Winter wonders: Safety tech to help you through the season

Winter can be a serious drag on driving, particularly when faced with the adverse conditions that typify the British winter.

Heavy rain, fog, sleet, snow and ice can all spell disaster for motorists and drive you up the wall. Not just that, but the winter weather claims more than its fair share of lives each and every year, both in the UK and beyond.

As if the roads weren’t dangerous enough, drivers have to be extra vigilant in the winter period to keep themselves safe. In the old days before power steering or even airbags, one simple mistake could result in disaster for a driver.

Luckily, safety technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years, with manufacturers constantly updating models to include more equipment designed to keep you safe and in one piece than ever before.

Previously reserved for high-end luxury vehicles, high end safety features have begun to trickle down into the vast majority of mainstream cars.

Some manufacturers offer entire suites of safety kit, for example Nissan’s Safety Shield technology, while others offer various bits and pieces either as standard or as optional add-ons for a small additional cost.

Of course, there’s never any substitute for good driving and attentiveness on behalf of the motorist, and all the alarms in the world won’t be able to make up an inattentive drivers who doesn’t know what to do in an emergency.

However, safety aids can certainly provide that extra reassurance that drivers could do with in the winter seasons. As a result, we’ve put together a short list of some of the best and essential safety features you should keep an eye out for.

Electronic stability control

Electronic stability control, also referred to simply as ESC, is one of the most important safety features for winter driving in a car.

Regardless, it’s also crucial in other weather situations, but particularly in low-grip situations, for example when roads are wet or icy. Electronic stability control helps drivers by preventing the loss of control and spinout crashes that are common fixtures in wintry conditions.

It works by using a set of sensors and a microcomputer housed in your car’s electronic systems to continuously monitor steering, and automatically juggles braking and engine power to keep constant control of the car.

If the driver brakes a little too harshly, accelerates too hard or performs any other action that could compromise the stability and control of the car, the ESC will subtly but effectively compensate to keep you on the road.

It has proven extremely effective in reducing crashes, with studies finding that ESC can reduce the risk of fatal crashes that involve single cars by as much as 49 per cent and multiple-vehicle crash risks by 20 per cent.

As of 2011, all new cars sold within the EU are required to have ESC on them, which means that regardless of which new car you buy, it’s guaranteed to come with electronic stability control thrown in.

Be aware though, that some performance-oriented cars can come with options to override the ESC, so make sure that it’s activated before setting off in a car that has this feature.

Anti-lock braking system

Like electronic stability control, ABS (that’s anti-lock braking system, not a six-pack!) is standard on all cars sold in the EU since 2007.

Like ESC, anti-lock braking systems use a set of sensors to monitor the rotational speeds of the wheels when you hit the brakes. Brakes that don’t feature ABS are prone to locking up – that is, if the brakes are applied too tight, they’ll seize up the wheel and stop allowing it to rotate at all.

At first glance, that might seem like a good thing. If you want to get the shortest possible stopping distance in an emergency, surely it makes sense for your wheels to stop moving? Unfortunately, locked brakes can lead to skidding as the momentum of the car continues even if the wheels are no longer rotating.

Skidding can be bad enough in most conditions, but in winter weather could prove especially dangerous and even fatal. ABS works by loosening the grip of the brake on the wheel to allow it to rotate, preventing it from spinning.

Anybody who’s had to perform an emergency stop in an ABS-equipped car will probably be familiar with the odd lurching action that the car makes as the ABS repeatedly loosens and tightens its grip on the wheel. We can tell you, however, that this is much preferable to having your car skid out of control on a sharp bend.

Like electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes can have a significant effect on preventing crashes, with a 2004 study by Monash University showing that ABS can reduce the risk of multiple vehicle crashes by 18 per cent, and run-off-road crashes by as much as 35 per cent.

Forward-collision avoidance systems

Having brakes that won’t lock up when you need them is all well and good, but that still requires the driver to be paying attention or to have the ability to react in time.

Often, conditions on the road can change at a moment’s notice, leaving drivers not much time to assess and deal with situation effectively. As a result, forward-collision avoidance systems are among the more promising safety features available on new cars.

They work via various mechanisms, for example cameras, radar or light detection, in order to detect vehicles and other obstructions in front of the car. If an obstruction is detected within a certain ‘danger zone’, the car will send warning alerts to the driver.

If, however, the driver neglects to react, the car will then automatically apply the brakes in order to avoid a collision.

The exact application can differ between different manufacturers and makes, but most systems pre-charge the brakes to maximise the effect if the driver responds, while some will do all the work on their own with no drivers response.

Currently, Ford and Nissan are the two manufacturers with the market lead in collision avoidance technology, with Nissan’s Qashqai in particular having been commended for its range of safety equipment .

The Highway Loss Data Institute has found that drivers with cars equipped with this technology submit as many as 27 per cent fewer damage liability claims.

Lane-departure warning systems

Similar in function to forward-collision avoidance systems, lane-departure warning systems constantly monitor the road ahead.

However, instead of looking for obstructions like collision avoidance, lane-departure systems monitor lane markings on either side of the road. If the driver starts to driver across lanes, the system will then warn the driver, usually via a vibrating seat or steering wheel, or by audible or visual warnings.

This can prove particularly useful in winter weather, when conditions which reduce visibility like snow or fog can make it harder for drivers from staying in the correct lanes.

Lane-departure warning systems are becoming increasingly common on new cars, with models from the Qashqai to the new Fiat 500X and Vauxhall’s Corsa supermini coming with the option of such features.

While the drawback of most lane-departure warning systems is that they rely on the driver’s ability to respond to the warning, they’ve still been shown to be effective at prevention collisions and accidents.

According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, if all passenger vehicles were equipped with lane-departure warning and similar technologies like forward-collision avoidance, a third of fatal crashes and a fifth of injury crashes could be prevented.

Adaptive headlights

The same dark wintry nights that make it so inviting to cosy up by the fire unfortunately are the same dark wintry nights that can seriously reduce driving visibility.

As if reduced visibility weren’t bad enough on its own, the increased risk of conditions like black ice can make a potentially deadly combination for road-users in the colder periods of the year.

Adaptive headlights can vastly improve a driver’s ability to see better on dark, curved roads, and while not as common on modern cars as some other technologies, can provide great assistance in fog and rain too.

Some of the manufacturers currently making adaptive headlights includes Ford, who is introducing its first-ever adaptive headlight system on the new Mondeo . Mazda is also following suit with a new adaptive headlight system with a special LED array that adapts to the conditions around it.

Most work by using sensors to measure speed and steering angle, with small electric motors in the headlights adjusting their angle to fall directly on the road ahead, even around corners.

As well as that, many adaptive headlight systems also detect oncoming traffic and automatically shut off full-beam, meaning that drivers can concentrate more on the road ahead and less about having to adjust their lights for every passing vehicle.

Undertaking a study on the effectiveness of adaptive headlights, researchers from the Highway Loss Data Institute found that the lights actually exceeded their expectations.

As well as helping to decrease the risk of single-vehicle crashes, the researchers found that the owners of cars equipped with adaptive headlights filed up to 10 per cent fewer property damage claims.

With all these figures in mind, it’s worth weighing up the option of buying a new car equipped with some or all of these technologies.

If you’d like any more information about the range of safety equipment available on new cars or would like to make an enquiry, why not check out the Perrys website or get in touch with your local dealership today?

After all, the holiday season is just around the corner, and who doesn’t want to wake up to a brand new set of wheels on Christmas morning?!