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I’m considering buying a new or newer used car this year, and I’d like all the safety features that keep getting advertised. I’m finding, though, that base models don’t always have these safety features, and I’d have to pay for a top trim to get everything. Which safety features do I actually need to prevent accidents? – Karen, Lethbridge, Alta.

Of all the safety features available now, automatic emergency braking is the most effective at stopping crashes, says an insurance industry group.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) looked at police reports and insurance claims in the United States to compare the crash rates of cars with and without advanced safety features.

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Automatic emergency braking (AEB), which automatically applies the brakes when the car decides a collision is likely, reduced front crashes with injuries by 53 per cent.

That’s compared to 20 per cent for systems that just warned drivers of an impending collision without braking.

Even if it doesn’t totally prevent all crashes, it can lessen their severity, Transport Canada says.

The technology has been available for more than a decade, although some car makers took longer to introduce it than others. Initially, it was only available as an option and often only in higher-end vehicles.

Car makers signed a letter of agreement with the IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make AEB standard on all vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2022, although it won’t be required by law.

While there’s no formal agreement in Canada, cars sold here would have it, too.

But in 2019, only four – Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and Tesla – included AEB on every vehicle they made, IIHS says.

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Seven more – Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, Nissan, Honda, Subaru and Mazda – included standard AEB on 8 out of 10 new vehicles they made.

Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover and Mitsubishi had the fewest vehicles available with AEB – only one in three.

Pedestrian detection?

While earlier AEB systems just detected large objects, such as another vehicle, about two-thirds of the vehicles IIHS tested in 2019 could also detect pedestrians.

Their effectiveness varies. For instance, while the 2019 Subaru Outback got top ratings for pedestrian-crash avoidance in a test that simulated a child crossing the street, the 2019 Ford Fusion didn’t slow down at all.

Rear automatic braking was also effective. Combined with backup cameras and parking sensors, it reduced backup crashes by 78 per cent.

In the IIHS studies, other systems didn’t have the same impact as emergency braking, although they still made a difference.

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Cars with blind-spot detection, for instance, had 14-per-cent fewer crashes due to changing lanes.

The effectiveness of safety systems can be difficult to determine because some drivers just turn them off.

Take lane-keeping alert systems, which warn you when the car has moved out of its lane. In J.D. Power’s 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Index Study, 23 per cent of people thought the alerts were annoying. Of those, 61 per cent say they sometimes turn them off.

That’s why it’s a good idea to ask the dealer questions about safety features – and to try them while test-driving a vehicle to see whether you will actually use them.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up today.

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