Brain on Board

Your brain is your vehicles most important safety feature.

Brain on Board

Your brain is your vehicles most important safety feature.

Myths & Misconceptions

Safety features and driving behaviour

False. Young and novice drivers have a higher crash risk than all other age groups and vehicle safety technologies may not help protect them from a lack of driving experience.

Driving is a complex task that requires visual, manual and cognitive skills. New drivers must pay particular attention to driving as they become more experienced and more comfortable behind the wheel.

In particular, it takes time for new drivers to develop a sense of situational awareness. This refers to the driver’s ability to get the ‘big picture’ of what is going on around them. It involves keeping an eye on other drivers and the road, anticipating future events, and identifying potentially hazardous situations quickly. New drivers often have to devote more attention to relatively simple tasks (e.g., staying in their lane) and may have a less developed sense of situational awareness. This can put them at greater risk of a collision than more experienced drivers. For instance, where an inexperienced driver does not recognize or fails to quickly recognize when emergency braking is required, brake assist may not be as effective as when a more experienced driver recognizes and is able to anticipate a potential emergency braking situation.

Driving intelligence and situational awareness – both of which are developed and refined through experience – are key factors in helping drivers anticipate and avoid potentially hazardous situations. As these two qualities are generally underdeveloped in new drivers, they must pay extra attention to their own driving rather than relying on a vehicle’s safety features to compensate for their lack of experience.

True and False. In some cases, ABS may reduce stopping distance. However, this is not generally true, and ABS was not designed to reduce stopping distance. ABS is intended to help drivers retain steering control by preventing wheels from locking up during an episode of heavy braking. When wheels “lock”, they stop spinning all together, drivers lose steering control, and the risk of skidding increases dramatically. ABS is designed to detect when a wheel is about to lock and to initiate corrective action right away, preventing the wheel from locking. This means that drivers can simultaneously steer away from hazards while slowing down the vehicle.

When wheels lock up on low-friction surfaces, the vehicle may continue sliding forward. The distance required for the vehicle to stop – and whether ABS can help shorten this distance – depends to a large extent on the road surface:

  • Low-friction surfaces such as wet or icy roads: By rapidly applying and releasing the brake, ABS can help increase friction between the tires and the road surface, so that ABS-equipped vehicles may stop sooner on wet roads than vehicles without ABS. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States found that on wet roads, stopping distances for vehicles without ABS were 14% longer than for vehicles with ABS.
  • Dry roads: No significant difference between stopping distances is noted on dry roads, presumably because the friction between the road and the locked tires is sufficient to stop the vehicle.
  • Loosely graveled surfaces, slushy, or snow-covered roads: In these cases, ABS may actually increase stopping distance. For vehicles without ABS, the locked tires can create a plowing effect by digging through the loose layers. In contrast, the continually rotating tires on vehicles with ABS will encourage the vehicle to slide on the top layer of the loose surface, thereby lengthening the time required to stop.

Although ABS may help reduce stopping distance, this occurs as an occasional positive side-effect of ABS and is not the primary goal. When positioning themselves on the roadway, drivers would do well to remember that shorter stopping distances are not guaranteed for vehicles with ABS, and that depending on road conditions, ABS-equipped vehicles may actually take longer to stop. In order to reap the maximum benefits from ABS, drivers are encouraged to position themselves thoughtfully with respect to other motorists and, when heavy braking is necessitated, to keep their foot on the brake pedal while steering to avoid whatever hazard prompted the heavy braking.

False. Bad weather can make it more likely that the tires of the vehicle will lose traction or “slip”. Wheel slip occurs when the engine force applied to a tire exceeds the amount of traction available for that tire. This is why wheels are more likely to slip in low-traction conditions, and why drivers are encouraged to slow down (i.e., produce less engine force) when traction is limited by adverse weather or road conditions. Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive can help drivers make more effective use of the traction available on the road in low-friction conditions; however it cannot create extra traction. As a result, drivers are always better off tailoring their driving to fit the road conditions rather than relying on a four-wheel-drive (4WD) or all-wheel-drive system (AWD).

Rear-wheel drive systems only receive engine power to the rear wheels, which then push the vehicle forward. In contrast, four-wheel drive means that a vehicle can receive power to both the front and back sets of wheels. The benefit of 4WD systems is that when road conditions are very poor (i.e., covered in snow, ice, or off-road), the total amount of power produced by the engine can be divided across all the wheels; thereby reducing the chance that wheels will lose traction (slip). In addition, the overall amount of forward-force produced by the engine can be increased, since this force is being spread out across the wheels. The result is that in very bad conditions, 4WD vehicles can handle normal amounts of engine power without dramatically increasing the odds of wheel slip.

