General Vehicle Safety

There are many people who consider fuel consumption, comfort and price to be the important factors to consider when purchasing a vehicle. But what is your main priority when using a vehicle? If your main priority is to arrive at your final destination safely, then considering safety features as a top priority when purchasing a vehicle makes sense.

With so many safety features available, which ones should you consider? In a Public Opinion Survey done by Transport Canada, airbags (71%), seatbelts (33%) and anti-lock brake systems (28%) are the three most common safety features that Canadians recognize on their vehicles. While these three safety features are very important, there are other features that can keep you and your family safe. Since we have already looked at the importance of head restraints, let us take a brief look at some other important safety features.


Airbags are essential in helping prevent injuries and death, especially in frontal (i.e. head-on) collisions. Airbags are inflatable devices that deploy in a fraction of a second during a serious collision. Front airbags provide additional protection (over and above your seatbelt) during a severe collision, when the head and chest of a buckled-up occupant can move forward and strike the steering wheel or dashboard. Frontal airbags usually don’t deploy in rear-end collisions, side impacts or rollovers. Side airbags deploy during side impacts and rollovers, and provide buffers between the occupants and the vehicle structure (i.e. doors, windows, roof, etc.).

To be sure that you get maximum protection from your supplemental frontal airbag systems during a crash, it is essential to make sure that you do the following each time you get into your vehicle:

Always wear your lap and shoulder belt system. Airbags are not a replacement for seatbelts and are specifically designed to work with the seat belt restraint system. Failure to buckle-up will put you at significant, additional risk.
Maintain distance between yourself and the airbag. Sit at least 10 inches (25 cm) away from the steering wheel airbag. Sitting any closer than 10 inches puts you (or your passengers) at risk of making contact with the airbag while it’s inflating.
Tilt the steering wheel toward your chest, not your head or neck.
Frontal airbags on the passenger side are larger, so passengers should move the vehicle seat back as far as possible to provide plenty of room.
Front seat passengers should not put their feet or any objects on the dashboard.

Seat Belts

Transport Canada estimates that if all drivers and passengers always wore their seat belts, 300 lives would be saved every year in Canada.

Wearing your seat belt is the best protection available to drivers and passengers from getting injured or even killed in a car crash. It’s also the law. A seatbelt works by holding the occupant in place in the seat, reducing the risk of them striking the interior of the vehicle, colliding with other passengers or being ejected during impact or emergency braking. A few key points to remember when using a seat belt:

Wear a lap/shoulder belt system when available.
Sit up straight and position the lap belt low over the pelvic bones / hips (not stomach) and the shoulder belt over the shoulder and across the chest. Never place the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back. It’s dangerous.
All occupants in a vehicle must be properly wearing a seat belt whether in motion or not.
During pregnancy, women should wear the lap belt snug, low over the pelvic bones (below the baby) and the shoulder belt snug against the chest. The baby will be safer if the mother is protected in a crash.

From observational surveys carried out in 2006 and 2007 by Transport Canada (TC), it was shown that the seat belt wearing rates averaged nearly 93%. This rate was lower in rural areas than in urban areas and higher for women than for men. Shockingly, 7% of Canadian not wearing seat belts make up 40% of fatalities in vehicle collisions. It should be noted that a lack of seatbelt use may affect more than just that individual. Studies show that front seat occupants can be injured or killed by unbelted rear seat passengers in a collision. TC found that drivers who are buckled-up have five times the risk of dying in a crash if their rear seat passengers are not wearing seat belts. They also estimate, 80% of deaths from these kinds of crashes could be eliminated if the rear seat occupants would just buckle up.

Buckling up should be the very first thing you do when you get into a vehicle, and is the simplest and most significant precaution you can take!

Anti-lock Brakes

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) use electronic controls to stop your wheels from locking (i.e not rotating) when you’re jamming on the brakes. This helps you maintain steering control better, even on rough surfaces and wet pavement and gives you the advantage of steering around obstacles during emergency braking. During hard braking, non-ABS (i.e. conventional brakes) cause the front wheels to lock and steering control is lost. In braking situations where the wheels on a non-ABS equipped vehicle would lock up, ABS will generally provide a shorter controlled stopping distance. On some surfaces such as gravel or a skim of snow, ABS braking distance can be longer, but drivers retain the ABS advantage: steering control.

The main benefit of ABS? You can steer around what you’re heading towards — even while applying maximum brake force. Our studies have shown that anti-lock brakes are very effective in winter, when roads are more likely to be wet or slippery.

ABS Tips

Hold the brake pedal down firmly, don’t pump it.
Keep steering around the obstacle you want to avoid — even while applying full brakes.
Don’t expect the stopping distances to be shorter (your ABS is there to prevent wheel lock-up and allow you to steer around obstacles).
Don’t try to diagnose brake system problems by judging the feel of your brake pedal.
If your dashboard ABS light stays on – get your vehicle serviced.
Don’t worry about your ABS failing during operation — your vehicle will still have conventional braking ability.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC)

Electronic stability control can help you retain control of your vehicle during high-speed turns or on slippery roads. Along the lines of anti-lock braking systems, ESC compares your intended direction in steering and braking to your vehicle’s response related to lateral acceleration, rotation and individual wheel speeds.

