Would you buy a car that wasn't fitted with seatbelts? Of course you wouldn't.
But strange as it seems now, there was a time when such a vital piece of safety equipment was seen as an 'optional extra'. In the UK the legal requirement for front seat belts to be fitted in all new cars didn't come in until 1967 and wearing them wasn't compulsory until 1983. It is estimated that over 2,000 lives a year are saved because of car occupants wearing seatbelts.
Matthew Avery, Head of Research at Thatcham Research, which carries out official crash tests for the motor industry, believes that there is another safety initiative which we should all be supporting – Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB).
'AEB is a car safety technology system that can reduce crashes by 40%, saving lives and preventing injuries and accidents. It is estimated that it could prevent 1,100 fatalities and 122,860 casualties over a decade,' says Matthew. 'We at Thatcham Research believe it is the most significant safety development since the seatbelt and just as seatbelts are a legal requirement, AEB should be too. Thatcham Research has been campaigning for AEB to be fitted as standard in new cars and vans for the last five years. If you care about road safety you should make owning a car with AEB a priority.'
Many motoring organisations including The AA, road safety charities Brake and IAM RoadSmart and the Stop the Crash partnership, which is led by the Global New Car Assessment Programme (Global NCAP), also promote the safety benefits of AEB.
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But what is AEB and why don't motorists know more about it?
Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) was first made available commercially about 10 years ago. It is a system which uses lasers, cameras or radar to detect an impending collision and give the driver a warning. If he or she doesn't respond, the car takes over and will brake automatically.
Many crashes can be prevented completely, and in others the potential impact can be drastically reduced. As well as protecting the occupants of a vehicle, the latest versions protect pedestrians and cyclists too. According to Thatcham Research, currently 8% of cars on the road have AEB and 60% of new cars launched in 2017 have it fitted as standard.
There are different types of AEB systems which can operate in lower speed 'urban' environments, higher speed 'inter-urban' ones and systems that are able to sense and protect vulnerable road users (VRUs) such as pedestrians and cyclists. A vehicle with AEB could be fitted with just one or all of these and the best performance is achieved when multiple sensor types are combined – for example camera and radar together. It's important to understand and be happy with the level of safety provided by the AEB on any car you're considering buying.
The results are impressive, as can be seen in these videos:
David Ward, Chairman of the Stop the Crash partnership, believes that autonomous emergency braking has huge benefits. 'AEB doesn't interfere with the way you drive, and it isn't autonomous driving – you, the driver are always in charge. But having AEB can provide reassurance that the vehicle will warn you in advance if there's a problem and take action if necessary. The system works to maximise the performance of the vehicle and stop many types of crashes before they happen. It can be particularly useful for senior drivers whose reaction times may have slowed somewhat.'
As well as preventing serious accidents AEB is also invaluable in helping to avoid nuisance crashes like car park bumps. 'Those sort of accidents can be embarrassing and time-consuming to sort out with your insurance company and could also push up your premiums,' says David.
But many motorists still aren't aware of AEB and its benefits. A 2018 survey by road safety charity Brake revealed that 58% of drivers didn't know what AEB was and when the technology was explained, only 15% thought their car was fitted with it, whilst 12% were unsure.
There are a number of reasons why many consumers are so baffled. Firstly the varied acronyms for different forms of driver assistance technology from AEB and ABS (Anti-lock braking system) to ESC (Electronic Stability Control) can make the whole topic seem bewildering. But there are resources such as The European New Car Assessment Programme Vehicle Safety Glossary which can provide guidance.
Another source of confusion is that manufacturers often give identical systems different names. For example, AEB might be called 'City Safe' or 'Active Brake Assist'. 'The last time we counted there were 64 different terms used by carmakers to describe the autonomous emergency braking function' says Matthew Avery.
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AEB at the car dealership
Some manufacturers such as Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover offer AEB as standard fit on all their vehicles whilst others such as Vauxhall, Ford and Kia tend to offer it as an optional extra. Stop the Crash feel that having it fitted as standard is far preferable, not least because optional AEB is often bundled into expensive 'packs' containing other technology rather than being available to purchase on its own. However it can be as low as £180 for a simple system suitable for city driving.
'It's frustrating when you can only get AEB as part of a package, maybe with things you don't want,' says David Ward. 'Try to push your dealer to sell it as a stand-alone.
There can also be a lack of information about safety features available at dealerships.
'The problem isn't just that buyers don't understand AEB; it's that dealers don't either,' says Matthew. 'So when prospective car buyers ask about safety systems their questions are often fobbed off or answered inadequately. Thatcham Research carried out a survey which revealed that 76% of consumers would want a demonstration of the safety technologies during a test drive when buying from a franchised dealership. But there can be a problem with suitable cars being available for tests, which is why we are urging manufacturers to be 'safely stocked' and keep cars with safety tech features readily available for drives.'
Stop the Crash is also calling on vehicle manufacturers to invest more in training so that dealers can explain safety technology and successfully 'sell safety'.
'Consumer awareness is critical for adoption of new safety technologies,' says David Ward. 'It's important for motorists to educate themselves before visiting a dealership and to be persistent in discussing safety tech when buying a new car.'
Even if you're not in the market for a brand new car, AEB is still very much an option as it's available in many second hand cars. Check out resources such as the Euro NCAP website to research different makes and models and what safety tech they have been fitted with.
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Brexit and AEB
In May 2018 the European Union proposed making it a legal requirement for car safety technology including AEB to be fitted as standard in all new cars and vans.
It's still uncertain whether this legislation will go through before or after the UK has left the EU, but either way the Stop the Crash campaign would like the UK to keep its legislation alongside the EU on this issue.
'Motorists can write to their MP about the safety benefits of AEB and urge them to support it.' says David Ward. They can also show support through social media using the hashtag #stopthecrash'
AEB on the road
Barry Hecker, a TV producer from Bristol bought a pre-reg Volvo V40 D2 fitted with AEB 3 years ago.
'I wasn't particularly looking for a car with AEB. The salesman explained it to me at the dealership and I thought it sounded quite a worthwhile system to have but I know I'm a safe driver so I didn't see it as essential. However, a few months later I was driving along in a 30mph zone when the car in front braked suddenly. Before I could even react myself the Volvo had stopped, preventing any chance of an accident. I was really impressed. It's happened a few times since in similar circumstances and it's reassuring to have that additional protection from being involved in a crash. I now see having AEB as a must-have rather than an optional extra in any future car I own.'