All-wheel drive setups differ slightly from 4WD systems. First, unlike 4WD, drivers generally do not have to manually turn on AWD. AWD also allows for driving on all types of roads without worrying about extra wear and tear on tires. In addition, vehicles with AWD typically deliver engine force to each wheel, rather than to each set of wheels. This means that if one tire in the front and one tire in the back lose traction (e.g., by travelling over a long icy patch on one side of the lane), the front and back tires on the other side still have power. In contrast, if this situation were to occur in a 4WD drive vehicle, both sets of tires would lose traction.

Both 4WD and AWD systems help to make effective use of all the available traction and decrease the risk of wheel slip. However, it is important to remember that these systems cannot create extra traction: if there is very little traction available, drivers of 4WD or AWD vehicles will struggle just as much as drivers of rear-wheel drive vehicles to maintain grip on the road. As such, drivers can benefit from keeping in mind that even though they are driving a 4WD vehicle, there may still be limited traction available on the road surface. The optimal way to benefit from 4WD or AWD is to continue to drive safely and decrease speed in adverse weather.

FalsePumping the brakes in a vehicle equipped with ABS does not help ABS work or help the vehicle maintain traction. In fact, pumping the brakes has the opposite effect of preventing ABS from working properly. The best way to brake in a vehicle with ABS is to press down on the brake pedal with firm, consistent force.

To understand why pumping the brakes is detrimental to the performance of ABS, a brief explanation of what ABS is designed to help prevent and how it works is useful. During instances of heavy braking, the wheels of a vehicle may be in danger of locking. When this happens, the wheel(s) stop spinning, the driver loses steering control, and the vehicle may begin to skid. ABS is designed to detect when a wheel is about to lock (i.e., when the problematic wheel starts to show rapid deceleration in its rotation speed). When the threat of wheel-lock is detected, ABS will remedy this situation by reducing the brake force to that wheel until it begins rotating normally again. As soon as normal rotation resumes, ABS will re-apply the brake. This decrease and subsequent increase of brake-force happens very rapidly, and helps prevent the wheels from locking. This allows drivers to maintain steering control and reduces the risk of skidding. Automatic application and release of the brake is also the cause of the noises and sensations that often accompany the activation of ABS: drivers may hear a grinding or groaning noise, or feel the brake pedal pulse or drop underfoot.

Before the advent of ABS, drivers were taught that to “pump the brake” during an episode of heavy braking. Pumping the brake means to manually apply and release the brake in rapid succession, instead of keeping the brake pedal pushed down. ABS functions by effectively pumping the brakes for drivers. The benefit of ABS is that it can pump the brakes faster than most drivers, is more attuned to the threat of wheel-lock, and can often provide targeted support to problematic wheels, ensuring maximized braking power.

Drivers run into a problem, however, when they pump the brakes on a vehicle with ABS. The reason for this is that in order for ABS to be able to detect potential wheel-lock and remedy problematic situations, the brake pedal must be pushed down consistently. When the brake pedal is pushed down and released, ABS does not have enough time to assess the threat and initiate corrective action. This means that pumping the brakes on an ABS-equipped vehicle could potentially eliminate the benefits of having ABS in the first place.

If your vehicle has ABS, the best way to reap its benefits during an episode of heavy braking is to press down firmly and consistently on the brake pedal.

False. While safety features can help the driver maintain control to avoid or reduce the risk of a crash, alcohol-impairment in fact has the very opposite effect and can significantly increase crash risk.

Although the risks of drinking and driving are well-documented, 7.5% of Canadian drivers surveyed in 2011 agreed that they would be likely or very likely to drink and drive if they knew that their vehicle was equipped with modern safety features (compared to 3.2% who said that they sometimes or frequently drive after drinking). This statistic is very concerning because the effects of alcohol-impairment can significantly reduce the effective performance of many vehicle safety features.

One effect of driving while impaired by alcohol is a delayed reaction time by the driver to potential hazards or emergency driving conditions. As already indicated, a slow response time to potential driving hazards may affect the performance of a vehicle’s safety features and correspondingly, the protection they have to offer. For instance, where braking is delayed or a driver is driving erratically, the effectiveness of the vehicle’s, ABSbrake assistelectronic brake-force distribution (EBFD) or electronic stability control (ESC) – may be much reduced.

