Motorists shopping for a new car would rather spend their money on add-ons such as a better stereo or alloy wheels than life-saving technology, says Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, which tests vehicles for safety.

Here Matthew shares his thoughts on issues including the most important car safety technology and the dangers posed by a misunderstanding of “autonomous” cars.

Making AEB mandatory in new cars is a “no-brainer”.

If seatbelts are compulsory under the law, why not Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) - which monitors the traffic conditions ahead and automatically brakes the car if the driver fails to respond to an emergency situation - Matthew questions.

He says: “The tech has been around for 10 years and is already proven to reduce crashes. An awful lot of crashes, apparently 90%, are down to human error - you’re just not looking in the right place, or you’re distracted. So, any system that’s going to help you, either warn you, or brake automatically, has to be a good thing.”

His comments come after the news that Europe is planning to make some car safety technology mandatory in new cars, including AEB. Thatcham and other organisations are now calling on the UK government to do the same. Matthew says: “We’re thinking, come on government, you can mandate this, why hold back? It’s not as if the technology isn’t there or manufacturers don’t want to fit it or its not working.”

He adds that most customers don’t realise that the cost of their insurance will fall by 10% if they buy a car that has AEB fitted as standard.

Any car is only as safe as the driver

Older cars don’t come fitted with technology like AEB, but Matthew reminds drivers that such devices are only there to support the driver. “Even if you are driving an old car, if you’re driving it safely and following the cardinal rules of keeping your distance, sticking to the speed limit, and good observations, then you are as safe as anything.”

Demand for cars with safer technology has increased

All car manufacturers are competing fiercely to achieve the highest safety ratings, says Matthew, not just the likes of Volvo which have a strong reputation for vehicle safety.

For new car shoppers, safety tends to be a “qualifier”, he says, explaining: “You pick your brand and colour and consider what you can afford, and then you verify, considering how much it will cost to run, and whether it is safe. If you are left with a choice between two cars, a lot of people will choose the safest one.”

Thatcham is the UK’s only accredited crash testing centre for the Euro NCAP system of safety assessments of new vehicles, which provides a star rating up to five stars. Matthew says: “Manufacturers really bend over backwards to make sure they get a 5-star vehicle, because they know it will affect sales.”

Stereos over safety

“We’ve got some of the lowest casualty rates across the world in the UK - 1,700 casualties annually - but still it’s too high and we can’t become complacent,” Matthew says.

But often, when somebody buys a car, they only choose to pay for safety technology that would protect themselves and the others in their car, rather than pedestrians, he says, “but if you do end up hitting a pedestrian that will end up affecting you for the rest of your life - it’s not an emotion that you want to go through.”

But safety technology such as lane control systems and blind spot systems require people to spend more on new cars. And, Matthew says: “Consumers are still more willing to pay for alloy wheel upgrades or stereo upgrades than they are for safety upgrades.”

People want help to avoid speeding

Alongside AEB, Matthew says that another particularly welcome technological development for car safety is speed limiters, which enable drivers to stick to the speed limit without having to check the speedometer.

“If nothing else, they stop you getting points on your licence,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to speed, so they want to know what the limit is and stick with it.”

He adds that at its best this device actively assists the driver to keep to the limit, but just informing the driver of the limit is also useful.

Safety tech isn’t just about control and nannying people

Matthew says car safety technology should help, not hinder drivers. “A lot of this tech isn’t just to control and nanny - instead it is about making the whole driving experience not only safer but more comfortable. It’s telling you, it’s advising you, and taking some of the burden away.”

Autonomous cars are being mis-used

Drivers are confused about the differences between “autonomous” cars and those that offer driver assistance technologies, Matthew says.

In fact, Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) are campaigning for carmakers and the government to provide greater clarity around the capability of vehicles sold with technology that does more and more driving on behalf of motorists.

Most technology currently available is offering a “vision of automation” rather than actual autonomous driving, Matthew says: “There are a lot of vehicles with assisted driving systems. These systems are using sensors for your AEB systems and your blind spot monitoring and linking them all together and allowing the vehicle to support you.”

But drivers must keep their eyes on the road, he says: “One of the big issues now is consumers are mis-using the technology and getting into the passenger seat. They might be able to take their hands off the wheel for a few seconds, but they can’t take eyes off the road.”

Rather than making the road safer, in the shorter term, such technology could lead to an increase in crashes and fatalities, he warns, “because people start using these systems not understanding they are only there to help and not take over.”

Go to Solved to read more about road safety.