Car safety

From brakes and airbags to lights and tyres, get practical advice for your peace of mind.

Vehicle safety is constantly evolving, with new designs and technologies making the cars we drive safer than ever before. Here, we explore the key safety features you should be aware of when buying a new or used vehicle.

Automated Safety Features

AEB uses radar, laser or camera sensors to detect potential crashes and apply the brakes to prevent or reduce the severity of a crash. Some systems also prepare the vehicle for a crash, such as the pre-tensioning of seatbelts.

AEB is very effective in situations where there is poor visibility, a driver is distracted or has limited time to react to things like sudden braking of a car in front or a child running out after a ball.

A 2014 RACV report on emerging vehicle safety technology revealed that depending on system type, 20-40% of crashes – including fatal crashes – may be prevented with AEB. Even if crashes aren’t completely prevented, the reductions in speed may be enough to prevent death and serious injury.

AEB is available in a number of forms designed to act within certain parameters:

  • Low speed: targets city driving where crashes often occur at low speeds but can cause debilitating injury, such as whiplash injuries. These systems look for the reflectivity of other vehicles and aren’t as sensitive to pedestrians or roadside objects.
  • High speed system: these systems utilise long-range radar to scan further ahead of the vehicle (up to 200 metres) at higher speeds.
  • Pedestrian systems: use a camera combined with a radar to detect pedestrians through their shape and characteristics. The pedestrians move relative to the path of the vehicle is calculated to determine whether they’re in danger of being struck.
  • Reversing AEB: designed to brake the reversing vehicle when it’s about to strike an object. This includes pedestrians as well as inanimate items.

Watch TAC’s video: How can Auto Emergency Braking reduce crashes?

Lane departure systems are designed to help reduce crashes by alerting drowsy or distracted drivers that their vehicle has wandered out of its lane. They do this by providing audible and visible warnings for drivers to take corrective action. Some of the more sophisticated lane departure systems can automatically redirect the car back into its driving lane.

Cross-traffic Assist systems are designed to help the driver in situations where they can’t see other cars going across their path when reversing. The features usually give an audible tone and visual warning when a car is detected. Higher feature systems brake the car if the driver doesn’t react to avoid a crash.

Reversing cameras and sensors can greatly improve a driver’s reversing visibility. For parents with young children this is massive for peace of mind.  

In 2016, 240 vehicles were tested, 65% scored the full five-star rating, a significant increase from 53% in 2015 and a huge leap over the 14% only five years ago.  

How can I be safer in the driveway?
Don't just rely on a reversing camera or sensors. You should also check the rear-view mirror and look over your shoulder before reversing to get a better view of your surroundings.

Children should be actively supervised around a reversing vehicle and drivers should always check to ensure there are no children behind their vehicle before reversing.

How is reversing visibility calculated?
The RACV Reversing Visibility Index was developed to help motorists compare how well a variety of popular makes and models of cars shape up. This measure considers the visible area and distance across the rear of a vehicle and whether a camera and sensors have been installed. Results are rated on a scale of zero to five stars, the higher the rating, the better.

Watch: Reversing Visibility Index explained

Airbags

 Airbags have been fitted to vehicles sold in Australia since the mid-1980s. Originally only found in more expensive luxury models, airbags became widespread with the introduction of the Holden Commodore VR in 1993.

Manufacturers continue to find new ways to use airbags. In addition to the curtain and frontal airbags, there are now knee, seatbelt and even under-bonnet airbags designed to protect pedestrians.

