In my last article, I explained the difference between a car’s “passive safety” (the ability to protect you in the event of an accident) and “active safety” (the ability to help you avoid an accident in the first place).
Both are equally important, although active safety is often poorly understood and therefore often overlooked. The image of passive safety in modern cars has been enhanced by programs such as EuroNCAP, but it is clear that even very minor accidents are best avoided at all.
Hyundai has an array of advanced electronic systems that help drivers maintain control of the car in an emergency and reduce the chance of a collision. Even the most basic new cars come equipped with anti-lock braking (ABS) and often some form of electronic stabilization program (ESP, sometimes called VDC, PASM, or another acronym, depending on the manufacturer).
The ABS prevents the brakes from locking when you press down on the pedal, so you can still turn instead of sliding straight forward. ESP is a very clever system that can identify where you are trying to turn and whether the car is really going in that direction. If the direction of the car doesn’t match the direction you are trying to drive it, the ESP can brake individual wheels on the car and even cut off the throttle if necessary to help the car go where you are pointing. This is useful in slippery conditions where the car wants to glide straight rather than turn (understeer) or spin backwards (oversteer). If everything goes well, you won’t even notice anything is happening.
In addition to the two examples above, many modern cars have a whole set of electronic systems that help make them “safer” to drive. These systems can make the car behave more predictably, slow down slightly to keep the tires in grip, or even apply varying degrees of braking to each wheel to keep the car balanced. All this makes it easier for the driver to maintain control of the car, so accidents are less likely.
Some very advanced technology is available for luxury cars, which goes one step further. Blind spot monitors use cameras to monitor your blind spot and warn you when you are about to move in front of another car, or to help stop a car from veering out of its lane. Some cars can “read” speed limit signs and alert you. Night vision technology can be used to identify pedestrians outside the range of headlights. There’s advanced cruise control that not only maintains your speed, but can accelerate or slow down to follow the car in front, and even brake the car from 150 MPH to a full stop if necessary.
Last year, AS part of an Audi training program, I drove an Audi A8 in Germany, on highways and around towns. In a convoy of more than 20 miles of driving route, I from 60 miles per hour to 150 miles per hour (there is no limit on the highway, rather than through the city streets) to a full stop to 140 miles per hour, and then return to stop completely, surpass other cars, follow other vehicles, behind a truck card for a while, It goes through a village and ends up in a parking lot. I didn’t touch the brake or gas pedal for more than 20 miles. However, the car performed perfectly, faithfully following the car in front and never getting too close. For the first half of the trip, I kept my foot hovering over the brake pedal just in case, but the car’s system was smart enough to “read” traffic and react accordingly. Once I got over the surreal feeling of the car accelerating to over 150 MPH (250 km/h in the metric world) and then stopping from that speed without pedal input, it was actually a very comfortable ride, making the journey much easier. The system uses two radar units, a camera, parking sensors, satellite navigation systems and a powerful computer system to collect and process vast amounts of information and make split-second decisions along the way.
But active safety isn’t just about electronics. Any aspect of a car’s design or engineering that helps the driver avoid an accident is an active safety feature. For example, the thickness and position of the windshield strut has a significant impact on a driver’s ability to see oncoming traffic at a roundabout. Lighter cars respond more flexibly to changes in direction (for example, swerving to avoid a dog in the road) than heavier vehicles. Modern tyres disperse water much better in heavy rain, so you are less likely to slip off the road. The more complex suspension helps the car maintain better balance on the road, even at high speeds or when pulling heavy loads.
Ultimately, an “active safety” car will be one that is easy to drive, behaves predictably and gives the driver confidence when action is needed. Predictable behavior is safe, so the driver can know exactly how the car will respond and instinctively turn and/or brake to present itself if something goes wrong. Cars that behave unpredictably can cause drivers to hesitate and not take enough steps to avoid accidents.
When test-driving the car you are buying, it is important to consider how comfortable you can find the car and how easy it is to look ahead, behind and to the side. Everyone is different, and the placement of seats, columns and mirrors affects everyone, which can affect how you respond to emergencies. Make sure you hit the brakes hard (make sure there’s nothing behind you and that the other people in the car know what you’re doing!). So you can feel the pedals. Check your blind spots, check your rearview mirrors, check your traffic around the roundabout — especially bikes — and so on. If you’re looking for used cars, check the tires to see how old they are and whether they’re a well-known brand or one you’ve never heard of.
In the third and final installment of this feature on car safety, I’ll discuss what you can do to make your current car safer.
Stuart Masson is The Car Expert, an independent and impartial London-based specialist for anyone looking to buy a new or used Car. Originally from Australia, Stuart has been passionate about cars and the automotive industry for nearly three decades and has worked in the automotive retail industry in Australia and London for the past seven years. Stewart combines his extensive knowledge of all things automotive with his own experience in selling cars and delivering high levels of customer satisfaction to bring a unique personalised advisory service to car buyers in London. Car experts offer specific and tailored advice to anyone looking for a new or used car in London.