Car safety test with vehicle airbags

Most of us pay more attention to the creature comforts in our cars than to the safety systems we rely on to protect us from harm. While heated seats and iPod controls are nice, your car's most innovative technology might be in the advanced safety features you may not know exist and may never have to use.

Once exclusive to luxury makes like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, this sort of equipment is finding its way into the mainstream at an increasing rate. For example, Toyota recently announced a new Star Safety System that makes many advanced safety features standard on all of their vehicles, from the premium Avalon down to the economical Yaris.

But how can you figure out what these safety systems really do, and which ones should you look for when shopping for a car? This simple guide should help you cut through all the acronyms and make sense of car safety.


Passive protection

Passive safety equipment provides protection during a crash. It's designed to take the abuse so you don't have to. Passive features include crumple zones (body panels that absorb energy from a crash rather than transfer it to the passenger compartment), seatbelts with pre-tensioners that draw tight in an accident to keep occupants in place, headrests to prevent whiplash, a collapsible steering column to protect drivers, heavy-duty bars built into the doors to block damage in side impacts, and high-strength steel used in the vehicle's frame. And don't forget about the humble bumper. Today's bumpers are often well hidden within the overall design of a car, but they're still there to absorb energy in a crash.

Airbags might seem like an active feature due to their high-tech sensors, but they're actually considered passive because they deploy only on impact. Airbag technology has advanced considerably since they first became standard on all cars in the 1990s. To minimize the impact of an airbag exploding open, many are now dual-stage, meaning that they inflate less in a low speed crash, and more when the situation is serious. Airbags have also spread throughout the car to offer protection to rear passengers, during side impact, cushion knees and more.


Active duty

Active safety systems try to help us avoid accidents in the first place. This is the area where most of the really high-tech innovation has occurred. Active systems generally rely on smart sensors that continuously monitor the situation and computer controls that intervene when necessary to avert danger. Let's take a look at some common active safety systems.


Gaining traction

Different automakers have their own names for traction control, but it all does the same thing: it stops the drive wheels from spinning by cutting engine power and applying the brakes if needed, then brings the power back gradually. This is especially useful when starting from a standstill on slippery roads.

There are times when a little bit of wheel spin is actually useful (like getting out of a snowy rut), so traction control can typically be disabled.


Maintaining stability

Electronic stability control is traction control's cleverer cousin. This can also adjust the engine's power and apply the brakes, but it takes sideways movement into account, as well. For example, if you take a corner too fast and the car starts to lose grip, stability control can jump in to modulate engine power and also brake just one specific wheel to keep the car on the right line.

Drivers don't have to do much other than steer the car in the desired direction; the software does the rest. Sometimes it's not even easy to tell when stability control has intervened. Usually, this function cannot be turned off.


Stopping power

The most common form of active safety equipment is ABS, or anti-lock braking system. Anti-lock brakes help the driver maintain some steering control when braking hard on slippery roads. ABS achieves this by applying and releasing the brakes rapidly many times a second in a pulsing manner. All the driver has to do is keep a firm foot on the brake pedal and let the hardware do the hard work.

Some cars now have extra braking help in the form of electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. With brake force distribution the amount of braking is directed between the front and rear wheels according to how much weight the car is carrying and where it is. Brake assist provides some extra mechanical muscle in an emergency stop situation.

Toyota's Star Safety System includes a freshly developed active braking feature: Smart Stop. Whenever the throttle and brake pedals are pressed simultaneously (people get confused in stressful moments), the system recognizes what's going on and allows the brake to be the dominant function. It's also smart enough to know when you're using both pedals to keep the car from rolling back when starting on a hill.


Star performer

Many companies charge extra for certain additional safety equipment or only offer it on more expensive cars, but Toyota's comprehensive Star Safety System comes as standard issue on all of their vehicles. It includes traction control, stability control, anti-lock brake system, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.


Preserve and protect

Just as everything else in the car world improves, from audio and entertainment systems to fuel efficiency and emissions to comfort and convenience, advancements in vehicle safety are being driven by companies competing to make the best product at the best price. These safety innovations have helped save countless lives, but ultimately there's one crucial piece of equipment that car makers can't touch: the driver. It's the responsibility of each of us to not be distracted, impaired, reckless or angry. It's also vital to adjust your driving to suit conditions: maintaining extra space around the vehicle on the freeway, giving yourself time to react, and turning on headlights and taking things slow in bad weather. Advancements in vehicle safety can protect us in accidents and potentially even prevent them, but it's still up to us to drive safely.

author photo

Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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