Auto safety gear: What's it worth to you?

Would you pay more for new car options with a proven chance of avoiding accidents? Apparently, most consumers won't. A recent survey shows that only 8 percent of respondents own cars with automatic emergency braking -- the most crucial new safety feature.

That's leading Nissan (NSANY) to make automatic emergency braking standard, with no extra charge, on the estimated 1 million vehicles it will sell in the U.S. as 2018 models. This will cover seven of the most popular Nissan models: Rogue and Rogue Sport, Altima, Murano, Leaf, Pathfinder, Maxima and Sentra.

"Making auto braking standard is a big step forward in safety, said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have grown increasingly dismayed at the lack of consumer interest in purchasing optional safety equipment despite its proven ability to save lives."

Automatic emergency braking (AEB) uses radar technology to monitor how close your vehicle is to the one ahead. If a potential crash is detected, a warning is sounded and brakes automatically applied. NHTSA data show that one-third of all accidents reported to the police involve rear-end crashes.

The latest research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that AEB reduces such front-into-rear crashes by 50 percent. Forward-collision warning -- even without automatic braking -- cuts the number of such accidents by 27 percent.

No federal regulation currently calls for AEB as mandatory standard equipment in the future. But last year NHTSA secured a voluntary agreement with 20 major automakers that sell in this country to include AEB as a standard feature on their cars, minivans SUVs and pickups by Sept. 1, 2022.

Making safety features standard may be the only sure way to make them become widespread. Cox Automotive, parent company of both Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, published a survey earlier this year looking at attitudes of potential car buyers about the latest automotive technology. It found:

  • Consumers would be willing to pay an average of $2,276 more for their next car to get the exact tech features they want.
  • However, information and entertainment features like Bluetooth connectivity and rear-seat entertainment systems were valued ahead of safety technology.
  • Buyers want the safety features to be standard. Of respondents, 52 percent think AEB should come as standard equipment.

Another safety feature, blind-spot detection, hit 67 percent endorsing it as standard equipment. But research has not yet established clearly the accident-avoidance value of blind-spot detection in the same way it has with AEB. 

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.