The ’90s and early 2000s saw a steady and significant improvement in ‘secondary safety’; a car’s ability to protect you and your family in the event of a crash.
The design of the vehicle’s body/chassis plays a big part, but the most visible change during this period was the proliferation of airbags. Ford’s Mondeo (1993) was the first to have a driver airbag fitted as standard to all model variants, but today you’d have to look hard to find a new car with less than four, or even six airbags.
Antilock Brakes (ABS), which allow you to steer at the same time as emergency braking, have also become virtually universally available.
Today, rapid advances are being made more in electronics, sensor and software engineering than with mechanical systems, and the 2010s are likely to be characterised by a rapid growth in ‘primary safety’ – driver assistance systems that help prevent a crash happening in the first place.
These are some of the newer active safety or driver assistance systems you might come across. Car handbooks are often generic, covering a range of trim levels and options, so the fact that a system is described in the handbook doesn’t mean that it’s fitted – check model specifications carefully, as many of these are likely be optional extras rather than standard across a range.
Electronic blind spot monitoring
Cameras and radar detectors are becoming commonplace on passenger cars for a variety of purposes. In this case, mounted close to the door mirrors, they warn you of a vehicle in your blind spot if you start a lane change manoeuvre.
Lane keeping warning/support
Cameras looking forwards constantly check your position relative to the lane markings and the system warns you – or even applies gentle steering effort – if you drift across a line at speed without indicating.
Autonomous Emergency Braking
Forward looking radar and cameras capable of detecting other vehicles/road users and determining when a collision is likely or becomes inevitable. If the system determines that it’s too late to rely on evasive action by the driver, pre-crash braking is applied automatically, possibly in conjunction with seatbelt pre-tensioning and other measures to reduce injury risk. At lower speeds the system may brake the vehicle to a standstill and prevent the crash completely.
Autonomous Emergency braking is already being taken into account in the insurance group rating system,and is expected to become commonplace on new cars over the next few years.
Electronic Stability Control
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) helps to prevent crashes resulting from a loss of control in a bend taken too fast or a sudden swerve made to try to avoid a collision.
Sensors detect the onset of a slide or the beginning of a spin and small amounts of braking can be applied automatically to individual wheels to restore stability and prevent the slide.
With studies showing a 25% reduction in the risk of being involved in a fatal accident, ESC will be standard fit on all new cars from November 2014, but has been widely available on some cars for several years now.
Active Cruise Control
Unlike basic cruise control which assumes you’re the only car on the road, Active systems use forward-looking radar to detect other vehicles and automatically set a safe speed and following distance.
Daytime Running Lights (DRL)
Love them or hate them, always-on LED ‘eyebrows’ have become a common site on our roads. European Legislation has required them as standard on new models introduced since February 2011. This doesn’t mean that Daytime Running Lights will be fitted to every car registered new since that date though, as there is no requirement to retro-fit DRLs to existing designs.
If you get anxious when it comes to parallel or even reverse parking there’s plenty of technology around to help you out.
Ultrasonic parking sensors producing an increasingly urgent warning sound as you approach an obstruction have been around for a decade or more.
Cameras are a more recent addition, with rear view cameras giving added confidence when parking, while some manufacturers have even fitted cameras into the front bumper to give you a view to left and right as you edge out of a junction.
For the ultimate in driver assistance you’ll want to look for cars that can park themselves – active parking/active park assist. The car uses sensors on all four corners and takes over control of the steering to parallel park with no intervention from you apart from changing gear.