your car intervene before a crash happens. This tech has come on leaps and bounds, and it's only getting smarter.
Modern cars are packed with safety features, some legal requirements, and others optional, so it’s important to understand the different technologies on offer.
Euro NCAP , or the European New Car Assessment Programme, is a fantastic resource for finding out more about the safety of different car models. It’s an independent organisation set up to improve car safety, with its five-star rating giving you an easy way to compare different cars.
Many new vehicles, because of the incredible advances in safety tech, achieve the full five-star rating. It’s no secret that new cars are much safer than past models, and one of the best benefits of car leasing is knowing that you have access to the latest advancements in car safety.
Each vehicle is not only given its five-star rating but also gets a percentage score for how well it protected adults and children inside. It also considers pedestrians outside and the level of safety features available, giving you a comprehensive breakdown of how it fared in the different crash tests. Pretty groovy, right?
You will find the overall NCAP rating and its performance in the four NCAP categories - adult occupant protection, child occupant protection, pedestrian protection and safety assist - listed on all our car lease deals .
A guide to your car's safety features
Active Safety Features
Antilock brakes (ABS)
Before the days of antilock brakes, it was easy to lock up the wheels during hard braking, especially on a slippery road surface. And, thanks to our delightful UK weather, the road surface is slippery more often than we might all like.
ABS helps to prevent this. Thanks to the sensors at each wheel and an onboard computer, the car can detect if a wheel is about to stop turning and maximises the braking action at each wheel to prevent lock-ups while the driver retains full steering control.
It has been compulsory on cars in the EU since 2004, making huge safety improvements to vehicles along the way.
Autonomous emergency braking (AEB)
Another major leap forward, autonomous emergency braking uses a variety of sensors and cameras to monitor the road ahead and can alert you to an impending collision.
But no worries if there’s no time to react – the AEB system can automatically perform an emergency stop quickly and efficiently and, at lower speeds, prevent a crash.
Experts have hailed it as one of the most important safety features since the invention of the seatbelt (and sliced bread). Be aware though – there are different levels of AEB systems, with the more basic systems working when cars are travelling at slower speeds.
Most cars now have some form of AEB system fitted as standard, though with some models it might be an option you have to pay for, or you can pay to upgrade to a more sophisticated system.
Adaptive cruise control
Adaptive cruise control is one step further than conventional cruise control, utilising radars to maintain a set distance from the car in front.
If that car slows down, the system will automatically reduce your speed to match. If that car then moves away, adaptive cruise control will accelerate back up to the pre-set speed.
The more advanced systems work even in slow-moving traffic, with the ability to bring the car to a standstill before setting off again.
Blind spot warning
Using either radars or cameras the blind-spot warning system can reduce the likelihood of an accident when changing lanes by alerting you to any vehicle lurking in your blind spot.
The warning is usually given through a light on the outside mirrors, but many systems will also offer an audible warning if you don’t spot the light and attempt to change lanes anyway.
More sophisticated systems can even brake for you or steer the vehicle back to the centre of the lane.
READ MORE: Top 10 safety tips: How to feel comfortable in your new car
Electronic stability control (ESC)
Another important development in vehicle safety; electronic stability control is a piece of software that reduces the chance of the car skidding and you losing control.
It’s able to detect if the car is starting to skid as you turn and then – depending on the individual system fitted – either apply the brakes to individual wheels or reduce the power sent to the wheels, to correct the skid and keep you sailing in the right direction.
Starting as a feature on luxury cars, it drifted across into the mainstream and became a legal requirement in 2014.
Be aware – manufacturers all tend to use different names. Audi, Hyundai, Jeep, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Suzuki and Volkswagen all use Electronic Stability Program. BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover and MINI use Dynamic Stability Control. Honda refers to it as Vehicle Stability Assist and Volvo uses Dynamic Stability Traction Control.
If it’s got ‘stability’ in there somewhere, you’re all good.
Cars have been available with some form of lane-keeping feature to keep you from straying too far for several years.
The most basic lane departure warning systems provide you with an alert if you get too close to the white line without indicating. This alert might be audio or visual, or it might even be a gentle vibration through the steering wheel.
More sophisticated systems, often called Lane Keep Assist, can gently guide your car back into its lane.
Active lane-keeping is often bundled with adaptive cruise control on some higher-end models. When combined, these two features can take some of the burdens off of long motorway drives – but they aren’t a form of autonomous driving. Not yet.
