Do New Safety Systems Really Work? It’s a Fair Question With a Clear Answer

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Here at BestRide we love readers who “question authority.” We are also passionate about safety. Here’s a story with a happy ending for both camps.

BestRide and CarTalk have many ties and our contributors are fortunate to have worked at both publications. We recently spotted a great question by a new member of the CarTalk Community. Ken D asked, “You often point out that the new “tech” on new cars (lane change, front vision breaking, etc) is a major advance in safety. I have no issues with seat belts, disk brakes, radial tires…but are there any statistics that show this new stuff really works? You know just because they can do it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I think maybe cars are getting smarter but drivers are getting dumber, so it’s a wash. Maybe better driving lessons would actually be safer and cheaper.”

If you follow BestRide you know that we frequently do stories that buck the trend and debunk the “sky is falling” media reports on topics like speeding deaths and distracted driving. We dig deep to find good news on car safety, and here we are happy to report that new safety systems are proving to be very valuable.

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Modern safety systems began decades ago with anti-lock brakes (ABS), and initially, it was difficult to pin down just what their true benefits were. ABS  enabled stability and traction control and these tools work hand in hand with many other systems in today’s vehicles. Since they are on all cars it is hard to say how much “worse” we’d be without these mandated systems. However, there was a shift in buyer preferences in the past couple of decades. Safety sells. Automakers began offering many systems that are not mandated. One of the most important is forward collision prevention, also called automatic emergency braking (AEB).

Related StoryLane Departure Warning Proven To Be Effective – But Only When Turned On

Luckily for researchers, automakers made these systems optional. That resulted in a population of specific vehicle models with and without the systems. These vehicles are identical in all ways except that some have the AEB and some do not. This is a goldmine for researchers because they don’t have to fudge demographic variances. After a bit of time had passed and the models with the new technology were out in the world, researchers started to look closely at the crash rates of these models. They found clear advantages to the vehicles that were equipped with the new active safety systems that brake automatically.


The first notable study was released three years ago. It showed that Volvo models with the AEB systems were 40% less likely to be involved in a forward crash and 23% less likely to be in a serious injury-resulting crash of this type (Read our report on that here). These types of positive results mean that huge numbers of crashes can be prevented if more cars have the systems than just pricey, low volume Volvos.

And now we know that affordable models with the AEB systems do, in fact, result in lower crash rates, translating to big reductions in crashes of the type they can prevent.  A newer study looked at GM models with and without AEB systems and it confirmed the earlier findings. That study concluded, “Vehicles equipped with Front Automatic Braking and Forward Collision Alert were involved in 43% fewer rear-end striking crashes of all severities, 64% fewer rear-end striking crashes with any injuries, and 68% fewer rear-end striking crashes with third-party injuries compared with the same vehicles without a front crash prevention system.”

The folks who do the most rigorous vehicle safety testing in the United States work at the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety. IIHS developed AEB testing standards so that they could evaluate various models and brands’ effectiveness. They also made it part of the qualification for the Top Safety Pick awards they give to the safest vehicles you can buy. That helps make it easy for consumers to get the safety gear that really works.

The latest development is in pedestrian protection. AEB has evolved and it can now do things that early systems could not. For example, some systems can see ahead of the car in front of yours and tell if it brakes hard. Many now also can detect a bicycle or pedestrian farther than your line of sight in the dark and take action to prevent you from hitting them. All AEB systems can brake faster, and more fully than even seasoned expert drivers can. That is because you have a foot. You need to move it to the brake and then press it. AEB systems can brake about a half-second faster than you because they don’t move anything. They are always ready to provide full braking force. Crunch the math and you find out that equates to car-lengths when you are traveling at legal highway speeds. Here again, testing is proving that these systems do work.

Ken makes a great point about driver responsibility. No safety system is a substitute for safe driving habits. However, there is ample subjective evidence that driver training is also not a substitute for active safety systems. BestRide staff and our colleagues are often invited to the best driver training schools in the country to take the courses and report on them. I’ve been to three performance driving schools, and AEB saved my butt once. As well-schooled as I am, there are better drivers than me in the automotive media. One is Ezra Dyer of Car and Driver and Popular Mechanics. He has had more track time, experiences, and instruction than most pro drivers, yet he too was saved from crashing by AEB.

If you are skeptical of the many “dire warning” reports about auto safety the media spits out you are among friends here at BestRide. We enjoy debunking those reports. However, when it comes to active safety, the data, and the real-world experience of professional vehicle testers all point to active safety systems working well and getting better as they evolve.