In addition to delayed reaction time, alcohol can significantly impair coordination and a person’s ability to process information. If such functions are impaired, a driver may be less able to respond appropriately to in-vehicle warning systems concerning, for instance, an impending collision or lane departure. Finally, the benefits of safety systems intended to improve visibility (like adaptive headlights) may be severely reduced or negated by the effects of alcohol.

The increased risk of a collision associated with alcohol consumption can be illustrated as follows. A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.03 is associated with about a two- to three-fold increase in crash risk, while a BAC of 0.05 is associated with between a 6 and 17 times increase in risk of being in a serious collision. The effects of small amounts of alcohol on crash risk are presented in the figure below:

Age 16-20
Age 21-34
Age 35+
Age 16-20
Age 21-34
Age 35+

Figure 1: This chart demonstrates how the risk of being involved in a crash increases with your BAC, with 1 as the starting point.

Research clearly shows that drivers are impaired at low levels of alcohol that are below the federal legal limit of .08 blood alcohol concentration. However, even low levels of impairment can affect driver decision-making. You should never drink and drive.

False. Fatigue and drowsiness are driver conditions that undermine the performance of modern safety features and put drivers and other road users at an increased risk of a collision.

Despite this, a concerning 20% of Canadians said that they would drive when tired or fatigued if their vehicle had safety features. This finding suggests that many drivers do not appreciate that fatigue and drowsiness may put the driver and others in potentially risky situations that could reduce the protection provided by their vehicle’s safety features.

A principle consequence of fatigue and drowsiness is slow reaction times to potential road hazards, lane departure or forward collision warnings. Some safety features require driver input, such as to brake and steer when confronted such hazards or conditions. A delayed reaction may give a vehicle’s safety features less time to perform as intended and thereby reduce the potential protection of those features.

In serious cases, the impairment caused by fatigue and drowsiness can be similar to impairment due to alcohol consumption (Stutts 1999). Drivers who are fatigued commit more driving errors, drive more poorly, and are less able to focus on what is happening on the road than an alert driver. You should always be well rested and alert when driving.

Usefulness of safety features

False.  In generala heavier vehicle has a safety advantage in a two-vehicle collision with a lighter car, but nearly one-third of motor vehicle crashes in Canada involve only one vehicle (ICBC 2007). In single-vehicle crashes, heavier vehicles can lose this safety advantage and vehicle occupants may experience a more forceful collision.

In a recent TIRF survey, 43.9% of Canadians agreed or strongly agreed that bigger vehicles such as SUVs offer more protection to passengers during a collision than smaller vehicles. This suggests that some drivers of large vehicles are not aware that single-vehicle collisions in a larger vehicle may be more serious and present an elevated risk of injury to vehicle occupants and damage to the vehicle.

The laws of physics explain why bigger vehicles tend to do better when they hit smaller vehicles, but may fare worse in single-vehicle collisions. When an SUV crashes into a small passenger car, each vehicle absorbs the impact force of the other. The energy absorbed by the passenger car is generally much greater than the energy absorbed by the SUV. Therefore, the smaller, lighter is decelerated more rapidly (and usually pushed rapidly backwards) and the occupants typically sustain more injuries.

However, when an SUV collides with a large immovable object like a tree, utility pole, or concrete barrier, the object “pushes” back with the same amount of force with which it is hit. Newton’s third law of motion – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction – explains why this is the case. When an SUV weighing 5000 pounds travelling at 50km/h hits an immovable concrete barrier, physics dictates that the barrier will push back with the same amount of force. When a small car weighing 3000 pounds travelling at 50km/h hits the same barrier, the barrier will again push back with the same amount of force, but the amount of force will be less than in the case with the SUV, due to the difference in mass. To summarize, the amount of force resulting from the SUV-barrier crash is greater than the amount of force resulting from the passenger car-barrier crash. More overall force means more energy that must be absorbed by the vehicle, with greater risk that energy from the impact may be transmitted to the occupants. To illustrate further, in the imaginary case where a feather is travelling forward at 50km/h and hits a concrete barrier, the impact force would be virtually nothing because the feather’s mass is negligible, and practically no damage would be sustained by the barrier or the feather.

