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What's the real cost of advanced car safety features?

Q: Fancy advanced safety features on new cars are appealing. But do they have disadvantages?

A: A friend recently rearranged his Audi’s front bodywork during a relatively minor altercation with the rear end of another car—a crunched grille and bumper and broken headlights. Cost of repairs to his car? Just under $16,000 and three weeks in the shop.

A large portion of the cost involved repairs to the sensors for the so-called advanced driver-assistance systems. These features are finding their way into more and more cars to provide such functions as forward automatic emergency braking, forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning. But a new AAA study noted that the cost to repair minor collisions can be twice as much for vehicles that have these systems. 

What’s the deal? Well, cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors are expensive. Replacing a cracked windshield that incorporates a camera for lane-keeping assist can cost $1,500, or about three times the usual cost of windshield replacement. Moreover, the systems need calibration, which requires additional training and tools, and, of course, extra labor hours.

Do you have enough insurance coverage?

The upshot? AAA urges motorists to review their insurance policies to make sure they have sufficient coverage. After an accident, car owners should be sure to select a repair shop with the expertise to repair the systems properly.

A second AAA study revealed that many motorists don’t understand the safety features’ limitations, which can—ironically—lead to less-safe driving behavior. Examples:

Some motorists who used adaptive cruise control to automatically maintain a set speed and following distance in, say, slow-moving traffic, felt free to engage in distracting activities such as texting, trusting that the car would handle driving duties.

Some folks relied on their blind-spot warning system when they changed lanes without visually confirming that their blind spot was clear—a bad move, because the monitors don’t always detect fast-moving cars, motorcycles, or bicycles.

Some motorists incorrectly assumed that their forward-collision warning systems would automatically apply the brakes in an emergency. But forward-collision warning doesn’t perform that function—forward automatic emergency braking does. They’re not the same thing.

Clearly, automakers and dealers need to do a better job of explaining what these safety systems can and can’t do. And motorists need to crack open their owner’s manuals to read about them, then follow up with questions to dealers about anything they don’t understand.

Thankfully, other issues with the new safety systems are being resolved, albeit slowly. Prices are dropping, and more features are becoming standard equipment, even on entry-level vehicles. 

Motorists have also found some of the features to be annoying to the point of switching them off, such as lane-departure systems that beep incessantly. That, of course, defeats their purpose. Again, there’s good news: The systems are evolving and becoming less irritating.

Despite the problems, the safety systems have great potential to reduce crashes, injuries, and deaths on the roadways, says AAA. And the respondents to AAA surveys seem to agree: The vast majority want them in their next vehicles, and they recommend them to others.

Peter Bohr helps you get the best value for your automotive dollar. Email or write to Drive Smart, Westways, PO Box 25222, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5222.

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