Car safety features explained

Automatic braking system safety features visualised - car recognises that driver in front has stopped suddenly and stops the car automatically to avoid an accident

Life-saving safety features should be one of the first considerations for drivers choosing any car. But increasing complexity and baffling technical jargon means many motorists are in the dark when it comes understanding the gadgets and gizmos their car offers.  

Whether that is preventing drivers from correctly operating their own car, or confusing them about which options to look for in a new car, it is far from ideal. 

To help you decipher technical terms and the increasing number of acronyms that accompany every car, here’s a helpful guide to the important safety features that every driver should understand. 

Car safety features: understanding the jargon 

AEB: Autonomous Emergency Braking 

Imagine yourself adjusting the temperature of the car’s heater for a brief moment. As you look up at the road, you crash into the back of the car in front, which had stopped unexpectedly. Autonomous Emergency Braking is designed to prevent such common scenarios from happening. Sensors in the front of the car monitor the road ahead, instructing the car’s computer to slam on the brakes and avoid an accident. This is the most popular optional safety feature chosen by car buyers. Just fewer than 20 per cent of people pick it, according to What Car.

ABS: Anti-lock Brake System 

This is a relatively old piece of life-saving technology, dating back to the 1970s. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up and the tyres from skidding under hard braking. By doing so, it helps drivers to maintain steering control of their car. This allows you to swerve around a child that’s stepped out into the road or avoid a car pulling out of an obscured junction. It’s been fitted to all new cars sold in Europe since 2004. 

ACC: Adaptive Cruise Control 

Heard of cruise control? It’s the gadget that maintains a set speed determined by the driver. Well, Adaptive Cruise Control is a fancier version that’s effectively an extra pair of eyes for a driver. It uses radar sensors to detect traffic ahead. It then moderates the car’s speed to match that of any slower traffic, before returning to the desired speed once the road’s clear. You can adjust the gap to the car in front, too. This video from Bosch, a maker of these systems, explains the detailed workings of ACC.

BSM: Blind Spot Monitoring 

A representation of blind-spot monitoring safety feature - a blue car is joining a motorway and the technology recognises the silver car in the driver's blind spot and informs them to avoid an accident

It sounds like a driving school, but BSM stands for Blind Spot Monitoring. The system watches out for undertaking or overtaking traffic. This eliminates the blind spots that drivers often face in modern cars with their huge roof support pillars. If another vehicle is detected, and the driver attempts to change lanes, BSM emits an audible and visible alert. Some systems even automatically steer the car back into its lane. 

EBA: Emergency Brake Assist 

Often in an emergency braking situation, when drivers suddenly brake hard, they don’t deploy a car’s maximum braking force. Emergency Brake Assist does it for the driver, assuming the worst case scenario that you’re trying to avoid an accident. If you release the brakes, it cuts out. 

ESC or ESP: Electronic Stability Control/Programme 

Unhelpfully, car makers often use different names for this system. It detects when a car’s tyres are losing grip. It then brings everything back under control by automatically braking the appropriate individual wheels. Often, its work goes undetected, like a guardian angel watching a driver’s every move. 

HUD: Head-up Display 

Speedometer displayed on a heads-up display, one of the cooler car safety features

This system projects information into the driver’s line of vision when they have their eyes on the road ahead. Information typically includes vehicle speed, the local speed limit and basic instructions from the sat nav system. Big developments are promised with head-up display technology.

ISOFIX: International Standardisation Organisation Fixation

Smiling baby strapped into child seat travelling as a passenger along a seafront road

Its name is meaningless, until you appreciate that this is the system that anchors child car seats to the body of the vehicle. It’s the safest way to install a car seat, but the car maker’s and seat maker’s guidelines must be followed. 

TCS: Traction Control System 

This clever bit of tech detects and prevents wheels from losing traction and spinning, all within the blink of an eye.  

TPMS: Tyre Pressure Monitoring System 

Tyre pressure monitoring system highlighted on the rim of a tyre

There is a basic and sophisticated version of TPMS, which alerts the driver when a tyre has lost air pressure. However, independent tests have found that some of the more basic ones don’t work well

James Mills

James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.