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Automatic braking system concept shown in a 3D rendering image.Chesky_W/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A lot of car advertising touts accident avoidance technology – but many of those features are only available as expensive add-ons or only in the top-of-the-line trims, not in the base and mid-range models. If this technology really does save lives, why isn't it required by the government on all new cars? – Joanna, Toronto

Safety's not a luxury – but before accident avoidance technology is standard for the masses, there has to be proof that it works.

"The government requires evidence that systems are going to be effective in preventing crashes before they mandate them," said Russ Rader, senior vice-president for communications with the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, in an e-mail. "We have that evidence for forward collision warning and automatic braking. The jury is still out on many other systems."

Two proven safety technologies, anti-lock braking (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC), weren't actually required in the United States until the 2012 model year – and still aren't required in Canada; although, all new vehicles sold here have both.

The evidence showed ESC's ability to prevent a car from losing control reduced the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 49 per cent and fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 72 per cent.

So how does newer safety technology compare?

"Forward collision warning and automatic braking are clearly the most effective of the newer crash prevention systems." Rader said. "It's too soon to call them lifesavers – they aren't capable of preventing many high-speed fatal crashes – but they are preventing a lot of lower severity crashes and injuries."

Rader said the most recent IIHS study found forward collision warning reduced front-into-rear crashes reported to police by 27 per cent. When you add in automatic braking, which brakes when you're too close to the car in front of you, the effectiveness jumps to 50 per cent, Rader said.

"Automatic braking is mainly geared toward preventing or reducing the severity of front-into-rear crashes," Rader said. "We're starting to see systems that can also detect pedestrians, bicyclists and even large animals like deer."

Rader said car makers are voluntarily making automatic braking standard on most cars by 2022.

"We expect some auto makers will beat that deadline by a long way," Rader said. "In fact, automatic braking is already standard on quite a few luxury models, and even some lower-priced vehicles for 2017."

Toyota is including automatic braking, which it calls a pre-collision system, as standard on all 2017 Corollas.

"These safety features eventually migrate to lower priced cars – all new cars now have ABS brakes, airbags, electronic stability control and traction control," said Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs for the Canada Safety Council, in an e-mail. "More recently, tire pressure monitoring systems and rear view cameras have become standard features on most cars."

All Corollas will also have Lane Departure Alert (LDA) with Steering Assist; Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC); and Automatic High-Beam control (AHB).

"Lane departure warning has so far been a disappointment," Rader said. "We're starting to see some effects from blind zone monitoring and rear view cameras, although the results aren't yet conclusive."

And, the tech only works if it's turned on. In an U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) survey of 184 Hondas brought into dealerships for service, two-thirds had lane departure warning turned off. Only one had forward collision warning turned off.

"The bigger issue is that many drivers are unaware of these newer safety systems and either ignore them or fail to use them properly – pumping the brakes on a car equipped with ABS comes to mind," Marchand said. "Few people read the vehicle owner manual and most are unaware of the battery of safety features in modern cars."

Transport Canada spokesman Daniel Savoie said Transport Canada does 3,000 tests, on average, every year on crash-avoidance technologies.

"Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Pedestrian Avoidance, and Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) are three technologies that could improve motor vehicle safety," Savoie said in an e-mail. "The department has not yet proposed any regulatory measures regarding these technologies, but continues to look at them closely through its crash avoidance research program."

In the United States, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has proposed a rule requiring all new passenger vehicles to share their location, direction and speed with each other over a short-range car-to-car network. Using the information, cars could provide warnings to drivers of imminent crashes or activate automatic emergency braking or adaptive cruise control.

One piece of technology that will be required is back-up cameras. NHTSA is requiring all new cars to have them by May 1, 2018. Transport Canada has proposed the same rule .

The move is hoped to reduce backover crashes – when a car in reverse hits someone. In Canada from 2004 to 2009, more than 1,500 people were injured and 27 died in those crashes, Savoie said.

In the United States, about 268 people die every year – mostly small children and people older than 70 – after being hit by a car in reverse. Putting cameras in every vehicle won't eliminate that risk. The move will likely only prevent 58-69 deaths a year, the NHTSA estimates.

In tests of the back-up cameras and sensors, the technology had no benefit at detecting a moving object behind a car, over drivers looking over their shoulders and checking mirrors, the IIHS said on its website.

"Technology may never be 100 per cent effective, so drivers will always need to be vigilant," the IIHS said.

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