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Don't Buy a New Car Unless it Comes With Driver-Assistance Safety Features

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author photo by Chris O'Neill August 2018

I've recently come to the conclusion that drivers who buy a new car should really opt for all the new technology "safety suites" offered by most automakers. These systems make a difference, and I think everyone should insist they be included with any new car they buy. Here's why.

What are these systems?

The most revolutionary new safety features to hit the market since the airbag, driver-assistance features take advantage of modern, affordable sensor technology. First offered on high-end luxury cars more than a decade ago, these features have made their way down to mainstream cars in the past few years, and they'll only grow more and more common until they're in every new car -- just like airbags. And it makes sense: In an era where your $600 iPhone knows to shut off its screen as you place it against your ear to talk, your $30,000 vehicle should know better than to rear-end the car in front of it at 60 miles per hour.

Most automakers offer (and group together) adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, blind spot monitoring, forward-collision warning, front-automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic monitoring and rear parking sensors. This is a pretty comprehensive grouping, of course, with a lot of safety advancements.

You may scoff at the idea of all of these electronic nannies, but here's the bottom line: They cut down on accidents and preserve life, but perhaps their best selling point is that they reduce fatigue. Soon they'll be the new normal. I've spent a lot of time behind the wheels of cars featuring these systems, and right now I'll run through each feature here and share why I think it's great.

Blind Spot Detection

Blind spot detection senses when another vehicle is located in your vehicle's blind spot and illuminates a light, usually in the side view mirror, to alert you that it isn't safe to change lanes. Whenever the light wasn't illuminated, I still found myself glancing over my shoulder to visually inspect my blind spot. But when the light was on, I could quickly and easily confirm that in that moment it wasn't a good time to change lanes -- all without having to exert the effort of looking over my shoulder and taking my eyes off the road ahead.

Radar Cruise Control

Radar cruise control uses a sensor to measure and maintain a certain distance between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you anytime cruise control is engaged. Picture this scenario: You're traveling along in the right lane with cruise control set at 70 mph, and the car in front of you is traveling at 65. With traditional cruise control, your vehicle would eventually run into the back of that vehicle in front of you, unless you tap the brake pedal to cancel the function. With radar cruise control, your vehicle would automatically decrease its speed to 65 mph and maintain a pre-set distance between you and the vehicle in front of you until either the vehicle speeds up or you change lanes.

I never appreciated how helpful this is until I experienced it firsthand. With regular cruise control, you're constantly having to cancel and resume, cancel and resume; really, the only thing regular cruise control does is allow you to temporarily relax your right leg. With radar cruise control, when you come upon a car traveling slower than you, you can either opt to stay in your lane and automatically slow down to the speed of the car ahead or change lanes, at which point your vehicle will automatically speed back up to your pre-set speed. The most underrated, and perhaps under-advertised aspect of radar cruise control is that the feeling of your vehicle automatically slowing down serves as a trigger to your brain that it's time to change lanes. Given its ability to adapt to the traffic around you, this system allows for smooth, seamless lane changes. It completely changes the highway driving experience.

I got to use this feature in a rental Volkswagen Golf that I drove around Europe this past summer -- and on the Autobahn, the benefits are only amplified. I can confidently say that there are few things cooler than cruising along at 100 mph with radar cruise control to help keep things going and slow them down when necessary.

Automatic High Beams

I've been saying that automatic high beams should be a thing for decades, and finally, here we are. Automatic high beams optimize your visibility and that of the other drivers around you by automatically dimming and brightening based on the traffic -- or lack of traffic -- around you. It's simple, it's obvious, and it works well.

Lane-Departure Warning and Lane-Keep Assist

I do a lot of highway driving over mountain passes and through winding canyons, so lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist are two features that I find to be particularly helpful.

Lane-departure warning works by sensing the lines on the road and beeping or vibrating the steering wheel to alert you when you begin to cross one. Lane-keep assist takes this one step further by actually preventing you, to a degree, from crossing these lines by steering the car back into its lane.

Vehicles that offer lane-departure warning don't necessarily offer lane-keep assist -- this can be confusing and is something worth verifying with any new vehicle you're considering.

Nonetheless, the combination of these features can be a relief on long drives. Coming back from Boise in a Mazda3, it was comforting knowing that the car would help to cancel out any errors I might've made as I cruised along late into the night on hour four of my 350-mile drive. On late night highway drives down winding canyon roads, when speed and gravity are both working against you, the peace of mind of knowing this system will increase the margin for human error is invaluable.

Automatic Braking

While these systems go by a number of names, all of them work by keeping track of the road ahead via a sensor and priming or applying the brakes if a collision, whether it be with a pedestrian or another vehicle, seems imminent. I've experienced this system in action, and it might've saved me from a nasty head-on collision. On my way home from work one day, as I had just entered the highway via an on-ramp and was accelerating to get up to highway speed, traffic in front of me had suddenly come to a stop as a result of a backed-up exit up ahead. Cars all around me were slamming on their brakes and swerving into the berm or into the other lane. I had realized this perhaps a second too late, and as I went to jam on the brakes as hard as possible, the car itself was one step ahead of me and actually applied the brakes so hard that the ABS activated right before I was able to do so manually, bringing the car to a halt much sooner than I would have on my own.

You Want Them

These features are industry disruptors, and their availability should factor heavily into any new car purchase you make today in 2018. Their benefits are threefold. First, cars that have these systems are objectively safer than cars that don't, and it's hard to put a price on safety. Second, as they become more and more common, they'll likely be factored into insurance premiums, and you might be able to save on your monthly payment if you drive a car that incorporates them. Third, as these systems become the standard, consumers will start to expect them. This means that cars that have them will likely experience slower depreciation than cars that don't. A 2018 model year car that doesn't have lane-keep assist will likely feel quite old just a couple of years down the road when all new cars have this technology, and the market will likely look less favorably upon vehicles that lack this tech when it comes to resale value.

As a result, it's simple: If you're buying a new car today, make sure it has at least some of these safety systems.

Chris O'Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Don't Buy a New Car Unless it Comes With Driver-Assistance Safety Features - Autotrader