Nothing can quite prepare you for those critical moments just before a potential accident. Whether it's a car cutting you off or a pedestrian darting into a crosswalk, a few milliseconds can make the difference between averting disaster and facing serious consequences.

Back in 2010, I tested Volvo's City Safety feature in a controlled environment. My tester, an S60 equipped with the optional $2,100 Technology Package (which includes pedestrian detection), was aimed toward a dummy nicknamed "Junior" at the end of a parking lot. As I held the gas at 30 mph and headed straight for the standup, the windshield-mounted cameras and radar units detected the shape, and I suddenly felt the Volvo's brakes automatically bring the car to a screeching halt just a few feet before the obstacle. The system worked eerily and remarkably well, and it seemed like a measure that could be potentially lifesaving in real-world driving.

What's That Grinding Feeling?

Fast-forward two years, and a real-world traffic situation emerged which allowed me to experience City Safety firsthand, impromptu. Traveling at about 20 mph through an intersection in Pasadena, California, a car ran a red light while turning right, directly into my path. In a split second, a grinding sensation came from the Volvo's front end as my car abruptly slowed down. The weirdly disconcerting feeling seemed like the transmission had unexpectedly downshifted into a bad gear, and though my tester wasn't equipped with the Technology Package (which includes "Full Auto Brake"), the basic setup on my car could have reduced the impact had I made contact with the vehicle.

Quite honestly, I saw the car well before it entered my path, so its presence wasn't exactly a surprise. More unexpected was the way my Volvo reacted to what it perceived was a potential accident: the feeling was so alien that it took a moment to process, after which point I saw a message on the dashboard that City Safety had been enacted. One tap of the button at the end of the turn signal stalk, and the message went away.

Active Safety: Worth It?

Lest you suspect that Volvo is alone in their creepily intrusive safety measures, note that the trend has spread across virtually all manufacturers. From Dodge to Mercedes-Benz, drivers are facing a new level of vehicle dynamics when they follow traffic too closely or wander out of their lanes. Thanks to radar systems and shape recognition software found in the latest automotive telematics, it's not unusual for your car to beep at you or vibrate the steering wheel when dangerous parameters are detected-which, needless to say, rubs some drivers the wrong way.

In the case of my City Safety activation experience, the circumstances that triggered the event didn't happen to be particularly threatening, but they certainly could have been-especially given increasingly erratic traffic patterns due to cell phone distractions and a general disregard for the sanctity of driving. Like ABS or stability control, active safety measures that intervene with the driving experience will soon be commonplace, and perhaps even government mandated.

And while I believe the feature-which, incidentally, comes standard on the S60-has the potential to help prevent an accident, I'm equally pleased that City Safety can be switched off under the "My Car" settings. Say what you will about Big Brother controlling our cars, but if we still maintain the freedom to disable a safety feature that's capable of automatically applying brakes, it's hard to argue with the idea of sophisticated electronics that might someday save your life.

Want to learn more? Follow our long-term test of the Volvo S60.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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