Forward-collision warning (FCW) is an advanced safety feature that Consumer Reports highly recommends. In fact, we have revised our car Ratings system to provide a single Overall Score, combining road test score, reliability, owner satisfaction, and safety, and we now give bonus points to cars that have the alert as a standard feature in all trim levels.

But the sensitivities of the systems that allow them to react to a potential crash sometimes yield false alerts that can be an annoyance to car owners. Despite the false alerts, responses to the recent Consumer Reports survey on advanced safety systems indicate a clear majority of drivers still appreciate having the feature. The survey also shows that some automakers’ systems strike a better balance between alerting drivers of actual danger and notifying them when there is no hazard.

By using laser, radar, or cameras, forward-collision warning systems monitor driving speed and objects ahead. If a collision may be imminent, the system gives the driver a warning that allows them time to take action and hopefully prevent an accident. But how well the system is designed determines the reduction in the frequency of bogus alerts that may make drivers less likely to react or to shut the systems off.

False alerts can happen for a variety of reasons, including harsh sunlight, wet or snowy conditions, or even confusing shadows. 

Survey Says...

We asked 3,127 responding readers with 2014 model year cars equipped with FCW about the their experience with this active safety system. According to our survey responses, the majority of people are satisfied with the systems—and 36 percent said that the systems saved them from accidents.

We also found that some brands do a better job of offering reassurance to owners without the annoyance of too many alerts. Subaru topped the list of brands with owners who had the fewest false alerts—with less than 1 percent of Subaru owners experiencing frequent false alerts. Rounding out the list of the top five brands with the least amount of false alerts are Nissan, Toyota, Ford, and Audi.

Forward-collision warning is an accident prevention alert; by their very nature, those kinds of alerts are intentionally startling. They are meant to grab attention, with the goal to improve safety. More than 90 percent of all auto accidents are directly due to human error and driver choices. FCW counteracts that risk that by making the driver aware of an impending collision.

Even within a single car company, systems can be manufactured with differing levels of sophistication. Consequently, even from the same company, the frequency of false alerts can be different from model to model and trim level to trim level, depending on the types of camera and/or laser-based systems installed. Customizable distance alerts may reduce the frequency of alerts.

Survey shows some forward-collision warning systems more prone to give false alerts, but safety benefits still worth it

Bottom Line

Consumer Reports believes strongly that even with false alerts possible, FCW is an essential safety component that should be standard in every car sold, along with automatic emergency braking (AEB). We don’t want consumers to be deterred from having these systems in their cars because of the chance of false alerts. (Read "10 Ways to Avoid a Car Crash.")

For those automakers with systems that are more prone to frequent false alerts, Consumer Reports urges them to improve and standardize FCW systems. A balanced setup with logic that is sensitive enough to alert a driver when real danger is imminent, yet not so sensitive that they’re desensitized to frequent false alerts, offers the best potential for reducing injuries and saving lives. And based on the survey responses from owners, that balance can be readily made. Until then, we still find value in all systems that can provide forward-collision warning and thereby lessening, or even avoiding, injuries due to a collision.