Airbag

Here are RACV’s tips for getting even more out of your airbags:

  • Always put on and wear your seatbelt correctly.
  • Don’t sit with your head or chest closer than 30cm from the steering wheel.
  • Don’t drive with an arm across the steering wheel.
    • In a frontal crash the inflating airbag may injure the arm which would be projected towards the face of the driver.
  • If the vehicle is fitted with steering wheel height and or seat height adjustment, make sure it is adjusted correctly.
  • Always place kids in the back seat. If there is no other option to the child sitting in the front, make sure the child is wearing the seatbelt and is not seated closer than 30cm to the passenger airbag.
  1. As the vehicle hits an object, sensors detect the change in speed and send a signal to the car’s brain – the ECU. If the change in speed is above a certain threshold, the ECU decides it’s time for airbags.
  2. If the crash is serious, the ECU ignites the inflator – a stack of explosive wafers that rapidly emits gas – to deploy the airbag.
  3. By the time the force of the collision reaches the occupants, the airbags are ideally fully inflated and ready to cushion the impact. Inflation takes between 20-30 milliseconds on the driver side and 30-40 milliseconds on the passenger side. For comparison, the blink of an eye takes between 100-400 milliseconds.

 Unlike a head-on crash, where the occupants are relatively well protected behind the bonnet area and restrained by a seatbelt, there’s little buffer between impact and occupant in a side-impact collision.

Did you know?

Research in the U.S. has found the risk of fatality in a side impact is reduced by 45% if a head-protecting side airbag is fitted? This is backed by ANCAP's pole test results, where the presence of this type of airbag is a pre-requisite for a realistic chance of survival, even at the relatively slow speed of 29km/h.

Occasionally, we hear from people who’ve been involved in a minor accident and are concerned that the airbag didn’t go off. The very fact they were uninjured means the car has done its job.

  • Airbags deploy with explosive force – sometimes causing skin abrasions and minor injuries – so if the impact of the accident is minor, you wouldn’t want to have your airbags deployed.
  • One of the largest recalls in history concerned the airbag. The faulty airbags had inflators that would ignite too vigorously and cause the metal container around the wafers to burst, sending bits of metal with it.

What to know about older airbags

  • If the vehicle is kept in reasonable condition, the electronics and airbag should last for the life of the vehicle. However, there are varying statements from industry experts about the lifespan of inflators.
  • If ever the airbag warning light comes on and stays on, you should take your car to a licensed mechanic to be checked.

Braking

When a driver brakes hard and suddenly, Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) prevents the wheels of the car from locking up. Car steering is only effective while the wheels are turning, so by preventing the wheels from locking, the driver maintains steering control while being able to apply maximum braking force. ABS is most beneficial in wet conditions or slippery surfaces where wheel locking is more likely to happen.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC) helps drivers maintain control of their cars by intervening when the car starts to travel to a different course than intended by the driver. This usually happens when a driver tries to turn very hard, swerve or turns on a slippery road. In these situations, a car without ESC might skid or spin out of control.

ESC uses the same technology as ABS with additional sensors to measure steering wheel position and vehicle rotation. It can automatically apply the brakes to an individual wheel and in some cases, will reduce the engine power. Some ESC systems will intervene sooner than others.

Traction control prevents wheelspin under acceleration which helps maintain steering when accelerating.

Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) helps balance braking forces between front and rear. This helps minimise braking distance and keep stability under light-axle loads.

Emergency Brake Assist (EBA) detects when emergency braking is required in ‘panic stop’ situations by automatically increasing brake pressure to stop the vehicle sooner than if the driver were braking unassisted. It’s very useful for people with less strength in their lower limbs.

Lights

Good lights used correctly not only makes driving easier, it makes our roads safer by increasing visibility.

Alignment and maintenance of lights
Even a minor misalignment can reduce visibility and dazzle other drivers. It can also make your car unroadworthy.

Lights should be checked regularly to ensure they’re operating properly. Practice good light maintenance by:

  • Regularly checking light globes are secured and working.
  • Asking to have your lights checked and headlights re-aimed when you get your car serviced.

Cleaning your car to ensure dirt and road grime on lenses is removed (dirty lenses can significantly reduce light output and distort the beam).

Wet conditions, dirty or damaged windscreens, and worn wipers can all contribute to reduced visibility and increase the effects of glare.

  • Regularly clean your windscreen inside and out as well as the windscreen wiper rubbers.
  • Replace rubbers at least once a year.
  • Repair any chips, scratches or cracks in the windscreen as soon as possible, or replace the windscreen.

