My husband and I have a running argument about cruise control. He uses it, but I don’t think it’s safe. Can you settle this? – Jenna in Regina
This may be the answer that neither, or perhaps both, of you want to hear: you’re both right.
“Assuming the car is mechanically sound, cruise control is safe to use provided it’s used properly. The key words are ‘used properly,’ because there are a number of things when it comes to cruise control that, if you don’t do or aren’t aware of, can cause serious problems when you’re on the road,” says Paul Datzkiw, supervisor for consumer and technical services at CAA South Central Ontario.
Cruise control is best used on long flat stretches of dry road, and in light traffic conditions. Optimum fuel economy and reduced risk of tickets through maintaining a constant (and legal) speed can be secondary benefits, but it’s really a tool of convenience, intended to help relieve driver fatigue. Just make sure you don’t get too comfortable – your reaction time and control of your automobile could be affected by the use of cruise control.
“Certainly don’t drive fatigued, but especially don’t use cruise control if you’re feeling tired as you tend to get more relaxed. There are very few suburban highways on which you can use cruise control, there’s just too much congestion, and you need your reaction time,” says Ken Cousins, vice-president of road assist for BCAA.
“Don’t use it on windy roads; before you have a chance to react it might be too late. Roads with higher speed limits are a concern as well. Once you get over 100 km/h you really should be in complete control of your car as you never really know what’s going to happen – you could get a flat tire or something unusual like that.”
You can also get into trouble when road conditions are less than favourable. If the roads are covered in snow, or it’s raining, it's important that you don’t use cruise control, as it may be trying to maintain a speed that is faster than what conditions will allow. The issue with rainy roads is you can hydroplane very quickly, and if you do that, you've lost control of your vehicle.
When approaching the top of a hill, you may also want to slow down, but the cruise control is going to hold you at the speed you’ve set it to. “When you reach the crest of a hill you really don’t know if there's an animal, curve or whatever at the top, and you need to be prepared to stop,” says Datzkiw.
A new and complex technology called adaptive cruise control can sense the proximity of other vehicles and automatically slow down to allow proper spacing; however, the majority of cruise control systems don’t have this level of sensitivity.
“It’s also important to understand that on a downgrade, 99 per cent of cruise control systems out there can’t slow a vehicle down. If you can coast faster than what it’s been set for, your speed will go past that. So if you’re set for 80 km/h and come over the crest of a hill, you could end up doing 100 km/h by the time you reach the bottom,” says Datzkiw.
The important thing to remember when using cruise control is to remain aware. While it was designed to help relieve driver fatigue, this doesn’t mean hanging a leg out the window, resting a foot on the dash, or simply moving your feet well away from the pedals.
“I haven’t heard of many accidents for which cruise control was responsible; it has many fail-safe devices. Usually it’s driver error, not the device, that’s to blame,” says Cousins. “One should not get too comfortable with cruise control on. It has a tendency to take over a bit and make you complacent. Be aware that it’s a convenience tool, not a toy.”
Next time you’re in a debate with your husband over cruise control , approach him with some legitimate concerns. Maybe he’ll continue using this system, but with increased awareness. If you succumb to this handy feature, make sure to read your owner’s manual first. Most cruise control systems are similar in operation, but there are subtle differences between models and manufacturers.