Once upon a time, car safety features meant having a pad on the dashboard to soften the slam of your unbuckled body. Thankfully, those days are gone. This is 2018, where automotive safety is accelerating at a mind-boggling pace and innovative carmakers are locked in a technology arms race. Features that used to cost extra now come standard, and if your car doesn’t stop on its own, help you stay in the lane, or even report back on your teenager’s driving habits, you may be missing out on newer technologies designed to keep your family safe. Which is why if you are in the market for a new vehicle ⏤ be it a truck, SUV, crossover, or sedan ⏤ here are seven safety features that you absolutely demand.
Dynamic LED Headlights and Automatic High Beams
Every carmaker will have a variation on the names here, but let’s start with the basics. LED lighting enables a brighter, more focused beam of light. That helps you see more clearly. The same goes for dynamic headlights that point in the direction in which you’re steering, so as you look through a turn, it’s actually illuminated. Automatic high beams have been around for decades, but only in the last few years have they become legitimately good at detecting oncoming traffic early enough to turn off in time. That matters, because the only thing more dangerous than having inadequate lighting on a backroad in the middle of the night is the risk of blinding oncoming traffic.
The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, or IIHS, began a rating system a couple of years ago to test the quality of headlights. The vast majority of cars fail. If you do a lot of night driving, consider IIHS.org your first stop before buying a new car.
Rear View Camera and Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
A lot of vehicles today come with a rearview camera as standard equipment, but weirdly that number actually declines as the cost of the vehicle goes up ⏤ it’s optional on many BMWs and Mercedes, for example. That said, even if you don’t use it as your primary view backing up, cameras remain a great way to see what’s immediately behind the car, be it a bike or your neighbor’s dog. Most rearview cameras can also show where you’ll wind up based on your steering angle.
Blind-spot monitors do exactly what the name suggests, they give an audible or visual warning if you attempt to change lanes while someone’s in your blind spot. Many vehicles also offer a rear cross-traffic alert, which uses the same sensors as the blind-spot monitor and is almost always packaged together with it. It will tell you if there’s a kid running out after a soccer ball behind your car.
Lane Keep Assist
Here’s where things start to get a little murky. There are vast differences between an alert (usually visual), a warning (usually visual and audible, sometimes haptic, like a vibrating steering wheel or seat), and an assist — technology that doesn’t just know you’re drifting into another lane but can actively intervene to keep you in yours. Whether it’s called Active Lane Keep, Lane Keep Assist, Lane Departure Mitigation, or anything else, just make sure it does more than beep at you.
Automatic Emergency Braking
This is another feature with various names. As with lane keep assist, you want to make sure your car actually applies the brakes for you if you’ve failed to do so yourself. Many cars offer some sort of pre-collision warning, which calls your attention to a potential danger with ample time for you to apply your brakes yourself. Of course, all of them have names designed to maximize their prowess. Some, like Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support, go so far as to prime the brakes, building up pressure so that you have full braking power almost immediately when you do stomp on the pedal ⏤ but it doesn’t actually apply the brakes itself. That’s what automatic emergency braking does, and it’s absolutely the choice you want here.
It’s also important to note that these car safety features do not prevent accidents, but rather are designed to lessen the severity by slowing you down as much as possible before the impact. They also sometimes have limitations as to the speed at which they operate, like 30 mph. The best systems can recognize pedestrians and cyclists, or famously in Volvo’s case, moose.
Rear Passenger Reminder
No one ever thinks they’re going to forget their child in the backseat of a hot car. It still happens though, every summer, which is why more and more cars are starting to come with a reminder for you to check your back seat. Basically, the vehicle keeps track of which doors were opened and closed and what you’ve done since then (i.e., start the car, drive off, etc.). If it’s likely you’ve forgotten something, it’ll beep at you. Currently, General Motors and Nissan offer this on several vehicles, and Hyundai has promised to add it by 2019. Expect most manufacturers to follow suit in the coming years.
Big Brother for Your 16-Year Old
You’ve probably heard of insurance companies that offer discounts if you let them monitor how you drive. You may have even heard of so-called “valet keys” that limit a car’s power or range when you hand the car to someone you don’t trust. Ford’s My Key and GM’s Teen Driver features take that level of surveillance and control and wrap it into a wonderful package that lets you build trust with your kid ⏤ or evolve into the ultimate helicopter parent. The choice is yours.
Basically, the car safety features allow you to assign one of the car’s key fobs to your kid, and to program its special features. For example, you can make sure your immature driver doesn’t put your sports car into track mode when he’s on a date, or limit how loud they play the music. You can also get a complete readout that shows how fast your kid was driving, how heavy their foot was on both the throttle and brake, and whether they had any close calls they didn’t tell you about.
Run-flat tires have been around for a couple decades now, but they’re readily available on most vehicles these days. They are not, however, always standard equipment. For those unfamiliar with the technology, these are tires with extra-hard sidewalls that allow you to drive short distances (usually up to 50 miles) on a tire that has lost all air pressure. There are trade-offs, sure, like a harsher ride and a small sacrifice in performance, but it’s worth it for most people. All you have to do is imagine changing a flat tire on the side of a poorly-lit road with a crying kid in the back seat, and you’ll appreciate the benefits of being able to drive home before dealing with your problematic tire.