Night driving tips

  • Most car interior mirrors have day/night positions. The night setting reduces the reflected glare from the lights of following vehicles.
  • If dazzled by another vehicle, avoid looking directly at its lights. Slow down, stay to the left and focus on the edge of the road.
  • Respect other drivers. Take care when using high-beam headlights or driving lights. Remember, they'll not only dazzle oncoming traffic but can also dazzle the driver of a vehicle in front of you through the mirrors.

Daytime running lights (DLRs)
DRLs increase your vehicle’s visibility to other road users during the daytime. They shouldn’t be confused with driving or fog lamps, which are more likely to cause glare or annoyance.

  •  DRLs reduce the risk of collision during the daytime.
  • If your car doesn’t have DRLs, operating your headlights on low beam during the daytime can make your car more visible.

Some glare can’t be avoided. For example, as a car crosses speed humps the headlight beam naturally rises and falls. Bumpy roads can create a similar effect so be aware of this if a car is approaching. A trailer or heavy load in the boot can change the angle at which your lights are pointing. Some headlights can be adjusted electrically to compensate.

Glare affects some people more than others and it gets worse as we age. A 50-year-old driver can take twice as long to recover from dazzling lights than when they were 20.

Glare can be caused by:

  • Misaligned headlights (this can also make a vehicle unroadworthy).
  • High-beam lights
  • Victorian Road Rules prohibit high-beam headlights being used if you’re less than 200 metres behind a vehicle, or less than 200 metres from an oncoming vehicle. However, if the driver is overtaking headlights may be switched to high-beam immediately before overtaking.
  • Damaged windscreens, including chips, cracks, scratches and sandblasting (fine pitting of the glass surface)
  • Dirty windscreens, including the film that builds up on the inside of car causing light to flare and spread
  • Wet conditions, such as heavy rain or hail
  • Old wipers, which can smear the screen

If confronted by glare, try not to look directly at the approaching car's lights. Slow down and stay to the left of the road.

Car using fog lights

Fog lights are designed to improve the visibility of the road during fog. It’s illegal to use front fog lights during normal weather conditions.

Driving lights are fitted to provide more light, particularly in country areas. These lights must be wired to switch off when low beam is selected. Driving lights are designed to supplement high-beam headlights. The light output is intense and projects well down the road.

Fog lights are often confused with driving lights. The major difference is their light pattern. Fog lights have a low, flat, fan-shaped beam used to illuminate the road below the mist line.

Rear fog lights make the vehicle more fog or other hazardous weather conditions. Use of a rear fog light can cause glare and mask operation of brake lights. An indicator light is used to alert the driver that rear fog lights are on.

Posture

Head restraints are one of the most overlooked safety features in a car, but they perform a vital role in preventing injury, particularly whiplash, when a vehicle is struck from behind.

  • Most head restraints are adjustable to some degree, and some adjust automatically.
  • Make sure you adjust the head restraint so it’s above eye level, and if you share driving duties check the restraint adjustment every time you get in the car.

Unfortunately, what is optimum for whiplash prevention and for comfort isn’t always the same. We’ve road-tested a number of cars where the head restraint isn’t very comfortable. Some manufacturers have approached this problem by designing them to deploy into a better head-protecting position in a crash but otherwise have a more comfortable shape.

Poor posture puts drivers at risk. Passengers who sit with their feet on the dashboard, drivers who seat too closely to the steering wheel and anyone who sits with poor posture in a car are putting themselves at greater risk of serious injury if involved in a collision – here’s why:

  • If your feet are on the dashboard and a crash occurs that deploys a passenger airbag, it would inflate at high speeds, driving your legs back in toward your face or out away from your hips and knees – dramatically increasing the severity of any injury.
  • Drivers sitting too close to steering wheels increase the chances of a more severe injury by not giving an airbag enough room to properly deploy and their seatbelt enough time to absorb forward motion.

RACV safety tips for safe driving positions:

  • Each person is different, so passengers should adjust their seatbelt and seat accordingly.
  • Never put feet or knees on or against the dashboard.
  • Always keep your hands and arms completely within the confines of the car.
  • Drivers must have a clear view of the road and be able to reach the controls easily without being cramped.
  • The distance from the steering wheel should be at least 30cm.

