/ Motoring

Don’t put the brakes on automatic car safety features

Tyre making skid mark on road

There’s been an upsurge in cars with features to stop you from having accidents. Manufacturers are experimenting with automatic braking and speed limiters, but do these flashy safety systems really help?

Systems that sense what’s happening nearby aren’t particularly new. Lots of cars have parking sensors these days.

And automatic braking isn’t new either. Electronic stability control (ESC) – which automatically applies the brakes to help stop you skidding if you have to steer at high speed – becoming mandatory on all newly launched models from 2012 and on all cars sold new by 2014.

The future of safety features

But some makers have gone much further. There are speed limiters to prevent you accidentally exceeding the limit, and systems now exist which check whether you’re drifting out of your lane. Other cars monitor the road in front and automatically apply the brakes if you’re getting too close or if they sense that an accident might occur.

In my view, these developments raise lots of questions:

  • Do these flashy safety systems really help? Or do they take all the fun out of driving?
  • Do they simply hinder a good driver from getting the best out of the car’s performance?
  • Are we heading for the day when a car will drive itself?

In my view, the answer to the first question is yes they do help and no they don’t take the fun out of driving! Euro NCAP and the Department for Transport studied accident data from Sweden, Germany and the USA and established that, without doubt, electronic stability control (ESC) makes a major contribution towards accident prevention.

I’m confident that other such systems will have similarly positive effects. And the very presence of these systems means you can push the car harder towards its limit before the safety systems cut-in to prevent you losing control.

If you’re a top-class racing driver, this probably does remove the thrill. But most people aren’t top-class, and aren’t racing drivers (even if they think they are).

Cars that drive themselves?

And will systems evolve that combine with network management systems (where cars ‘talk’ to each other and to ‘the network’) to produce cars that drive themselves? Yes – one day, we will be able to type in our destination, a bit like we do with a sat nav now, then sit back and let the car do its stuff.

An additional benefit will be that carmakers will be able to scrap all the structural components that provide crash protection, but impede visibility and make cars heavy. Cars will be much lighter and altogether more efficient to run.

But I think we’re still quite a way off that target, so in the meantime we need to work out which systems are best at avoiding accidents. That’s our focus here at Which? – we’ve called for ESC to be mandatory, then, through our active role as partners in Euro NCAP, increased focus on not just protection but prevention.

To that end, we’ve carried out tests to compare some of the latest auto-braking systems from makers including Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Mercedes and Volvo to see which ones work best at preventing accidents.

Are you open to having special safety features in your car? Are there any that you already use and like – or would you rather drive without them?


As I have said before, the more you take away from the driver, the worse they become at basic driving skills.
Didn’t Mercedes and Lexus do an auto braking test in the fog and both failed? I remember seeing the results on tv somewhere, probably top gear.

Honestly, I will not buy a car the makes it easier for you to lose concentration. The fact the ESC will be mandatory means that you will have generations of people thinking they are even more invincible. Looks like I will continue to buy second hand.

I am sure you will have driven a new audi, the electronic steering that it provides is awful, you have absolutely no feel of the road. Probably why everyone hates so many audi drivers, grossly overpowered, numb feeling plastic boxes, the drivers are just too detached from the experience of driving.

So my question is this, why make cars have a mandatory “safety” device that helps to neutralise the laws of physics? Is it not better to have a deterrent of crashing? Surely if you cannot feel the laws of physics working in the way that have become natural to you, then you have to change your driving style, all which adds risk to not only yourself, but the person you hit.

Driver aides? more like driver aids

Lucky7 says:
2 June 2011

I couldn’t disagree more Dean – you seem to be advocating a move back to the pre-airbag, pre-ABS and pre-ESC days! Don’t tell me, you’d also like a ‘preventative’ spike on the steering wheel?! I really can’t understand why you’d go out of your way to buy older cars without safety systems that have been proven to reduce deaths on our roads. Whether you like it or not, it’s going to become harder to find used cars without this stuff fitted anyway.

You may think you’re such a good driver that you’ll never have an accident – and maybe you are an excellent driver – but on a peeing wet day on the motorway when a lorry sheds its load in front of you, I’d always want a car with ESC over one that doesn’t have it. Might actually be able dodge it then.