This electronically controlled system limits wheel spin during acceleration and makes sure that they have maximum traction.
Most useful when you’re starting off in wet or icy conditions, it’s also helpful for launching with a high-horsepower engine. Some systems work only at low speeds, while others work at all speeds – it’s worth making sure you know how and when your traction control system works.
Most systems use the antilock brakes to stop a spinning wheel for a second or two so that the power can be routed to the opposite wheel. Other systems throttle back the engine and upshift transmission to avoid wheel spin.
Modern cars with their swish looks and a plethora of technology have one main conflict when it comes to design – visibility vs safety.
A stronger cabin makes the vehicle better at withstanding serious crashes, but good visibility from the driver’s seat can make a big difference. Many newer cars plump for poorer visibility and oversized pillars, and compensate with cameras and/or proximity sensors to warn you about obstacles you may not be able to see.
More advanced systems use hidden cameras to stitch together a ‘top-down’ view, helping you to reverse into even the tightest of parking spaces.
Many cars fitted with cruise control also come with a feature to prevent the car from being driven above a set speed.
These speed-limiting devices can normally be set to any speed and will gently reduce power when it’s reached. However, most devices will deactivate if the driver floors the accelerator, allowing you to react to situations.
Tyre pressure monitoring systems
Tyre pressure, whether it's under or over-inflated, can affect handling and potentially result in a collision.
They warn you of incorrect tyre pressures, helping you to maintain them. There are two basic types: direct and indirect.
Direct involves the use of a sensor inside each tyre to measure the pressure and will send you a signal via a warning on the dashboard.
Indirect, on the other hand, uses the ABS sensors to monitor wheel speed. If it senses that one wheel is working at a different speed to the rest, it assumes this is because of a change in tyre pressure and will send you a warning.
Passive Safety Features
One of the older pieces of safety kit, front airbags have been standard on all new cars since 1998.
They work by using crash sensors connected to an onboard computer, which can detect a front-on collision and trigger the bags, stopping you from ploughing straight into the windscreen.
Airbag technology has been improved over the years, with dual-stage airbags able to trigger different responses for crashes of different severity. Seat-mounted side airbags now tend to be standard for front passengers too, while knee airbags help to protect your lower limbs and pelvis.
Poorly designed or adjusted head restraints account for many whiplash injuries.
A good restraint should be adjustable to suit people of all heights, with the top sitting level with the top of your head, and your head only an inch away from the restraint.
This means that if you happen to be shunted from behind, your head won’t fling too far backwards.
New cars are not just built with the safety of the driver and passengers in mind, but also the safety of pedestrians.
Vehicles with a more ‘pedestrian-friendly' front end mean that, should there be a crash, the severity of the injury to the unfortunate person should be reduced.
The key to smart ‘friendly’ designs is to make sure that the likelihood of a person hitting hard points like the A-pillars or engine block is reduced. Manufacturers have developed a range of different techniques for this, including pop-up bonnets and deformable bumpers.
Seatbelts remain one of the most important safety features in a vehicle.
They’ve been compulsory in all new cars since 1983, and though the main design hasn’t changed, there have been developments in seatbelt technology.
Seatbelt pre-tensioners take up slack in the belt during a collision (or a particularly hard brake), keeping you fixed in your seat. Load-limiters can then prevent injury by allowing the belt to stretch ever so slightly during the crash, limiting the force placed on you.
A smart seatbelt reminder is also a valuable tool – they can sense if someone is occupying a seat but not wearing their belt, and alert the driver.
Isofix child seat mounts
Isofix is one system of fitting child seats that uses mounting points built into the car seats, rather than relying on the seatbelts. It’s slowly become the accepted standard for fitting child seats, with most car manufacturers fitting them as standard or having it as an option in all their new models.
The main benefit is their ease of use: it makes the seat much easier to install and leaves less room for error.
Strong body shell
And finally, what’s a turtle without its shell?
The exterior of a car is the starting point for road safety – a well-designed body shell resists and dissipates crash forces and provides better protection for you and your loved ones.
Utilise the Euro NCAP database here – it’ll give you a crash test score and a detailed breakdown of the safety of the car you’re looking at.
Leasing is one of the best ways to take advantage of the latest car safety features - browse our range of in-stock personal lease deals and find the right car lease for you