/ 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.

One also has to question why the person walked out into the road in the first place and why it is the drivers fault that the person has been hit?

That person that walked out and got hit is the person in the wrong. The road is a very dangerous place and pedestrians should treat it as such. I am not going to persecute the driver even more just so that any random pedestrian can just waltz out into the road and make a compensation claim that ultimately increases my premium.

To constantly blame the driver for incidents such as these is particularly crass considering that the person could die even if you hit them at 10mph. Why don’t we just all travel at 0mph and then no-one would get hurt right? Oh right that’s because we all have to get somewhere

Anyone that uses cruise control or needs a lane “buzzer” or needs auto braking is clearly NOT paying attention to the road and should be removed from it

It is your duty to avoid hitting other road users. If you hit a car up the back it is your fault as you are supposed to anticipate other road users actions. It applies to pedestrians too. Which is why I drive at 20mph or less in 20mph zones.

Opps please read 20 for the 30 written above.

I really do wish this system had an edit facility!!!!!!!!!!!

So Lucky7, do you really think that ESC will save you on a wet motorway when a lorry spills it’s load? Honestly if you go through life thinking about what terrible things might happen to you then you really shouldn’t be on the road as you are a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Driver aides are simply making drivers worse, or in fact they encourage poor driving and facilitate the poor drivers on the road.

What we need is better training so that we don’t need driver aides. Anyone who needs more than Power-steering and ABS on the roads should be systematically removed so as not to endanger the rest of us.

Lucky7 says:
2 June 2011

Sorry Dean, but I find your complete lack of faith in other road users who don’t play by your rules rather disturbing. Twice in this post you’ve called for drivers who use safety aids to be removed from the roads. That seems a bit extreme to say the least.

We share the roads with each other, pedestrians and cyclists, and, by definition, accidents happen. Car safety gear that can be proven to prevent unforeseen casualties deserves to be praised, not pilloried.

I do agree that we need better driver training, but I don’t see that this is an either/or situation.

Lucky7 says:
2 June 2011

Sorry, that should be ‘praised not pilloried’. Richard’s right, this site needs an edit feature!

… this site needs an edit feature!

Perhaps this is the only thing that we can agree on. 🙂

Hello Lucky7, richard (and wavechange). I have made those edits for you, and rest assured – adding an edit function for comments is one of the developments we’re looking into.

However, if you think a mistake you have typed desperately needs to be changed, or you want to tell us how our site should be improved, please use our Contact Us form. This will help us keep Conversations on topic. Thanks.

Dean, why do you want to retail ABS and power steering? With properly-developed muscles and a racing driver’s well-honed responses, surely neither is needed? Over 50 years, I’ve met competent drivers who’ve sworn that neither is vital to proper driving. In fact, we can do away with brakes altogether – with proper observation and anticipation, together with appropriate speeds, surely a driver of your competence can drive without needing to brake?

All right, I’ve gone past irony to sarcasm – but you’ve earned it. Sound driving needs constant vigilance and good observation. These new ‘toys’ can only aid this, not persuade people to drive blind when they would otherwise be properly cautious. Those who don’t pay full attention to their driving or who are less competent surely deserve all the help they can get.

So aren’t you like those commentators a few years ago who decried the ever-improving car crash safety by claiming that the easier it is to walk away from a crash, the less care a driver will take? Nonsense, then and now. And the statistical surveys of driver behaviour and crashes over the decades have always supported the improvement in car and road safety measures – and improvements in driver skills!

Don’t forget the self-righteous bit in between, that’s obligatory 😉

I honestly cannot make out what your point is, are you saying that no safety features are required on a car at all if driven properly?

If so, I get that, but there needs to be some kind of mechanism to emergency stop anyway. You have to have something that mitigates the human element, ESC and auto braking does nothing in that regards, it’s actually trying to make the human element obsolete, which in my opinion, is a very bad idea.

ABS and PAS FACILITATE the human element and improves it. ESC and auto braking REMOVES the human element, which is very wrong.

I wonder how many people can honestly say, “Yep, that ESC really saved me there”?

