The history of road safety is starting to show that the biggest advances are made when we step back. That is, the further away we as road users can stay from the hazards, including other road users, the safer we’ll all be.
In modern times, the first great advances were in protecting occupants with seatbelts and then airbags.
Then it was about mitigating the severity of the crash by correcting the error when the car gets into an emergency situation, through the likes of anti-lock braking systems and then electronic stability control.
Now the focus is on keeping vehicles out of those sort of situations altogether, and while there are many new systems that concentrate on the car – e.g. adaptive cruise control and autonomous emergency braking – a big part of the equation is to help the driver stay focused and aware.
By making the vehicle an extension of the driver, by ‘seeing’ and ‘anticipating’ danger and then alerting the driver and in some cases reacting, there’ll be less tragic invasion of each road user’s personal space.
The systems which only a few years ago were restricted to high-end vehicles in Australia are now working their way down into popular cars, much in the way airbags and ABS have done.
For example, a version of a lane-keeping/lane-changing assistant is standard on seven of the 15 class winners in Australia’s Best Cars this year, it’s an extra-cost option on an eighth – significantly the sub-$20,000 Kia Cerato – and can be found on high-spec versions of three others. More than half the winners have access to a blind spot system, and fatigue detection is available on five.
These are the sort of systems to look for when choosing your next car.
These systems determine if the driver isn’t paying as much attention to controlling the vehicle as they should. It does this through monitoring things such as drifting across the lane and inconsistent steering wheel movements. Some systems also use a camera to monitor the driver’s face to determine which way they are looking, head position and angle, and even if the eyes are closing.
The drowsy driver can be alerted in several ways, firstly through a visual alert on the dashboard but also audible warnings and vibrating the seat and steering wheel.
These systems keep an eye on the driver’s ‘blind spot’ – the area not covered by either the central or wing mirror. If a vehicle comes into that spot, particularly one approaching quickly, the monitor warns the driver, either via a light on that side’s wing mirror, an audible warning or a vibration in the steering wheel. More intense alerts can be issued if the driver is indicating to move into the danger area.
Lack of concentration can cause drivers to drift into other lanes, so your vehicle can detect if it’s moving out of its lane unintentionally. A camera in the car scans for when a lane line is being approached or crossed without the indicator being used.
A system will usually produce audible and/or visual warnings, and some also apply gentle torque pressure to the steering wheel to correct the drift.
This works as a function of blind-spot monitoring – see above.
Rear cross-traffic alert
Even eyes in the back of your head won’t help you when reversing out of carparks or driveways and buildings or parked vehicles block your line of vision.
Sensors are activated when reverse gear is selected and send out a warning if something is moving into your intended path.
However, these systems have their limitations; for instance, many don’t work in angled parking spots.
Several car makers have variations on systems that ‘see’ potential hazards, particularly in poor visibility and at night. The camera-based systems use infra-red technology to enable the likes of pedestrians, cyclists and animals to be seen more readily and the systems issue alerts if they are dangerously close.
Intersection collision warnings
Intersection collision warning systems use radar systems or similar to detect if vehicles are approaching from the side at intersections and alert the driver of a possible collision.
Adaptive headlights and cornering lights
These allow the driver, to a degree, to ‘see around corners’, illuminating the area they’re about to turn into.
Adaptive headlights work on curving roads, with sensors measuring things such as the car’s speed and steering angle and using small motors to direct the headlights around the turn.
Cornering lights throw out illumination in the direction of the indicator, either through an extra lamp in the headlights or with a swivelling reflector.
Dusk-sensing headlights and rain-sensing wipers
While many drivers may see these two set-and-forget systems as convenience items, each is regarded as a SAT – safety assist technology – by national vehicle safety program ANCAP. Forgetting to turn on your lights makes you harder to be seen by other drivers, and sensor-activated automatic lights are also good for when you drive into badly lit carparks for instance. Rain-sensing wipers react to the amount of water on your windscreen so you’re not having to constantly adjust the wiper setting.