It applies the brakes to individual front or rear wheels and/or reduces excess engine power as needed to help correct under-steer or overs-teer conditions. ESC also controls all-speed traction control, by sensing drive-wheel slip under acceleration, and then individually braking the slipping wheel or wheels, and/or reducing excess engine power, until control is regained.

ESC works best at reducing the risk of rollover, particularly with sport utility vehicles (SUVs), some vans and pickup trucks.

SUVs, because of their large size, high center-of-gravity and often narrow track width, can roll-over or go out-of-control during sharp turns or abrupt maneuvers, such as when avoiding a crash. ESC is now a standard safety feature on most SUVs and other vehicles with a high risk of rollover, and an option on many other makes of vehicles. Keep in mind that that ESC cannot override your vehicle’s physical limits. If you push your vehicle’s handling too far, ESC cannot prevent a crash. Like anti-lock brakes, it’s a tool to help you maintain control.

According to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, ESC can reduce the risk of single-vehicle crashes by more than 40 percent—fatal ones by 56 percent. The researchers estimate that if all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 10,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year.

Traction Control (TC) Systems

Traction Control (TC), also known as ASR “Acceleration Slip Regulation”, is designed to prevent loss of traction from the drive wheels when excessive throttle is applied by the driver, and the condition of the road surface is unable to cope with the torque applied. When your car accelerates from a dead stop or speeds up while passing another vehicle, TC works by sensing slippage at the wheels and continually adjusting the braking pressure to ensure maximum contact between the road surface and the tires, even under slick road conditions. For example, a wet or icy road surface will significantly reduce the traction (i.e. friction) between your tires and pavement. Since only your tires touch the ground, any resulting loss of traction can be dangerous. It may be helpful to think of TC as the reverse of ABS being used for acceleration instead of deceleration.

Let’s say for instance you’re at a stoplight on wet pavement, and the light turns green. When you attempt to press the accelerator pedal, the wheels begin to spin. The traction control system will instantaneously engage, sensing that the wheels have begun to slip. Within a fraction of a second, this data is fed to the control unit, which adjusts throttle input and applies braking force to slow the wheels. The wheels are thus prevented from spinning, and the car maintains maximum traction and control.

Traction Control has traditionally been a safety feature in high-performance cars; however, as road safety technology advances, Traction Control is becoming a more common feature in many cars.

Daytime Running Lights

A daytime running light (DRL) is an automotive lighting safety device on the front of a motor vehicle. Installed in pairs, DRLs automatically switch on when a vehicle is moving forward typically emitting white, yellow or amber light to increase the visibility of a vehicle during daylight conditions. The safety or daytime running lights are a low-cost method to reduce daytime crashes. They are especially effective in preventing daytime head-on and front-corner collisions by increasing vehicle visibility and making it easier to detect approaching vehicles from farther away.

From the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, Canada requires that DRLs be on all new vehicles made and any vehicles imported after 1990.

High-Tech Vehicle Safety

Please note there are many new crash avoidance features besides the few listed below; new technologies are being added all the time. All figures are with respect to a US-based study during 2002-2006 by IIHS.

Blind Spot Detection Systems

Blind Spot Detection Systems are usually markers on side and rear-view mirrors to help drivers keep track of nearby motorists in blind spots. For example, when a driver turns on their turn signal light, a sound and/or light will be activated if there is another car in the driver’s blind spot. This feature aims to reduce the 450,000 relevant crash cases per year.

Back-Up Warning Systems

Back-up warning systems are typically cameras/sensors on the back of vehicles that will allow for easier parking and maneuvering to avoid tight space accidents. Because approximately 100 children, aged 1-4, are killed every year in reversal accidents, back-up warning systems attempt to prevent reversing accidents by reducing the effect of a vehicle’s rear blind spot for the driver. Usually, failure by the driver to see a vehicle, object or person is the number one cause of reversal accidents.

Forward Collision Warning with Automatic Braking

There are more occupant deaths that occur in frontal collisions than any other kind, with more than 2 million frontal crashes causing 7000 fatalities per year. Forward Collision Warning systems work by using a radar to detect when a driver is about to collide with another vehicle in front of them. The system will then respond by sounding alarms and/or flashing lights to warn drivers of impending hazards. When a crash is imminent, brakes are automatically applied with progressively more pressure to prevent collision. This system is used along with Emergency Braking Assistance, which ensures that maximum braking power is used in an emergency stop to reduce braking time and distance.

Lane Departure Warning

When a driver drifts out of a travel lane, either into another lane or off the road, the result can be deadly. Lane changing accidents numbered almost 500,000 per year with more than 10,000 involving deaths. Lane Departure Warning is targeted to keep drivers from drifting out of their lanes. A lane departure warning system is usually mounted on or near the rearview mirror and detects when a driver begins to depart from a travel lane without apparent intent (e.g. when a signal isn’t on). The system will then alert the driver by vibrating the steering wheel, emitting an audible and/or visual warning or other means. Some systems are even capable of nudging a vehicle back into the lane.