New-car brochures and vehicle reviews regularly tout facts and features about new models, and high-tech, advanced safety systems such as dual front airbags and a tire-pressure monitoring system (TPMS). That's the same as saying it meets current emissions standards: If the vehicle didn't have dual front airbags and a tire-pressure monitoring system, it couldn't be offered for sale. Of course, the promotional information often mentions that its star meets current emissions standards, too.
Things are different for electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, side airbags, rearview cameras and active head restraints, among other components. None of these are currently required. However, some of these features will soon be required by regulation and some likely will be needed to meet safety performance requirements.
Here are some regularly mentioned safety systems and the government regulations or requirements surrounding them. (Government decisions are subject to change. Don't be shocked if dates for some yet-to-be-required systems are pushed back a year or two.)
Tire-pressure monitoring systems, or TPMS give a warning when one or more tires are radically under-inflated. This system has been required on all cars since the 2008 model year.
Electronic stability control (often abbreviated ESC, but also called by a host of other names and acronyms) will be required on most 2011 vehicles and all 2012 model-year vehicles. ESC has been optional or standard equipment on some cars for more than a decade. ESC uses a sophisticated computer system to sense when a vehicle is about to spin out or plow straight off a slippery road. In such situations, the computer will apply brakes at individual wheels and, possibly, reduce engine power. Many drivers won't even notice the butt-saving they just received.
Anti-lock brake systems (ABS) are part of a package. In other words, while not specifically required, everything needed to make ABS work is part of the ESC system. It would require some skillful programming to not have ABS. It's not unfair to say ABS will be required on all 2012 vehicles.
New Federal regulations for active head restraints, designed to reduce neck injuries, began to take effect in 2009 and will be in full force by late 2011. However, passing the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) test and earning its Top Safety Pick award is just as important to some carmakers. It's possible to both meet the law and pass the IIHS test without active head restraints. However, many consumers can't find a comfortable driving position with the resulting devices.
The bottom line: Active head restraints won't be mandated by law (or required to pass the IIHS test) but carmakers may find they have to employ them to produce a comfortable vehicle. (Active head restraints use the force of a rear-end collision to move the head restraint toward the occupant's head.)
Front airbags for the driver and front passenger airbags have been a government requirement since 1998. The government isn't specifically requiring side-impact or side-curtain airbags. Rather, it has created new side-impact tests. The new tests include more sensitive crash-test dummies, smaller dummies to represent shorter people, and a crash that simulates sliding sideways into a tree or utility pole. The new crash standards go into full effect starting with 2012 model-year vehicles.
To get top ratings on these tests, manufacturers may be forced to fit both types of these airbags and make other modifications, such as increase door structure. The answer: not required, but might as well be. One benefit of side impact airbags and side-curtain airbags is that they will also help protect occupants of automobiles struck by large sport-utility vehicles or pickups.
Legislation passed in 2008, called the "Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act," requires car manufacturers to install rearview cameras or sonar sensing systems that warn drivers of objects in the blind spots behind them. Specific regulations and enforcement dates have not been drafted. Versions of rearview cameras or the sonar-based sensing systems currently available on many vehicles will likely meet the law's requirements. In the relatively near future, a "rearview camera" or "sonar rear sensing system" will be featured on every new vehicle. While the feature has very definite, positive benefits, it doesn't preclude us from turning around and looking before backing out.