Crash avoidance technology: Does it really work? (Q&A)

Neil Bartlett

crash avoidance technologyIn the automobile industry, one of the most interesting technological developments to emerge in recent years in the ability for cars to avoid getting into crashes.

But how does crash avoidance technology work? And if you are considering buying a vehicle with this technology, what should you look for?

David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has authored many research papers on vehicle crashes, crash injuries and pedestrian safety. Under his direction, researchers and engineers developed IIHS's new front crash prevention rating system.

We asked him about the major types of types of crash technology and what systems are best for consumers from a price and safety standpoint.

What's the evolution of crash avoidance technologies? With advances in technology, was it inevitable that crash technologies would appear in vehicles?

As technology has evolved, more and more safety features developed.

It started with anti-lock brake systems, where sensors were attached to wheels to detect when they were going to lock up and each brake operating individually. That dates back to 1995 in the U.S. Next in 2000 came electronic stability control (ESC), which detects when you've lost control of your steering and helps steer the car in a safer direction.

The rationale has always been to make cars as safe as possible.

What major crash technologies are available today?

  • Front crash prevention systems help drivers avoid crashes with vehicles ahead of them. There are two types: forward collision warning and autobrake. They warn a driver when a crash is imminent. The intent is that the driver either brakes or steers the car to avoid a collision.
  • Some manufacturers that offer the warning system add an autobrake feature. Autobrake systems are designed to help inattentive drivers avoid rear-ending another car. Some reduce your car's speed in a crash but won't avoid a collision. Others will cause the car to slow down or stop.
  • Lane prevention systems help if you're going off the road or into another lane. There are two types - one warns you, while the other gently steers your vehicle back into the lane. The systems that steer your car back into the lane do a fairly gentle intervention.
  • Blind spot systems indicate in your side view mirror that your blind spot is occupied. They're very popular with drivers.
  • Some recent innovations are backup cameras that let you know you're backing too close to an object or another vehicle. With self-parking, there's an indicator on your dash that tells you that a parking space you just passed is big enough to fit your car into. It backs the car up, turns the steering wheel and guides your car into the open space.

Are there any crash avoidance features that have proven to be especially successful in reducing crashes?

Electronic stability control is very effective at preventing crashes - it reduces single vehicle rollover crashes by more than 80 percent.

Advanced lighting systems - headlamps that shoot the light to where you're heading - prevent up to 10 percent of crashes.

Research on lane departure, blind spots and self-parking is ongoing. We haven't reached any conclusions about how safe they are.

Most crash avoidance features are options for drivers that cost about $1,000. Is it worth it for most consumers to buy these?

Our research suggests that front crash prevention systems, both the warning and with autobrake, and adaptive headlights are probably worth the cost. They'll clearly prevent some crashes. And almost any crash you're in will easily cost more than a thousand dollars - in addition to the hassle of getting your car repaired.

A lot of drivers will also find blind spot detection to be advantageous. But while data hasn't shown that it helps prevent crashes, using a technology that monitors your blind spot can help you avoid swerving into another vehicle.

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