Tyres

Arguably the most important primary safety feature of any car, tyres are the only contact between you and the road. Through the tyres, you control your vehicle's potential acceleration, braking and cornering forces.

Driving every day causes natural wear and tear. Over time, repeated heating and cooling of a tyre by the forces applied to it eventually affects the structure of the rubber, particularly how it springs back into shape. They become harder, which affects their grip on the road and makes them more prone to punctures. As the rubber is worn away, tread also reduces, which compromises wet-weather performance.

Next time you refuel your car, check your tyres for wear or damage. All tyres have inbuilt indicators to show when they are worn too far.

Tyre wear indicator

Driving every day causes natural wear and tear. Over time, repeated heating and cooling of a tyre by the forces applied to it eventually affects the structure of the rubber, particularly how it springs back into shape. They become harder, which affects their grip on the road and makes them more prone to punctures. As the rubber is worn away, tread also reduces, which compromises wet-weather performance.

Next time you refuel your car, check your tyres for wear or damage. All tyres have inbuilt indicators to show when they are worn too far.

Person checking tyre pressure

It’s good to get into the habit of checking tyre pressure at least once a month. This can be done at a service station, but keep in mind that the gauges can get battered. If the gauge you intend to use looks a bit worse for wear, go somewhere else or check the pressures against your own gauge (available from auto spares shops).

Beware of under-inflation
You might think having a less-inflated tyre means more of it is in contact with the road, but it’s the reverse. In an under-inflated tyre, the middle section bows up, leaving only the edges touching the road. This concentrates more heat and wear in these areas. Tyre pressure should never be below the car’s placard specification, so slightly higher pressures are strongly recommended for improved grip, response, economy and life.

All car makers recommend pressures for the tyres on their cars. These are listed on a little placard usually found inside the driver’s door jamb or the fuel filler cap.

Since most modern cars are front-wheel drive you may notice that your front tyres wear quicker than the rear. This is because the front axle on a front-wheel-drive does the majority of the dynamic work of the vehicle’s chassis, including:

  • all the power delivery
  • around 70% of the cornering forces, and
  • up to 90% of the braking forces.

All these forces are delivered through the tyre to the road surface.

Temporary Use Tyres (TUTs) or “space savers”
Got a flat tyre? Time to pull out the TUT! Just as the name implies, a TUT is a temporary replacement tyre for your car. If you ever need to use one, you should only drive it for the minimum distance required to repair or replace the damaged full-size wheel, and drive within the conditions specified in owner's manual.

  • The most widespread TUT type is the traditional space-saver tyre. They have a reduced size and brightly painted rim.
  • An 80 km/h speed limit usually applies due to compromised handling.
  • Other types of TUTs are supplied deflated and folded up into the boot to save more space.

When purchasing a new vehicle:

  • Ask the dealer if the vehicle is fitted with a temporary use tyre (they don’t always specify)
  • Consider insisting on a full-size spare as a condition of sale if the vehicle has space for it.

What should I be aware of when using a TUT?

Compromised vehicle handling
A downside to the small size of the space saver spare is that they often have dynamic deficiency during emergency braking, emergency swerving and cornering.

RACV conducted three tests on vehicles from four different market segments to assess vehicle handling when a TUT is fitted. Three involved traditional space saver spare tyres, and one was a smaller wheel spare tyre.

  • The space saver tyre increased braking distance by 15.4 metres or three and half car lengths when fitted to the front axle.
  • Cornering traction suffered when a traditional space saver was fitted; particularly on heavier vehicles such as large SUVs where the deterioration in grip levels was 13.5%.
  • The International Standards Test for Emergency Lane Change (the "Moose test") indicated that fitting a traditional space saver significantly increased the difficulty of emergency swerving without the vehicle becoming unstable.

RACV testing has revealed that a common type of space saver tyre is only capable of around 450 km of road driving before it becomes unroadworthy.

Roadworthy requirements
Driving on a TUT is acceptable under Victorian roadworthy regulations provided it’s used within the specifications provided by the vehicle manufacturer in the vehicle's handbook. However, two TUTs can’t be fitted to any one vehicle and the vehicle can’t be presented at a roadworthy inspection with a TUT fitted.

