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Unlocking the Potential of Modern Car Safety Features

New cars today have more safety features than ever. How important are they?

While all of this technology can’t prevent every accident from happening, studies indicate it can help reduce crashes, prevent serious injuries and save thousands of lives on our roadways when paired with defensive driving practices.

According to the Partnership for Analytics Research in Traffic Safety, advanced safety features like forward-collision alert and automatic emergency braking reduce the risk of a serious crash by 49%, while lowering the risk of injury by 53%.1  At the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that frontal airbags have saved more than 50,000 lives over a 30-year period.2

Standard safety features in cars

Car safety features can include everything from crumple zones to antilock brakes to rear cross-traffic alerts. Passive systems help keep occupants safe if an accident occurs.

  • Airbags prevent the driver or front-seat passenger from coming into contact with a vehicle’s hard interior surfaces, like the dashboard or windshield. Side-curtain airbags protect the head and neck during rollovers and side impacts.
  • Seat belts prevent drivers and passengers from being ejected during a crash. A seat belt pretensioner tightens the belt during a crash to help keep the driver and passengers in place.
  • Crumple zones help absorb the impact of a crash. Combined with seat belts, airbags and padded interiors, crumple zones play a vital role in reducing harm, particularly to vital organs and the skull.
  • Side-impact bars protect occupants, who are particularly vulnerable in a side crash, by increasing the rigidity of the doors and absorbing a collision’s energy into the floor and roof.

Collision avoidance

Active safety systems give the driver more control in dangerous situations. Simply put, they help avoid or reduce damage before an accident happens or contact is made.

  • Antilock braking systems help maintain steering control during emergency braking, while also enabling a somewhat quicker stop.
  • Electronic stability assist initiates automatic braking, usually to individual wheels, to help prevent spinning. It doesn’t necessarily increase traction, but does help maintain control of the vehicle during extreme steering maneuvers.
  • Blind-spot detection alerts the driver to vehicles entering the blind spots in the car’s rear-quarter areas. These alerts may be warning lights on the vehicle’s A-pillars, side mirrors or, if so equipped, the heads-up display.
  • Rear cross-traffic alerts let drivers know about vehicles approaching from either side as they back out of a parking spot or driveway, or into the path of crossing traffic. More often than not, they’re paired with blind-spot monitoring, because both rely on radar or ultrasonic sensors in the rear bumper.
  • Lane-departure warning monitors the vehicle in relation to the center and side lane stripes. It signals to steer back into the correct lane if it senses the vehicle veering close to the lane markers on either side.
  • Lane-keeping assist is a more sophisticated version of lane-departure warning, using the steering system to steer the vehicle back into its lane. Some systems gently brake the wheel that’s about to cross the line.
  • Forward-collision warning technology detects cars or other objects in front of a vehicle. More sophisticated systems can also pick up pedestrians, cyclists and even animals. As the vehicle closes in on a detected object and senses a potential collision, it issues a visual, audible and/or tactile warning.
  • Automatic emergency braking is often paired with forward-collision warning to identify objects in the vehicle’s path. If the system senses a potential collision, it will automatically hit the brakes if the driver doesn’t respond in time.

Speed Control

  • Adaptive cruise control helps vehicles maintain a safe following distance and stay within the speed limit by adjusting speed automatically so drivers don’t have to. Unfortunately, this technology doesn’t always work properly in bad weather that affects road visibility. And remember, while it has the potential to reduce the number of crashes, it doesn’t replace being an attentive driver.
  • Traction control maintains traction between the drive wheels and the surface beneath them. It’s particularly helpful when turning corners or accelerating in slippery conditions.

Driver awareness and assistance

  • Rearview cameras activate when the car’s in reverse. While they’re very effective when backing into or out of a parking, they’re invaluable for spotting pedestrians or other objects behind a vehicle.
  • Parking sensors help provide smoother and more efficient parking by alerting the driver when there’s a person or object nearby. Acting as an extra set of eyes, they reduce the risk of damage to the driver’s vehicle or others. Parking assist systems help minimize the chance of scratches and dings that happen when steering into very tight spaces.
  • Heads-up display systems can help keep drivers’ eyes on the road by projecting information, like speed and fuel, onto the windshield. On the other hand, sunlight, glare and other factors can cause visibility issues. And, because the display is in the driver’s field of view, it can be easy to fixate on it and fail to notice events in the environment.
  • Adaptive headlights make it easier to see on dark, curvy roads by moving when you steer. High-beam assist technology automatically switches between high beams and low beams when other vehicles are present. Fairly new to the U.S., headlights with adaptive driving beams continuously adjust the high-beam pattern to shine more light onto the road ahead without blinding the drivers of oncoming cars.
  • Night vision systems can detect and alert drivers to things beyond the reach of their headlights. Passive systems use thermal cameras that illuminate the heat radiating from people, animals and objects. Active systems use infrared light sources to illuminate darkness.

Specialized features

  • Safety features for seniors: Driving helps older adults stay mobile and independent, but the risk of being injured or killed in a crash increases as people age. In addition to everything described above, in-vehicle navigation systems, intersection turn assistance and driver-attention monitoring can help senior drivers stay safer on the road.
  • Safety features for families: Parents responsible for the family fleet seek top safety features for maximum peace of mind. Some of these include automatic braking, surround-view cameras and lane-centering technology. Another basic is rear-door child safety locks that allow window switches and door panels to be individually locked. A rear-seat alert system reminds the driver to check the back seat for children or pets once the vehicle’s turned off.

How to ensure your car’s safety features are functioning

Whether you’ve just driven a new car off the lot or you have one with a few miles on it, it’s essential to be thoroughly familiar with the owner’s manual. With today’s vehicles being so sophisticated, you need to know how each feature – particularly the safety ones – is supposed to work so you’re well-prepared for different situations on the road.

You need to know your vehicle’s service intervals, as well, to keep it running smoothly. If you’re comfortable getting a little dirty, you might take on routine maintenance yourself. Check out our Simple DIY Car Maintenance page to learn how.

And, finally, stay up to date with recalls.

There’s more to safe driving than technology

While crash avoidance technologies can give you the extra peace of mind you need to relax and enjoy your journey, they can’t replace solid driving skills and common sense. For one thing, they may not perform well in certain conditions – and some can even be as much of a distraction as a help.

So, remember, safety features in cars are there to assist you in driving – not replace you in controlling your vehicle. It’s critical for you to be engaged at all times and always responsible for each and every one of its actions.

Your car may already be equipped to save you money on auto insurance. If your vehicle has even one of these car safety features – electronic stability control (ESC), passive restraint, forward-collision warning technology or adaptive headlights – you may qualify for discounts.


You’ll find many government-mandated features like seat belts, airbags and antilock brakes on every car. However, features like blind-spot monitoring, active head restraints and forward-collision monitoring may be optional.

Without a doubt, three-point seat belts are the most critical safety feature. Coming in close behind are antilock brakes, electronic stability control and airbags. Backup cameras are also a huge safety advancement.

Drivers want to protect their vehicles while keeping their passengers safe. Insurance companies want to help reduce the number of claims their customers experience. That’s why many insurers reward drivers who prioritize car safety features with lower policy premiums. While these car safety features can’t prevent accidents or losses from happening, they may lessen the severity of the event, especially when paired with defensive driving practices. Contact your insurance company to learn if these discounts are available to you.

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1 PARTS Partnership for Analytics Research in Traffic Safety, NHTSA
2 Air Bags, NHTSA

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