It was a clear, cool day in 2015 as Tony Sweet drove his wife’s Subaru Outback down a busy four-lane divided roadway. Without warning, a car in the next lane cut across Sweet’s lane to turn into a parking lot. Before Sweet could react, the 2014 Outback’s automatic emergency braking system slowed the car in time to avoid what could have been a metal-crunching crash. Sweet remembers shaking from the harrowing experience.

“If the system had not acted and given me those extra seconds of stopping,” Sweet told us, “well, I feel without a doubt there would have been an accident of possibly fatal consequence.”

More on Advanced Safety Systems

Sweet’s appreciation for this technology is not uncommon, according to Consumer Reports’ Advanced Auto Safety Systems Survey, a recent wide-ranging look at owner experiences with safety features. More than 57,000 CR subscribers reported on the nearly 66,000 vehicles they own, with model years ranging from 2011 to 2017. The vehicles were equipped with safety features including automatic emergency braking (AEB), forward-collision warning (FCW), blind-spot warning (BSW), and lane-departure warning (LDW). Survey results show the majority of owners were very satisfied with the features. With most systems, more owners reported that the features had prevented accidents than complained they were annoyed with audible warnings or false alerts.

Among the Survey Findings

Blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning received the highest satisfaction scores, at 83 percent each. Owners reported seeing the benefits of these systems on a daily basis, while drivers wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the effectiveness of FCW or AEB until one or the other helped them avoid a collision.

Among systems credited with preventing accidents, blind-spot warning topped the list, helping to prevent accidents for 35 percent of the vehicles that had this feature.

Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist were reported as least likely to prevent accidents, at 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

False alerts (such as unneeded sudden braking) are irritating and can lead drivers to mistrust a system. About 45 percent of FCW-equipped vehicles gave at least one false alert, the worst in the survey. Only about 18 percent of vehicles with AEB engaged without a good reason.

Consumer Reports believes that FCW and AEB should be standard equipment, even with occasional false alerts. The latest study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) supports this: Rear-end crashes are cut by 27 percent when a vehicle has FCW and by 50 percent when it’s also equipped with AEB.

“All consumers should be able to benefit from these safety systems—not just those who can afford luxury cars or expensive extras,” says William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.

Our report cards in the guides linked below explain each system’s purpose and detail which car brands make the most and least satisfying versions, according to owner feedback. The percentage ratings are based on the number of vehicles in the survey equipped with each safety feature.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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