Rollovers are another type of single-vehicle collision that often involve larger vehicles. This is because the center of gravity of larger vehicles is higher than that of smaller vehicles. This means that if a larger vehicle starts to swerve or sway, the relatively larger distance from the center of gravity to the pavement makes it more unstable. In comparison, since a small car is closer to the ground and therefore has a lower center of gravity, it would demonstrate more stability under the same swerving and swaying conditions.

The sheer mass of larger vehicles undoubtedly offers safety advantages to vehicle occupants when they crash into lighter vehicles. However, what many may not realize is that the same sheer mass that offers an advantage in one type of crash can produce a disadvantage in others. Drivers of large vehicles can help ensure their own safety by driving carefully, avoiding hard steering manoeuvres whenever possible, and maintaining a safe distance between themselves and other road users.

False. While car-aficionados and enthusiasts may find it easy to understand vehicle technologies, a background in automotive engineering is not required to understand how safety features work.

A recent public opinion poll shows that many drivers have little familiarity with the many safety features that may be available on their vehicles and are concerned that those safety features – particularly newer safety features – are not easy to use. To illustrate, only a little more than half of respondents said that electronic stability control (ESC)brake override, and driver monitoring systems would be easy to “use” (56.9%, 54.1%, and 52.5% respectively).

In fact, all three of these systems work automatically or passively and require no direct input or action on the part of the driver. Indeed, the designers of vehicle safety system know that drivers already have a lot to focus on while driving so those features are designed to work in the background and to require very little of the driver.

In short, an understanding of how and when safety technologies in a vehicle work combined with safe driving practices can help drivers increase their own safety, the safety of their passengers and other users on the road.

For more information about safety technologies that may be on your vehicle and safe driving tips, please use the tools available on this website.

False. While safety features are designed to be easy to use, in some cases their activation is not instantaneous.

Vehicle safety features generally function or operate when certain thresholds or design parameters have been met. Accordingly, those safety features are intended to operate only under certain conditions and not under any or all circumstances.

For instance, forward collision warning systems may alert the driver by sounding an alarm when the system detects an impending collision. However, some of these systems only work under certain minimum speeds or may not detect or recognize certain types of objects. Accordingly, pedestrians, bicyclists, or large animals may be too small to trigger such a warning alarm. Drivers who believe the collision warning system will work under any circumstances may be putting themselves at a higher risk of a collision.

Drivers should never abandon their own important role in practicing safe driving. Also, it is important that drivers understand the myths and misconceptions about safety features in their vehicle and learn, instead, how those safety features work and the limits of those features. More information on all of these topics is available on this website.

False. Hazardous situations when a vehicle’s safety technologies are important are usually not “extreme”, but they are often unexpected. Slushy roads, poorly-maintained driving surfaces, unpredictable traffic, and large animal crossings are not uncommon and many Canadians are injured in motor vehicle collisions as a result of these kinds of situations every day.

Drivers can find themselves in a potentially hazardous driving situation with little or no warning. Motor vehicle collisions occur on clear summer days or during blinding snowstorms; when driving routes are familiar or when negotiating unfamiliar roads and when you are two minutes or two days from home.

Safety system engineers have developed technologies to help respond to real-world driving scenarios, typically with an emphasis on the kinds of scenarios that can result in collisions and injuries. When coupled with safe driving practices, safety features can help protect you whenever and wherever you need them.

False. Safety features can help protect drivers in all kind of climates, terrains, and road conditions. Although there are some different challenges associated with driving in an urban versus a rural setting, a vehicle’s safety features may be a useful asset for drivers regardless of the setting.

For instance, drivers in rural regions may encounter more frequently potentially hazardous road conditions such as icy or snow covered roads. Urban drivers however, can face similar challenges. Safety features such as ABStraction controlESC and electronic brake-force distribution (EBFD) can help the driver maintain control of the vehicle under such conditions. Also, drivers in rural areas may encounter poor or no lighting to help identify potential hazards on the road. Adaptive headlights can help illuminate potential hazards to help drivers respond to them more quickly and appropriately.

Drivers in urban settings may have to share the road with other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists more often and cope with more congestion and traffic control devices. Having to share the road requires cooperation between road users to avoid collisions. Safety features that help drivers maintain control or stop quickly – such ABS and brake assist – and/or that provide advanced warning that a driver may be too close to another vehicle or object may be of particular assistance to the urban driver.

However, regardless of whether one drives in a rural or urban setting, situations will inevitably arise where modern vehicle safety technologies can assist the driver to help avoid and reduce the risk of injury during a collision.

False. Modern safety features can help reduce the severity of any injuries when a crash occurs.

