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Don’t Forget Safety Features in Your Next Car  - Murcotts' Guide to New Car Buyers.

Looking for a new car?  Not sure what to buy?  Should you look for the best price or the safest car you can afford?  

It is crucial to note that the lower fatality numbers across Australia in recent years is largely due to safer vehicles. Drivers and passengers are surviving crashes due to safety innovations in modern vehicles compared to older vehicles.  

Technology has made the modern motor car a computer on wheels and we need to understand the difference between gimmicks and real safety innovation.

Here are some examples to look for:

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) is a computerised safety system that prevents the wheels on your car from locking under hard braking.  ABS prevents skidding caused by lock-up allowing the road wheels to continue rotating which assists the driver to maintain steering control under heavy braking.  That’s the good news.

The not so good news is that some ABS systems might increase stopping distances on slippery surface such as gravel.  The other point to note is that when ABS kicks in you feel an unnerving pulsating, grinding in the brake pedal.  Don’t worry – that’s the computer delivering a series of braking pulses – it’s supposed to do that.  If you have ABS and you have never needed to experience it – that’s also a good thing!  But you might benefit from learning more about it and actually feeling it working so that you will know what is happening when things go wrong.

Electronic Brakeforce Distribution works with ABS to automatically vary the amount of energy applied to each braking wheel.  The amount of energy supplied to the brakes on each wheel varies according to a variety of factors such as road conditions, speed and loading.   More or less braking pressure is applied to each wheel to maximise stopping power and maintain the car’s balance and control.

Brake Assist is a computerised braking system that increases braking pressure in an emergency situation.  The system compensates for drivers who fail to brake with enough force in an emergency.  Brake Assist works by measuring the speed at which the driver applies the brake pedal.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is considered by road safety authorities as one of the greatest safety advance in years.

ESC improves the handling of a vehicle by detecting and preventing a skidding wheel.  The computerised program detects loss of control and individual brakes are automatically applied to help keep the car moving in the direction you want to go.  Brakes are automatically applied to individual wheels, such as the outer front wheel to counter oversteer (rear wheel skid), or the inner rear wheel to counter understeer (front wheel skid).  In some vehicles the system also reduces engine power to assist the driver regain control.

Supplementary Restraint System (SRS) Air Bag is a safety device designed to prevent passenger injury.  It is designed to work in conjunction with a seat belt.  Most modern vehicles have at least one airbag and it is a part of the steering wheel.  It comprises a flexible bag that inflates rapidly in a collision to prevent the driver from striking the steering wheel.  Vehicles with high safety ratings are also fitted with a front passenger airbag side curtain airbags and options. Side protrusion during crashes of trees and poles, is a big killer of vehicle occupants even at relatively low speeds.

Seat Belt guide while seat belts are compulsory in all new vehicles, make sure that all passenger seats have lap and sash combinations. Anchor points for child restraints are very important if toddlers and baby capsules are on board.

Height and Reach Adjustable Steering Murcotts believe driver ergonomics is crucial.  Adjustable steering columns allow steering wheel height to suit each driver.  The system works with a quick release lock and in some cases electric motors.  Look for reach adjustment as well. Here the steering column provides telescopic movement in or out allowing for long or short arm reach and is crucial for drivers to be able to reach the pedals comfortably.

Seat belt pre-tensioners operate by tightening the belt to prevent the occupant from moving forward or submarining (where the driver slides under a loose belt) in a crash.  Similar to air bags a pre-tensioner will tighten the belt almost instantaneously when the vehicle is involved in a crash.

A Spare Wheel is a crucial safety feature for Australian mtorists. Some manufacturers only supply a space saving spare wheel which are always speed limited and change the handling of the vehicle. Think about a heavily loaded holiday vehicle that needs to swap a punctured tyre. While the space saving spare fitted in the loaded boot or cargo area, the damaged wheel may not. Remember, your car tyres are the only contact your vehicle has with the planet so don't compromise. 

Space saver spare wheels and run flat tyres are a problem due to the speed and distance limitations imposed when in use. Australian long distances are not compatible with these limited features.

Pedestrian Detection and Avoidance Systems have recently been introduced which cause a vehicle to apply the brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian if the driver has failed to see them. The system only works below certain speed such as 30 Kph.  Given poor pedestrian safety behaviour, these systems are useful but nothing replaces a driver maintaining alertness and vision scanning to detect  problems. 

Blind Spot Rear Mirror Alert systems signal if a vehicle or motorcycle has entered your "blind spot".  Unfortunately if drivers have not set their mirrors up to cover the blind spot, it is likely that they will not respond to the alert because they are not regular users of their mirrors.  Diverging into another road user such as when changing lanes, is a very common crash type and there is no device that will perform better than a driver making the proper mirror and head checks.   

Risk Compensation Theory - with this high level of vehicle safety, there is a risk that some drivers might become complacent. Studies bear this out and the concept is called risk homeostasis theory or human adaption theory.  

ABS and other safety systems have been demonstrated to create a false sense of security in some drivers.  Risk compensation theory suggests that when drivers feel safer in their vehicles due to increased safety innovations such as vehicle stability and occupant protection, they may drive more aggressively as a result. For example when ABS was first introduced crash rates increased, especially rear end crashes. Drivers formed the false belief that they would be able to stop quicker so their speed increased and following distances decreased.

It is extremely important to remember that while all of these safety features are impressive, the uncushioned human body still cannot sustain an impact over 40km/h.  If something goes wrong and your safety features fail at the crucial time, it could be all over.

There are great resources to assist you in your purchase of a new car. For example check out its crash rating at  www.howsafeisyourcar.com.au/ and  www.ancap.com.au

For those interested in green driving see how environmentally friendly your new car choice is at www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au