The drive to make your next car safer

NTSB and Consumer Reports support making pre-crash safety system a standard feature

Published: June 09, 2015 05:15 PM
2015 Buick Lacrosse

Following government mandates that new cars be fitted with seat belts, airbags, and more recently electronic stability control (ESC), the next major step in automotive safety is to require forward-collision warning and mitigation systems.

This technology is widely offered on many of today’s new cars. Forward-collision systems have been shown to dramatically decrease crash incidents—or at least the speed at which the impacts occur. Trouble is, these increasingly affordable systems are still too often bundled into expensive options packages, or require a premium trim level.

New recommendations published this week by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) push for these features to become standard equipment on all new cars. Consumer Reports gives this effort our full support.

The NTSB cites that in recent years, almost half of all two-vehicle crashes involved a rear-end collision, claiming about 1,700 lives per year, and causing 500,000 injuries. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates as many as 1.9 million total crashes could be prevented or mitigated each year if all vehicles were equipped with forward-collision systems.

The benefits of a system that could drastically reduce these crashes is monumental. The price-per-car for a frontal-collision warning system is $250-$400—a fraction of the typical charge for an ambulance ride.

How the systems work

Forward-collision warning (FCW) uses cameras, radar or laser (or some combination thereof) to scan the road ahead, and to alert the driver if the distance to a vehicle ahead is closing  too quickly.

The systems alert the driver with an audible, haptic (touch), and/or visual cue. More advanced systems include automatic braking that can stop a car quickly enough to avoid a collision at modest speeds, or at the very least reduce the closing speed. At freeway speeds, the systems can’t stop the car in time, but they will still apply the brakes to reduce the force of the collision and some can even prepare the cabin’s seat belts and airbags for impact.

In driving dozens of cars equipped with FCW systems, Consumer Reports has found the abilities to be impressive both on our test track and in the real world. A polling of our Auto Test Center staff found that cars with forward collision systems have proved their worth to nearly every staffer at least once.  

That said, while most systems work well, there is some variation in how they perform. One noted complaint is that they can emit a false warning when the driver is attentive to his surroundings and the car is well under control. But these warnings are rare and the staff unanimously agrees that the benefits outweigh the negatives. Plus, the systems will only become more sophisticated over time.


The NTSB has issued several recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that Consumer Reports wholeheartedly endorses:

  • Install forward-collision avoidance systems that include, at a minimum, a forward collision warning component, as standard equipment on all new vehicles. (This includes commercial trucks and RVs.)
  • Develop and apply testing protocols to assess the performance of forward-collision avoidance systems in passenger vehicles at various velocities, including high speed and high velocity-differential conditions.
  • Complete, as soon as possible, the development and application of performance standards and protocols for the assessment of forward-collision avoidance systems in commercial vehicles.
  • Expand the New Car Assessment Program 5-star rating system to include a scale that rates the performance of forward-collision avoidance systems. (Currently, NHTSA just cites the availability of systems.)
  • Once the rating scale is established, include the ratings of forward-collision avoidance systems on the vehicle window stickers.

“Affordable crash avoidance technologies exist today that can dramatically reduce the risk of being injured or killed on the road, but they aren't as widely available to new-car buyers as they should be,” says William Wallace, policy analyst at Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Automakers and regulators should act on NTSB's recommendations so that all new-car owners can benefit from these technologies. And the proposed window sticker ratings would inform shoppers and pressure automakers to make ongoing improvements.”

See which cars currently offer advanced safety systems.

Jeff Bartlett

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