Of concern, more than half of Canadian drivers revealed that they do not believe that safety features can help protect drivers or passengers from serious injury in the event of a crash. Only 40.3% of respondents agreed that safety features in new vehicles help protect drivers, and only 46.4% said that safety features can help protect passengers, in the event of a collision.

Braking technologies like anti-lock braking systems (ABS)electronic brake-force distribution (EBFD)brake assist, and traction control help to reduce speed at the time of impact and/or help the driver maintain control of the vehicle to avoid a collision in the first place. Reducing speed before impact has a significant effect on reducing the energy of the impact and damage to the vehicle and correspondingly, helping to reduce the severity of injury to vehicle occupants.

Other safety features like adaptive headlightslane-deviation warning, and forward-collision warning can help alert the driver to potential hazards or risks and provide them with more time to react to the situation by braking or taking avoidance steering manoeuvres.

Finally, several safety features are specifically designed to help protect drivers and passengers from injury or reduce the severity of injuries resulting from collisions. For example, airbagsseatbelts, and whiplash prevention systems may help reduce the severity of injuries sustained by people inside the vehicle involved in a crash.

When safe driving practices or habits are combined with modern safety features, the risk of a collision and/or the severity of injuries in the unfortunate event of a collision may be greatly reduced and provide an overall safer driving experience. For information on how specific safety features can help keep drivers and vehicle occupants safe, visit the safety features section of this website.

Aftermarket accessories

False.  How an aftermarket accessory and the vehicle’s original equipment might interact or the risks associated with the installation and use of those accessories may not be known.

Many Canadian drivers believe that aftermarket accessories sold in automotive stores are safe to install in or on their vehicle. When polled in 2011, 33.8% of survey respondents agreed that if an accessory is sold in-store, then it is safe.

That aftermarket vehicle accessories are sold in automotive speciality or big box stores – does not mean there is no risk associated with the installation or use of those accessories. As indicated, aftermarket accessories may be not be tested for compatibility with the original equipment manufacturer’s vehicles nor undergo the same regiment of “on-vehicle” or dynamic vehicle testing.

At a minimum, where vehicle owners elect to purchase certain accessories for their vehicles, they should take the time to understand how after-market accessories may function with their vehicle and to read and understand safety warnings or precautions concerning the installation or use of such accessories.

However, to help ensure the installation of accessories will not adversely affect the operation or performance of a vehicle’s systems, vehicle owners should purchase options or accessories that are intended for use in their specific model and which are approved by the original equipment manufacturer. Such options and accessories are selected or manufactured and tested for installation on specific vehicles.

Carefully select options and accessories to ensure they are compatible with and can be safely installed and used with your vehicle.

False. Some aftermarket vehicle accessories may not be designed for any special model or brand and may not be safety tested in the same way an original equipment manufacturer tests its vehicles and components. In addition, original equipment motor vehicle manufacturers are not required to test accessories manufactured by other suppliers that may be purchased by a vehicle owner.

Modifying or installing accessories on the original equipment may affect the performance of vehicle systems, including certain safety features. For instance, installing custom rims may affect the operation of a tire pressure monitoring system, which can detect low tire inflation pressure before a problem arises. In addition, installing certain accessories like floor mats or seat covers may put occupants at risk and/or interfere with the proper operation of the vehicle or its safety features, like the supplementary restraint system or accelerator and brake pedals.

Given that aftermarket accessories may not be safety tested for compatibility with the original manufacturer’s vehicle equipment conflicts with what many Canadian drivers believe. A 2011 poll revealed that 22.2% of drivers think that it is likely or very likely that aftermarket accessories are safety tested. In addition, 17.6% of all survey respondents reported that they believe aftermarket accessories are safety tested as rigorously as vehicles.

In Canada, the Federal Government regulates motor vehicle safety and requires new motor vehicle manufacturers to comply with certain safety standards. These standards apply to new vehicles and certain equipment when they are manufactured but not to aftermarket automotive accessory suppliers. Provincial and territorial governments regulate the operation, modification and maintenance of vehicles on public roadways. As a result, aftermarket automotive accessories may not be tested in the same way an original equipment manufacturer tests its products, including undergoing “dynamic” or on-vehicle testing, and accordingly, how an aftermarket accessory and the vehicle’s original equipment might interact or the risks associated with the installation and use of those accessories may not be known.

Additional safety information and information related to installation and use of certain aftermarket accessories can be found at Transport Canada’s website: