Important vehicle safety features that help prevent collisions and save lives

December 7, 2020

Anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and collision avoidance systems: These vehicle safety features help you prevent collisions

A car driving on a road with two yellow lane stripes

They say safety first, but when it comes to driving, safety is second and third, too. There are all sorts dangerous situations that can arise on the road. Fortunately, auto safety measures are always improving.

While the next major advancement in driver safety technology may be just around the corner, auto manufacturers already have a number of features in place that greatly reduce the hazards of driving. In part one of our series, we'll look at several important safety features that help prevent collisions - and save lives. 

Anti-lock brake systems (ABS)

You may have seen the red or orange "ABS" light blink when you start your vehicle, but unless it is malfunctioning, you aren't likely to see it at any other point. This means your vehicle has an anti-lock brake system, and that it is functioning properly. So what does an ABS do when it is working? 

The concept of ABS had been around for several decades before it had ever been applied to an automobile, but was adapted for that purpose in the 1950s. Although its origins were mechanical, the 1970s saw the first computerized ABS systems hit the market. Today, they are anti-lock braking systems are a required component of newly manufactured vehicles in the United States.

How does an anti-lock braking system work?

In the past, pumping your brakes was often recommended as a way to help a driver regain control of their vehicle. Before ABS, this actually could have been helpful if done correctly. However in newer vehicles with ABS, pumping your brakes isn't necessary (and can, in fact, disrupt ABS) because that's exactly what the system does

In fact, ABS performs this much better and faster than a person ever could. Using sensors, pumps, and valves controlled by a computer and algorithm, your ABS system essentially pumps your brakes for you, sometimes as much as 15 times in a second. 

When you're attempting to brake, your wheels tend to lock up. The brakes clamp down and prevent the wheels from turning and instead, causes them to slide or skid across the road. Your ABS stops the tires from skidding as you slow, which helps your car stop faster and gives you greater control while you're doing it. 

It does this by monitoring decelerations in the wheel. If it senses a sudden deceleration, it knows that the wheel is about to lock up. Using the valves, the sensor reduces the pressure to the brakes until the wheel begins to accelerate again, and then increases the pressure using the pump until it detects deceleration once more. The purpose of this is to ensure that the tire isn't slowing down faster than the vehicle. The result is something similar to pumping your brakes over and over, but in a much faster and more precise way. 

When the ABS kicks in, you'll usually feel a pulsing in the pedal, which is caused by this rapid increase and decrease in brake pressure. So, while pumping the brakes was a good method in the past, you should keep the brake pedal down if your vehicle has ABS - it's already pumping the brakes for you!

Electronic stability control (ESC)

Electronic stability control is a relatively recent technology that first came into production in the 80s and 90s. Essentially, it kicks in to correct situations where the vehicle isn't moving in the direction the driver is steering it. This can happen when you swerve and skid, when you understeer or oversteer, or when you hydroplane on a wet road. 

To do this, the ESC uses sensors to determine what direction the vehicle is supposed to be traveling. Then, it implements an algorithm to calculate necessary changes, and makes use of the ABS in order to strategically apply the brakes to individual wheels. In other words, it detects which wheels are causing the vehicle to travel in the wrong direction relative to the steering direction and pumps the brakes to alter the rate of spin. In some cars, the ESC may also modulate the engine power to achieve this as well. 

While some vehicles allow ESC to be disabled, especially in high-performance vehicles designed for motor sports, numerous studies confirm that that it is one of the most important developments in automotive safety. A study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that ESC can reduce crashes by 36%, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that thousands of crashes are avoided each year because of it

Collision avoidance systems

Although the previous safety features we've discussed have had their share of advancements over the years, the fundamental technology has been around for decades. Collision avoidance systems, on the other hand, are a fairly new array of features that come highly recommended by the NHTSA

Lane departure warning. This aptly-named feature uses a camera (or several cameras) to keep track of your vehicle's position within the lane. By monitoring the lane dividing lines, it knows when you're keeping center, and when you've crossed over. When that happens, your car will issue a warning so that you can adjust accordingly. This might come in the form of a sound, but may also be communicated through haptic feedback. 

It's worth noting that some versions of this technology have issues when the lane stripes have faded, or when they are obstructed with snow or significant rain. 

Lane keeping assist. Similar to the departure warning, this uses cameras to monitor your position within the lane. However, instead of simply issuing a warning, lane keeping technology will actually cause the car to steer itself gently back into place. The onboard computer knows when you're changing lanes, however, and won't activate unless it is truly needed.

Forward collision warning (FCW). FCW uses an array of sensors to not only monitor your vehicle's speed, but the speed of the vehicle in front of you. These sensors may make use of radar, lidar, and even GPS to detect obstructions in the road. Like the lane departure warning system, FCW alerts drivers with a sound or vibration when it determines that a collision is possible. 

Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB). AEB is similar to FCW in the way it detects obstructions and measures the speed and proximity of vehicles in the lane ahead. However, rather than simply issuing a warning, AEB will actively engage the brakes in an emergency situation. 

Although these features have made great strides in recent years, they aren't perfect. That's why it's important not to rely on them and remain alert when driving. In any case, they are a promising glimpse of the safety features to come

An image demonstrating collisions avoidance and lane departure systems

Did you know that certain safety features, like ABS, can qualify you for a discount on your auto insurance

For more information about our insurance products, request a free quote online, or reach out to one of our trusted agents today!

Read more: These auto safety features help you avoid accidents, but accidents still happen. Read our next blog where we discuss passive restraints - safety features that protect you during a collision

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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