Car Safety Features: A Definitive Guide

Safety belt

Everthing you need to know about car safety features

Modern cars are laden with car safety features which have come a long way since the first seatbelts came out during the 1930s. From airbags and anti-lock brakes to traction control and reverse cameras, many car safety features have been added to ensure better protection in the event of an accident. In light of these advancements, and since road safety is a primary focus at Group1 Cars, we wanted to share a detailed guide on the various car safety features.

Standard Car Safety Features

While there are many standard car safety features, the list continues to change as new technologies and standards are introduced. To help keep you updated, here are some of the most common standard car safety features including airbags, seatbelts, anchor points, ABS, reverse camera, ESC (Electronic Stability Control), traction control and tyre pressure monitor (TPM).


While airbags aren’t perfect, they do provide an extra level of safety and added peace of mind as front airbags are known to reduce driver fatalities. Airbags became mandatory for all passenger cars, light lorries and vans (front seats) in 1999. Today, more new cars and SUVs are fitted with additional airbags for knee and side-impact protection. The new Renault Clio V Turbo ZEN, for example, has 6 airbags, including side curtain airbags.

How Do Airbags Work?

Airbags deploy when the crash force is high enough for sensors to transmit a signal to the igniter inside an inflator within the airbag. This force results in a chemical reaction that produces gas – usually a mixture of helium and argon – that inflates the airbag. Working like a controlled explosion, the gas fills the airbag in less than 1/20th of a second at a force of up to 320 km/h (200 mph).

At the same time that airbags offer safety, such an amount of force can also cause injury to adults and especially children. As such, safety experts warn that a person needs to create at least 25 cm (10 inches) of space between themselves and a front airbag which means the back seat is the best place for the young ones.

With advancements in technology, many newer vehicles can detect the presence of occupants while measuring their weight and position. This can subsequently reduce the force of the airbag deployment which help minimise the risk of injury. Most new cars today will have side-curtain airbags that protect the head and neck during rollovers and side impacts while side-impact airbags provide protection for the torso.

Seat Belts: The Most Important Of Today’s Car Safety Features

Safety belts became mandatory in 1968 for all passenger cars and have since advanced in various ways. Seatbelt tensioners have made them far more comfortable and will help settle you back into the seat in anticipation of an airbag deployment.

Today, seatbelts are in every seating position of every passenger vehicle with many having a three-point seat belt which is regarded as one of the most effective car safety features ever. Adjustable anchors on the B-pillar of the vehicle, usually on front-seat positions, allow for height adjustment which benefits shorter drivers.

Antilock Brakes (ABS)

ABS brakes became mandatory for all new passenger cars around the year 2000. One example is the Nissan Micra which comes standard with ABS, EBD and Brake Assist among other car safety features. Sensors in each wheel monitor and report speed, grip, and other performance factors. Each sensor also communicates with and controls the brake device on each wheel to improve braking ability.

ABS helps stop a vehicle quicker which is a byproduct of ABS as it’s engineered to help a driver maintain control of the steering when performing an emergency brake. This can either be a reaction to a pedestrian stepping in front of you or the vehicle ahead stopping unexpectedly. Since the most common reaction is to push the brake pedal to the floor, brakes can lock up, the wheels stop rotating and you begin to slide.

What Happens When My Brakes Lock?

With locked brakes, your steering control is zero as the wheels are no longer rotating. Even if you turn the steering wheel in any direction, you will not be able to change the direction of the slide. One method that would eventually stop the vehicle is to rapidly pump the brakes during an emergency stop. This pumping motion also allows some wheel rotation that provides enough steering control to steer clear of the object you were trying to avoid in the first place.

Traction Control

Traction control became mandatory on all passenger cars in 2011 with one example being the Mitsubishi Triton. As the name suggests, it maintains traction between your drive wheels and the road surface and is particularly helpful in slippery conditions.

This system regulates the amount of traction to prevent the drive wheels from spinning at different rates. Using the ABS sensors in each wheel, the traction-control computer can reduce power (torque) to a specific wheel if it’s spinning faster than the rest.

Electronic Stability Control

ESC or Electronic Stability Control became mandatory in 2012 for all passenger cars with one example being the Mahindra XUV500. It is also one of the more important car safety features which utilises the ABS sensors and independent four-wheel braking. The primary task of ESC is to keep the vehicle steady in the direction you are steering. While ESC is more complex than ABS or traction control, it relies on both to function correctly.

Reverse Camera

The reverse camera also referred to as the rearview camera, became mandatory in 2018 for all passenger cars, light lorries and vans. This camera is typically somewhere on a vehicle’s rear lower trim such as the rear bumper, around the license plate or the latch for the boot or tailgate.

The reverse camera is only activated when you shift into reverse. It helps you to safely reverse into or out of a parking spot while being a powerful aid to spot pedestrians or other objects behind your vehicle.

Most reverse cameras on newer cars show parallel guidelines that mark your vehicle’s width as you reverse into a parking spot. You can find a reverse camera on the Mitsubishi Outlander among others.

Tyre Pressure Monitor (TPM)

The tyre pressure monitor system became mandatory in 2007 for all passenger cars, light lorries, and vans. Each tyre has a sensor that monitors air pressure and warns drivers when a tyre has low pressure. Some systems will display the current pressure in each tyre on the driver information display. You will find a TPM on the JAC T8 double cab bakkie and many other modern cars.

Car Safety Features To Help Prevent Collisions

While we are nowhere near cars without steering wheels and pedals, we continue to benefit from the ever-changing car safety features and driver assistance technologies that will help carmakers achieve that goal. Some of the most common driver aids combine to create an even more advanced driver system, also referred to as ADAS.

Blind-Spot Monitoring System (BSM)

To keep track of approaching vehicles, a basic Blind Spot Monitoring system uses radar or ultrasonic sensors usually fitted to both sides of the rear bumper. More advanced systems often combine these sensors with side-mounted cameras for an even better result.

The BSM system on the Nissan Qashqai, for example, warns you that a vehicle is entering a blind spot of your vehicle. These alerts are either warning lights on the A-pillars, side view mirrors or a head-up display. If your car has a tactile or haptic steering wheel or driver’s seat, the warning may also be tactile.

Brake Assist

Drivers are human which means their responses to crises often vary. Brake assist is designed to help the driver apply more pressure on the brakes in an emergency if they do not fully squeeze them. The brake-assist system on the Renault Duster, for example, initiates and then maintains emergency braking until the driver releases the brake pedal in this case.

The time it takes a driver to move from the accelerator to the brake and back again is used by some brake-assist systems to determine whether they should engage. Radar or camera-based emergency braking systems anticipate situations, initiating braking a fraction of a second before the driver’s foot reaches the brake pedal.

Forward-Collision Warning (FCW)

A forward-collision warning system uses cameras, radar, lasers, or a combination of all three to detect cars or other objects in front of your vehicle. More sophisticated systems can also identify pedestrians, cyclists and animals.

A vehicle fitted with an FCW will sound a warning when it gets too close to an object or when sensing a potential collision. This warning may be visual, audible, tactile, or a combination of the three.

It is safe to assume that a forward-collision warning system will soon be a requirement for all new vehicles as several mainstream models already have an FCW as part of the standard car safety features list. It is becoming more widespread in cars like the Nissan Navara.

Lane-Centering Assist (LCA)

LCA is more advanced than lane-keeping assist as it takes a more active role in keeping your car in the middle of its lane. Some cars use a forward-facing camera to monitor lane boundaries. This system often uses some form of steering assist to go around bends and, in some cases, LCA will only function once you engage adaptive cruise control.

Lane-Departure Warning (LDW)

Commonly used with a front-mounted camera, the Lane Departure Warning System (LDW) is reasonably common today but mostly on top-end models like the Nissan X-Trail 2.5 Tekna CVT 4WD. It monitors your vehicle in relation to the lane markers which will issue a warning when it sees the car is too close to the lane markers on either side. The warning is either visual, audible, tactile or a combination but more advanced systems even subtly nudge you back into your lane.

Lane-Keeping Assist (LKA)

This system is a more sophisticated version of lane-departure warning where a forward-pointed camera keeps track of your vehicle in relation to the lane markings. LKA uses the steering system to steer the vehicle back into its lane with some even using the independent-braking capability of ABS to brake the vehicle is about to cross the line.

When making a lane change without indicating, the LKA will gently push against your steering wheel input to keep you in the current lane. It’s not enough to overpower your steering input but it will certainly attract your attention.

Lane-Tracing Assist (LTA)

Also working in conjunction with the vehicle’s adaptive cruise control, LTA helps drivers to stay within the proper lane by increasing their level of lane-centring assistance. Where road markings may not be apparent or consistent, LCA will follow the vehicle’s route ahead of it.

Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTW)

Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTW) is most often paired with Blind-Spot Monitoring since they both use radar or ultrasonic sensors. These are usually embedded on each side of the rear bumper and sometimes include the reverse camera as well, including cars like the Hyundai Santa Fe.

The RCTW system activates when you reverse out of a parking spot, driveway, or otherwise move into the path of crossing traffic. It sends an audible, visual or tactile warning if vehicles are approaching from either side of that path. Some systems even include automatic braking.

Car Safety Features For Speed Control

A key aspect of self-driving cars is the ability of a vehicle to safely maintain its position while traffic around the vehicle accelerates, slows and comes to a complete stop. Here is a brief look at Adaptive Cruise Control, Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) and Traffic-Sign Recognition (TSR).

Adaptive Cruise Control

Standard cruise control helps you maintain a preset speed, regardless of the behaviour of the surrounding traffic. Drivers can apply the brake to disengage it or push the “Resume” button to re-engage it and adjusting the speed is also up to the driver.

However, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) thinks for itself and can also act autonomously in certain situations. Once engaged, ACC uses cameras, radar, and lasers to monitor the traffic around the vehicle. While the driver must still engage ACC, most systems can operate on their own from there.

Some systems can reduce speed to match the vehicle ahead of them and come to a complete stop when necessary to keep a safe following distance. Other ACC systems can connect to the vehicle’s GPS mapping, adapting the vehicle’s speed ahead of upcoming bends.

Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB)

Often paired with Forward-Collision Warning, the automatic emergency braking system uses cameras, radar, sensors, or a combination to identify objects in the vehicle’s path. If the system determines a potential for a collision, some will apply the brakes, bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, if necessary. Other AEB systems will slow the car until the driver presses the brake. These particular car safety features will lessen the impact of the driver doesn’t react.

Traffic-Sign Recognition (TSR)

TSR is a functional but passive driver aid using a forward-pointed camera to identify road signs. The program includes a catalogue of all the important road signs worthy of a driver’s attention. These include speed limit, stop and slow down, yield, pedestrian crossings, school zones, railroad crossings and warning signs of a sharp bend ahead.

Car Safety Features: Vision and Headlights

Driving at night is more dangerous especially when coupled with poor visibility due to adverse weather conditions. Thankfully, advancements in driving at night have helped keep drivers safe and they go beyond LED and projector-beam headlights.

Automatic High Beams (High Beam Assist)

This technology uses a forward-pointing camera or photosensor to see the headlights of approaching vehicles. It can also react to taillights that become visible as you get closer to cars in front of you. The VW Polo TSI Comfortline is one example of a car featuring High Beam Assist.

Though drivers must initially switch on the system, automatic high beams will be the default setting. In this case, high beams will always be on unless the system detects headlights or taillights in front of you at a set distance. At this point, the system will disengage the high beams and re-engage only when there are no headlights or taillights.

Adaptive Headlights

Traditional headlights are fixed and pointing straight ahead. However, some vehicles have a self-levelling feature to compensate for heavy loads, including the JAC N-Series truck. Adaptive headlights are a little different as they can swivel to some degree based on the direction the steering wheel is turning when going around corners.

Night Vision

When it comes to car safety features, few are as important as headlights as they provide better visibility in the dark. However, night vision is gaining popularity with Passive and Active systems.

Passive night vision uses a thermographic camera that can see the heat coming off a person, animal, or any object. The camera then translates the visuals into a black-and-white image on an interior monitor.

The active night vision system uses infrared light to illuminate the road ahead. Since infrared can’t be seen by the naked eye, it doesn’t affect oncoming drivers. A special infrared camera collects the necessary data and displays images on a monitor.

It’s worth noting that a passive system may struggle to see inanimate objects that do not emit any heat. Active systems can also fail when infrared light is blocked by fog, snow, and rain.

Other Car Safety Features

Car safety features are finally advertised along with styling, fuel economy, performance, and convenience. Advances in technology mean there are now more common car safety features rather than standard.

Active Head Restraints

Front-seat head restraints were mandatory in passenger vehicles since 1969 but active head restraints are a little newer. While the actions may be different, active head restraints move up and forward during a rear-end collision helping to prevent whiplash.

Driver-Attention Monitor

Falling asleep at the wheel is a real concern and highly dangerous. The automotive world recognised this and developed a driver-attention monitor system. Using a sensor-equipped camera with LED detectors, it tracks a driver’s level of alertness through eye movements, head position and eyelid activity. Some advanced versions combine other advanced driver aids into the monitoring to track steering behaviour as well. When it determines a driver may be losing concentration, it issues a visual or audio warning.

Parking Assist Systems

A parking assist system uses several automated systems to take some of the guesswork and stress out of parking your vehicle. There are different levels of automation but the functionality remains the same.

Once a suitable parking spot is found, some park assist systems will guide the vehicle into the parking space while the driver operates the pedals. Advanced systems, on the other hand, might find the spot and then automatically park the car.

Other systems allow the driver to pull up to a suitable parking space, step out, and then use the key fob to park the vehicle. More advanced parking assist systems even enable the driver to summon a parked car to their live location.

Rain-Sensing Wipers

As the name suggests, rain-sensing wipers are automatically engaged when it senses moisture on the windshield. Because the system adjusts automatically, the driver does not have to adjust the wiper speed to accommodate changes in the rain volume hitting the windscreen.

One example of a vehicle with many advanced car safety features includes the Nissan Patrol SUV. It comes standard with multiple airbags, FCW, Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC), Intelligent Distance Control Assist (DCA), Smart Rear-View Mirror and Intelligent Automatic headlights among many others.

As time goes by, and technology continues to evolve, the automotive industry demands a higher level of safety. This has led to more vehicles being equipped with several standard car safety features that could help promote safer roads now and in the future.

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