Car Safety Features

Essential car safety features and emerging technologies

The evolution of car safety technology is a fascinating progression that has been driven by a number of influences throughout the years. The work of government mandates, activist groups, and industry analysts has resulted in the introduction of everything from seat belts to lane departure warning systems.

Some of these technologies have directly led to vastly reduced incidences of accidents and fatalities, and others have had mixed results. There's no doubt that overall car safety has seen remarkable gains over the last few decades, but there have been more than a few speed bumps along the way.

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Adaptive Cruise Control

Rear view of sports car on a sunset drive

David Birkbeck / Getty Images

Adaptive cruise control combines a conventional cruise control system with some type of sensor. Most of these systems use radar or laser sensors, both of which are capable of determining the relative position and speed of other vehicles. That data can then be used to automatically adjust the speed of the vehicle that's equipped with adaptive cruise control.

Most adaptive cruise control systems also include some type of warning system if a collision is imminent, and some are capable of automatic braking. Some of these systems are also capable of operating in stop and go traffic, but most of them cut off at a specific minimum speed.

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Adaptive Headlights

Cars driving at night

Newsbie Pix

Traditional headlamps illuminate a fixed area in front of a vehicle. Most systems have two settings, and the higher setting is designed to increase sight distance at night. However, high beams can be hazardous to oncoming drivers.

Adaptive headlamp systems are capable of adjusting both the brightness and angle of the headlamps. These systems are capable of angling the beam to illuminate winding roads, and they can also automatically adjust the brightness level to avoid blinding other drivers.

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a deployed airbag

Jon Seidman / Flickr

Some technologies are designed to prevent accidents, but some car safety features are meant to protect the driver and passengers during a collision. Airbags fall into the latter category, and they first appeared as standard equipment on certain makes and models in the US for the 1985 model year. According to data accumulated over the next decade, it became clear that airbags save lives and lead to an overall increase in car safety. According to an NHTSA analysis, driver fatalities were reduced by 11 percent in vehicles that were equipped with airbags.

However, airbags have also been shown to present a danger to young children. While this essential safety feature has been shown to save the lives of front-seat passengers over the age of 13, younger children can be harmed or killed by the explosive force of a deploying airbag. For that reason, some vehicles include an option to turn off the passenger-side airbag. In other vehicles, it's safer for young children to just ride in the back seat.

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Anti-Lock Brake Systems (ABS)

Car on a racetrack in a skid


The first anti-lock brake systems were introduced in the 1970s, and this technology is the basic building block that traction control, electronic stability control, and many other car safety features are built on.

Anti-lock brakes are designed to prevent brakes from locking up by pulsing them much faster than a human driver can. Since locked up brakes can lead to increased stopping distances and a loss of driver control, anti-lock brake systems greatly reduce the likelihood of certain types of accidents. That makes ABS an essential car safety feature, but these systems don't reduce stopping distances under all driving conditions.

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Automated Collision Notification

Emergency response personnel are called into action at the scene of an accent.

Official U.S. Navy Imagery

Unlike technologies that help prevent accidents and systems that reduce injuries during accidents, automated collision notification systems kick in after the fact. These systems are designed to automatically call for help because many accident victims are unable to do so manually.

When an automated collision notification system is activated, the crash is typically reported to emergency services. Help can be sent automatically, or the accident victims may be able to speak with an operator.

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Automatic Braking

brake rotor and caliper

Jellaluna / Flickr

Automatic braking systems are designed to either prevent collisions or reduce the speed of a vehicle prior to a collision. These systems use sensors to scan for objects in front of the vehicle, and they can apply the brakes if an object is detected.

This safety feature is often integrated with other technologies such as pre-collision systems and adaptive cruise control.

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Backup Sensors and Cameras

backup camera display

Jeff Wilcox / Flickr

Backup sensors are capable of determining whether there are any obstructions behind a vehicle when it is backing up. Some of these systems will provide a warning to the driver if there is an obstruction, and others are connected to an automatic braking system.

Backup cameras provide a similar function, but they simply provide the driver with more visual information than the rearview mirrors.

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Electronic Stability Control (ECS)

Cars stopped on highway near rollover accident

Ted Kerwin

Electronic stability control is another car safety feature that's based on ABS technology, but these systems are designed to help the driver maintain control in a variety of circumstances. The main function of ECS is to compare the driver's inputs with the actual behavior of the vehicle. If one of these systems determines that the vehicle isn't responding correctly, it can take a number of corrective actions.

One of the primary circumstances where ECS can come in handy is cornering. If an ECS system detects either oversteer or understeer when a vehicle is taking a corner, it is typically capable of activating one or more brake calipers to correct the situation. Some ECS systems can also apply additional steering force and even adjust engine output.

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Lane Departure Warning Systems

Audi lane departure warning system

Audi of America

Lane departure warning systems fall into one of two categories. Passive systems issue a warning if the vehicle starts to deviate from its lane, and it's up to the driver to take corrective action. Active systems usually also issue a warning, but they can also pulse the brakes or activate the power steering to keep the vehicle in its lane.

Most of these systems use video sensors, but there are some that use laser or radar sensors instead. Regardless of the type of sensor, these systems are unable to operate if the lane markings are obscured by adverse conditions.

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Night Vision

Night vision camera on a car dash

Steve Jurvetson / Flickr

Automotive night vision systems are designed to help drivers avoid obstacles in adverse driving conditions. These systems typically include an LCD that's mounted somewhere on the dash, though some of them include a heads up display on the front windshield.

There are two main types of automotive night vision systems. One type uses a thermographic camera that senses heat, and the other uses an infrared light source to illuminate the area in front of the vehicle. Both systems provide improved sight distances at night.

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Tire Pressure Monitoring

OEM tire pressure monitor systems display the pressure for each tire on the dash

AJ Batac / Flickr

Tire pressure can affect gas mileage, so tire pressure monitoring systems can provide some relief at the pump. However, these systems can also act as car safety features by helping to prevent accidents. Since tire pressure monitoring systems can provide advanced notice that a tire is losing pressure, drivers are able to take action before a flat tire leads to a potentially catastrophic loss of control.

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Traction Control Systems (TCS)

Skidding Mini Cooper in rain

D.H. Parks / Flickr

Traction control is essentially ABS in reverse. Where anti-lock brakes help a driver maintain control during braking, traction control helps prevent a loss of control during acceleration. In order to accomplish that, the ABS wheel sensors are typically monitored to determine if any of the wheels have broken loose under acceleration.

If a traction control system determines that one or more wheels have lost traction, it can take a number of corrective measures. Some systems can only pulse the brakes, but others are able to alter the fuel supply or cut off spark to one or more of the cylinders in the engine.