I’m not at all sure that things like automatic braking, electronic stability control and the like are really the best way to achieve overall road safety.
The human brain has a built in risk perception circuit (for want of a better term). What this means is the safer we feel the more risks we feel confident to take. If we know the car will automatically brake we may drive faster. If we think the car will take corners better we might take them faster.
This has already happened as cars become quieter and more comfortable, average motorway speeds seem faster to me than they were say twenty or twentyfive years ago when cars were not so comfortable or when they insulated you less from the outside world. I’m sure, going back even further we all became more “over confident” when seat belts we made compulsery. Think how vunerable you’d feel today driving around without your seat belt on? Think how much more careful you’d be?
But like everything it’s all about balance.

One thing I’m sure of is no one can apply any amont of technology as a subsitute for the ability to drive skillfully, competently and safely.
It’s about the driver first and the car second.

Well, if all else fails – start a motoring thread. Especially if it involves speeding / ticketing / lawlessness.

Are you a cynic Alicestair, or just the usual stirrer? So why even bother with a post?

Chris P says:
4 June 2011

I have sold my car and now travel by bus.

Any measures which reduce accidents at acceptable cost must be worth having. Even the best drivers sometimes make mistakes, particularly when tired or when the road is icy. I would also like to see a system which immobilises cars which are stolen or whose driver has no license or is not insured.

I don’t want a cockpit full of buzzing, beeping and flashing lights and I certainly don’t want anything to apply my brakes for me. I know the distance between me and the car ahead, so you can keep the radar, and I certainly know when I’m changing lanes; I usually indicate to tell others. Blind spot aids flash when they feel like it (according to reports) and I hope that I know who and what is around me when I’m on the road. However, I’m thankful for ABS to steer and brake at the same time. It’s better than cadence braking manually. Traction control helps when its slippery. I like my reversing sensors since I can’t see immediately behind when parking. I could do without my electronic hand brake, and I hope never to see an air bag, but think they are essential. So, in summary, if it’s helpful keep it and if it takes away driver awareness or interferes with what the driver ought to be doing anyway, keep it on the options list.

Chris Nation says:
6 July 2011

Safety gizmos? Ha ha ha. That’s all TVR owners cracking up. My TVR V8S [0-60 faster than a Ferrari Testarossa, 0-100 faster than a Ferrari 308] had no ABS, no power steering, no traction control – no gizmos at all – just power assisted brakes [even a milk float needs those]

The thing steered, stopped & cornered like a witch – no need for any of the gizmos. Of course, the responsibility for not stuffing it up a tree or into somebody else’s boot was entirely mine. And I never did.

OK. I admit – without power steering, parking it you needed biceps like Rafa Nadal…

I used be very dubious of these new fangled drivers aids, I thought anything that detracted from ‘the feel of the road’ would lessen the driving experience and make me a more complacent, and thus a less safe driver.
Power steering came in: a bit too light on the jags, & maybe far too light on the Audis, but no more torn muscles and aching shoulders doing those 12 point turns in narrow lanes,
ABS was introduced, so no more cadence braking, and I could actually brake on a corner in the wet without losing the car.
And so on with each new innovation I found my driving became more enjoyable, the car safer to drive and easier to control, I could pay more attention to the road instead of being distracted fighting machinery to keep the damned thing on the road.

Then ESC came along and I thought what the **** this is a step too far.
Until one winters evening I drove my Mercedes C240 estate home, down a hill to a roundabout turned into the first exit which was under a railway bridge, and [I forgot] a notorious black ice hazard, I came round the bend lost the car completely, narrow road, iced up with brick walls on each side, yes I was going too fast I hit the corner at 50 mph. I took my hands off the wheel and braced for the inevitable crash.
Instead of spinning and crashing, a couple of lights on the dash started flashing, the car veered one way, then the other, wobbled a bit and straightened up in the centre of the road. I carried on home in a sense of wonderment, and gave thanks to the engineers who developed this system.

These aids are to help the driver and are aimed at improving safety.
A speed limiter is designed to control the driver and is ineffective, as dangerous or careless driving is not necessarily linked to speed, but the way we handle the car in different situations. This would also send out the wrong message, as the maximum speed is not the speed limit, but the correct speed for the conditions you are driving in as long as it is below the limit.
So if you insist on doing a full 30MPH in driving rain whilst the street is full of marching scouts, you will be done for careless / dangerous driving, despite your speed limiter keeping you within the limit. It we want speed controls then every car produced in this country for civilian use would be governed to 70MPH.
Assisted braking, has its place, as I get older I have developed a tendency to roll into cars in front of me in low speed queues for this reason alone would welcome it, as long as when I need to I can switch it off.