Insurance
Insurance claims involving TUTs are treated like any other insurance claim, whereby the contributing factors are determined individually for each case. While TUTs don’t automatically exclude claims for approval, the insurer may determine whether the tyre was used within the specifications (e.g. speed requirements, fitment to a specific axle) of the vehicle manufacturer when assessing the claim.

Tinted windows

Why people get tinted windows

  • Perceived reduction in glare from the sun.
  • Perceived reduction in heat being transmitted into the vehicle by the sun.
  • Perceived reduction in load on the vehicle's air conditioning system.
  • Increased in privacy for the vehicle's occupants.
  • For aesthetic reasons.

Arguments against window tinting

  • Reduced driver vision through tinted side windows, particularly at twilight and night-time, presenting a safety risk.
  • Perceived benefits of a less heat entering the vehicle and subsequent reduction of strain to the air-conditioning system are often exaggerated.
  • Reduction in ultra-violet (UV) light and any resulting reduction in glare are minimal.
  • Loss of potential eye contact between drivers of window-tinted vehicles and other road users represents a safety risk.

Night driving
The perceived benefits of window tinting relate primarily to daytime driving. However, unlike wearing sunglasses, drivers can’t remove tinting when night driving. Studies have identified that night driving presents a disproportionate risk, compared to daytime driving.

Tinting critics have raised the issue of threshold contrast; a driver's ability to detect low-contrast objects such as cyclists and pedestrians, is lessened particularly at night time. Criticism suggests window tinting increases the risk of these types of road users being struck, especially at night and in conditions of poor visibility.

Reducing discomfort from glare
Advocates for window tinting have argued that tinting reduces daytime glare in sunny conditions. This is true, however at a much lower cost, drivers can achieve the same result by wearing sunglasses.

Reducing the risk of skin cancer
Window tinting advocates have argued that tinting cuts out ultraviolet (UV) rays, which in turn represents a lower risk of skin cancer and other associated skin diseases. In fact, untinted window glass cuts out most harmful UV rays. 

Effect of window tinting on vehicles' air conditioning and fuel consumption
Various industry groups have argued in favour of window tinting, supporting its positive effect on cooling vehicles, reducing the load on air conditioning systems and fuel consumption levels. However, studies have shown temperature reductions of only around one degree in a moving vehicle with tinted windows and the corresponding reduction on air conditioner load was almost insignificant.

Window tinting and older drivers
Window tinting is known to reduce threshold contrast. The natural degradation of older drivers' vision can also have the same effect. Although currently difficult to quantify, the combination of these two effects is likely to present a greater risk of collision for older drivers.

Avoiding window tinting pitfalls
While a brand of tinting film may transmit enough light to be considered roadworthy, it must continue to do so when applied to the window. Car windows straight out of the factory already have a degree of 'tinting'. So, if you have window tint fitted you should ensure the tinting service provider has guaranteed the vehicle won’t become unroadworthy as a result of having the tint applied. This 'cumulative effect' is often overlooked by providers of window tinting.

VicRoads state that all motor vehicles manufactured after July 1971 are required to comply with Australian Design Rule (ADR) 8/00 - Safety Glazing Material. This rule states that:

  • Windscreens must transmit at least 75% of visible light in the primary vision area (which excludes a small area along the top of the windscreen, as detailed in ADR 8/00).
  • All other windows other than the windscreen must transmit at least 35% of visible light.
  • No window fitted with tinting film must produce a reflectance value of more than 10% (a typical value for untreated glass).
  • Tinting can’t be added to the primary vision area of the front windscreen.

It has been argued that the minimum level for front side windows should also be raised to 75% (currently 35%). This would effectively prohibit the use.

Motorists should ensure any tinting treatment either existing or to be applied will not render their vehicle unroadworthy. This will occur if the light transmittance values fall below the roadworthy limits.

Many vehicle service centres, including RACV Service Centres, can check whether a window is roadworthy or not with a light meter.

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