A number of features designed to enhance safety, some more high-tech than others, can be had on a growing number of cars. Here’s a selection.
Standard equipment on many cars, antilock braking systems (ABS) keep wheels from locking under heavy braking, such as in panic stops. They achieve this by sensing when a wheel is about to lock, then pulsing the brake enough to let the wheel turn. This prevents skidding and maintains greater maneuverability.
When ABS became fairly common a few years ago, it raised great expectations for increased safety and fewer accidents. Such hopes proved unduly optimistic.
Part of the reason appears to be that some drivers believed antilock systems could stop a car on the proverbial dime; the resulting over confidence encouraged riskier driving. And many drivers did not use ABS correctly.
With ABS, apply firm, steady pressure to the brake pedal. Do not pump the brake pedal—the system automatically does any pumping necessary. antilock brakes are not necessarily a whole lot more effective on dry pavement than ordinary brakes. They’re at their most effective on slippery surfaces.
In some cases, maintaining steerability has been a mixed blessing. During a panic stop, many drivers not only stand on the brakes, but turn the steering wheel to avoid whatever obstacle is dead ahead—without giving due concern to obstacles that may hinder the new course. Before ABS, this didn’t make much difference as, with wheels locked by the brakes, the car wasn’t steerable anyway.
Since ABS keeps the car relatively maneuverable, people often are able to steer out of one misfortune and, in their haste, right into one at least as unattractive, such as oncoming traffic. It’s still helpful to maintain as much presence of mind as possible in these situations.
Because this is easier said than done, it’s important to get in a little practice with your antilock brakes. Go to a safe place, such as a large and empty parking lot, to try a few panic stops. Try steering. And, if you ever get into a panic-stop situation, try to make sure your deft maneuvering actually does you some good.
For all of that, ABS can be a real plus. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says that when used properly, "antilock brakes have the potential to save lives."
Another advantage of ABS is that two other stability-enhancing systems available on some cars—traction control and stability control—work in conjunction with it.
Think of it as antilock braking in reverse. As your car accelerates, this system ensures that drive wheels maintain traction by keeping them from spinning on a slick surface.
There are several different traction control systems. They work by sensing when a wheel begins to lose traction, then either applying the brakes, or modulating the throttle, or both. Traction control is available only on cars with antilock brakes, and not on all of those. It’s most likely to earn its keep on mud, ice, or snow; you’d have to have an awfully heavy foot to engage it otherwise.
Available only on a few high-end cars, stability control can be an asset for those who tend to drive extremely expensive cars too fast. When a car corners at too great a speed, the tail can tend to swing out. A stability control system applies the brake on the outside corner to keep this from happening or at least minimize it, thus increasing lateral stability—the car sticks to the road better. It can be helpful in icy conditions, but rational drivers may not have much occasion to use it.
The more you load a car, the lower it tends to ride. An active suspension senses when a car is heavily or unevenly loaded and raises the vehicle back to its proper height. This helps maintain stability and a greater comfort level by keeping the full shock travel available, making it less likely the car will bottom out.
Some systems can sense how bumpy the road is and adjust the shock absorbers to compensate for it. While a boon to the backsides of those in rough road territory, such a system can be very expensive to repair, with the fairly intricate shock absorbers costing several hundred dollars each.
Speed-sensitive power steering
This helps maintain the "road feel" and consequent air of control one has at higher speeds while keeping a car easily steerable at low speeds by providing more power assist. The system adjusts for speed by changing pressure in the power steering system, thus allowing you to navigate your land yacht through a parking lot using only a pinky to steer, while maintaining that road-machine feel of command on the open road.
This has been around in one form or another since the ’70s. An early system used a touchpad with numbers; if you knew the combination, you were in. These days, a battery-operated remote control, typically on the key chain, lets you unlock one or more doors, turn on interior lights, and open the trunk from several yards away. It can be a handy feature, especially if you remember to change the remote’s battery regularly.
These devices, which include a small screen, a computer, and a satellite hookup, can tell you just where you are to within a few feet, how to get where you’re going, and, on some cars, will alert a central location if the car’s air bag is deployed.
Built-in security system
The simplest versions sound the horn or a siren and maybe blink the lights when someone tries to start the car without the proper key—or when a reasonably energetic breeze rocks the parked car a bit. Most people ignore such alarms as best they can; the lights and horn might dissuade a dilettante thief and almost certainly will annoy the neighbors.
Systems that disable a car, either by refusing to let it start if the proper key isn’t used or causing the car to shut down after a few seconds of operation, have a better chance of discouraging more dedicated thieves, although practically nothing will stop the crook who is truly devoted to his craft.
After-market security systems abound. It can be worth your while either to get a system installed by the manufacturer or to use an after-market supplier you’re fairly sure still will be there when the system needs repair.
This article was first published in May 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.