I do think driver safety gadgets shouldn’t stray so far into the ‘auto’ territory as to make drivers lazy or cocksure, but I’d like to think most people have enough common sense not to risk ‘leaving it to the car’ to do the accident avoidance. The driver is always the first line of defence; safety systems are only there as a back-up.

The one thing that does concern me is that the electrics are fallible in most modern cars – so what happens when these advanced safety systems fail? Hopefully the manufacturers will have planned for this eventuality and put stringent support systems in place to prevent drastic failures while driving, but you simply never know where electrics are concerned…


If they can be proved to work – I’m all in favour.

I want drivers to stop speeding – to stop tail gating – to stop all those idiotic things that idiotic drivers do that cause crashed now.

The only problem is there will be a new idiotic type of driver – who thinks that “auto” will mean they can drive without looking at the road at all.


I am all for speed limiters to prevent drivers exceeding the speed limit, providing that they make use of up-to-date satellite data to cope with recent changes.

I would also like to see speed limits reviewed. Some seem to be unnecessarily low (especially some dual carriageways with 30 mph limits) and some narrow, twisting lanes should have restrictions introduced. There is also a case for some speed restrictions to apply during at certain times. Why, for example, have a 20 mph limit outside a school in the middle of the night or during the summer holidays?


The speed limits outside schools here caused a permanent drop in crashes and fatalities at all times day and night (especially night) when they were introduced here. We have sleeping policemen – so suspension is wrecked if you speed – a very effective warning.to slow down.

The problem is the roads locally are narrow – made far narrower by the parked cars on both sides (there is no off street parking to speak of) the remaining road is too narrow to pass. So at night some-one walks into the road to cross it – a passing motorist racing a 30 mph sees them too late – causing very serious injuries or death. This happens during the day and school holidays too. I saw it happen before the sleeping policemen – and that was when the traffic was lighter.

If the pedestrian is hit at 20 mph the chances of survival is higher. I prefer the sleeping policemen as they are so effective at keeping all speed down all the time day and night.


Richard – I don’t doubt that there are are schools where it is right to have a 20 mph speed limit that applies at all times, but there is no reason why that needs to apply everywhere.

Automatic speed limiters would prevent drivers from exceeding the speed limit. Sleeping policemen may be effective with most cars, but large-wheeled 4×4 vehicles can negotiate them at higher speeds.

The law, with the assistance of speed cameras, sleeping policemen, the Highway Code, etc, fails to prevent a lot of people from exceeding speed limits. It would be good to have the limits reviewed and adjusted where necessary, taking account of accident statistics. Whether automatic speed limiters would reduce accidents remains to be seen but it seems archaic to expect the driver to constantly be taking their eyes off the road to monitor their speed.


Wavechange – it is possible to monitor speed pretty accurately by the engine noise without looking at the speedo – and by keeping your foot steady on the throttle.

I do have to wonder on the competence of drivers that can only judge their speed by staring at the speedo for so long they are a danger to other road users


You’re all missing a key point about speed limits – they’re a MAXIMUM legal speed, a guess by the authorities at the speed above which driving at this place will usually be dangerous, or has been proved dangerous by real incidents (both accidents and stupidity). The law also says that you should not drive faster than is safe under the current conditions – including road and visibility, braking distance (hence weather) and both foot and vehicle traffic.

Outside schools anytime there are kids around is much more hazardous than usual road conditions even if there are few children in sight. And at chuck-out time, even 5mph can be too fast for as long as it takes the mob to clear.

It’s ironic that the mass of cars waiting to pick up loved ones (presumably so they don’t have to work off the lovingly-acquired young burger fat) actually make the school zone safer – the massed packs of cars and kids make dangerous speeds impossible, whereas schools which enforce a ‘no cars waiting’ policy get more incidents in practice as speeding kids meet speeding cars.

In the end, it’s down to people – and there are always too many who are distracted, stupid, risk-taking or too in love with their own supposed invulnerability. I welcome anything which protects the most vulnerable. And 24/7 20mph zones are better in practice than part-time ones – drivers complain that they never know where they are (they don’t see the part-time signals) and it’s not their fault.