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Don't just cruise on

There was a time when a radio was optional and seatbelts were only lap belts in the front. Now, to attract buyers, cars are full of goodies including airconditioning, CD audio players, multiple airbags, anti-lock brake system and cruise control.

Cruise control has been around for decades and is a useful feature in Australia because of the distances we travel, often on long, straight roads.

It takes a bit of pressure off the driver, helps save fuel and can also help drivers prone to speeding avoid being booked.

Cruise control has become more sophisticated with the broad use of computers to manage a car's various functions.

It's relatively simple to control a car's speed using electronics.

But there is need for care when using cruise control. It is not an 'auto-pilot' system that allows a driver to 'switch off.'

Motorists need to ensure the conditions are appropriate whenever they engage cruise control.

It means they will have to exercise their own careful judgment in each situation and their actions should be consistent with the advice in the vehicle owner's handbook.

Cruise control is intended for highway cruising use, on relatively straight roads and in dry conditions.

Its use would be inappropriate in conditions requiring full driver control over speed via the accelerator or brakes, including driving in heavy traffic, on wet, slippery or rough roads, or when negotiating winding roads or corners.

Ultimately, it is the individual driver's responsibility to ensure they are operating their vehicle safely, with adequate control for the road and conditions.

The intention of cruise control is to maintain a fairly constant vehicle speed without the need for driver input via the accelerator.

Basically, a cruise control system monitors a vehicle's road speed and opens or closes the throttle to maintain the speed the driver has selected.

In most vehicles, there is no connection between cruise control and the vehicle's brakes, so it could not prevent a vehicle from speeding when travelling down a steep hill apart from deceleration from changing down a gear.

Cruise control systems are designed to deactivate when the driver touches the brake or clutch pedal.

This is an important safety element of cruise control design.

If an emergency arises and the driver reacts by hitting the brake pedal, then cruise control will immediately deactivate, preventing the system from interfering with the driver's control.

It’s important that drivers are vigilant to minimise the chances of getting themselves into such a situation in the first place.

Drivers need to remember that with cruise control set, the system would in the majority of vehicles attempt to maintain the selected speed of the vehicle, regardless of changes in the road conditions. For example, if a driver has set the cruise control to 100 km/h on a highway, and then the car encounters a hill, the automatic transmission (if fitted) may need to kick down a gear to help maintain the set speed.

Should the surface be slippery or the car is approaching a bend, that unanticipated downshift could surprise the driver with a sudden increase in torque to the driving wheels, unbalancing the car's handling. Such potential situations highlight the need for the driver to be aware of the conditions and modify their use of cruise control accordingly. This is even more important if a person is driving a different vehicle or perhaps is unfamiliar with the roads on which they are travelling. With cruise control activated, a driver still needs to think about what he or she is doing.