Deciding when should you use cruise control—and when it’s better not to—can be a challenge. Cruise control is convenient, but is it always the best option for safe driving? We’ve researched the ins and outs of cruise control (including adaptive features and tech) to give you all the answers.
You can safely use cruise control in a handful of scenarios when the weather is ideal, and the road is straight. It’s better to skip the feature during stormy conditions or when your travel involves unpredictable road conditions.
In short, cruise control is usually ideal when:
- You’re traveling in favorable weather conditions.
- The road is manageably straight and a level elevation.
- Traffic is minimal.
- You are alert and can still handle the vehicle.
You shouldn’t use cruise control when:
- Weather conditions are severe.
- There is snow or ice on the road.
- You feel ‘too tired’ to drive safely.
- There are road hazards or a lot of traffic.
- The road changes elevation or direction often.
Of course, there are many nuances to driving, and that includes the use of automatic speed controls. Here we’ll explain in more detail exactly why cruise control is safe in some situations and not others.
Cruise control has been around for a long time. A mechanical engineer invented the concept back in 1948. His motivation was apparently riding in the car with someone who couldn’t keep the gas pedal steady. The technology has changed a lot since the ‘40s, and fortunately, many improvements have happened to make it safer and more reliable.
And cruise control—along with other technologies like parking assist—is in high demand on newer vehicles. So many drivers want the feature that you can even purchase a universal electronic cruise control kit.
In general, driving with cruise control is safe. It helps you focus on steering, keeps you from speeding, and avoids engine revving and uncomfortable acceleration. Cruising at a steady speed can enhance fuel economy and reduce wear and tear on your car’s engine. Adaptive cruise control can maintain a safe following distance from the car in front of you. It can even brake before you notice a slowdown ahead.
But you may not want to use cruise control every time you hop in the car. It can be downright dangerous when applied at the wrong times. In severe weather, conditions can interfere with your vehicle’s adaptive cruise control features. Laser and other technology may not work correctly in the fog, for example.
The automated system can also maintain unsafe speeds, even on ice or steep inclines. Plus, most vehicle manufacturers caution against using cruise control on wet pavement, and especially on ice or snow.
Because every driving scenario is different, it’s challenging to apply a blanket statement to cruise control and the many benefits and potential drawbacks. Here’s more on how cruise control operates—and why you should use it wisely.
How Does The Cruise Control Work?
Usually, stepping on the gas activates your throttle. But the gas pedal is only a connection to the accelerator. Cruise control bypasses the manual throttle adjustment and directly communicates with an actuator. The actuator opens and closes the throttle.
In short, your vehicle applies and releases the throttle to maintain whatever speed you set. You can set or cancel cruise control, increase or decrease the speed, and it turns off automatically if you step on the brakes.
How Does Adaptive Cruise Control Work?
The adaptive cruise control maintains your speed and the distance between you and the car you’re following. Laser technology measures the distance between you and the next vehicle and automatically slows down to accommodate them.
In most vehicles, adaptive cruise control even applies the brakes if the vehicle in front stops quickly. But if the car changes lanes, the function speeds your vehicle back up to the original setting.
Is Cruise Control Bad For Your Car?
In short, no—cruise control is not bad for your car. Most models rely on engine braking—downshifting to reduce speed—when going downhill. Engine braking doesn’t hurt your vehicle. Nor does the automatic braking some newer vehicles use to decrease momentum.
The problem is when you set the cruise control and proceed to navigate steep hills or winding roads. You may be straining the engine in some cases, depending on the gear your engine needs to be in to tackle such obstacles.
Sometimes, it makes more sense to use human skills instead of an automatic setting. Your car’s engine lacks the discretion you have in looking ahead and spotting potential hazards—like steep cliffs or sweeping turns.
Does Cruise Control Use More Gas?
Most experts agree that using cruise control probably uses about the same amount of fuel as regular vehicle operation. Mileage varies by vehicle make, model, and year, plus operator habits. In general, cruise control maintains a steady speed, so you might assume your gas mileage would be better if you used it all the time.
But like a human driver, the cruise control mechanism still applies the gas and brakes to maintain a steady velocity. If you’re on a straight freeway, fuel economy tends to be higher anyway, and using cruise control is a no-brainer. But if you’re driving in the mountains? You’re probably better off with the gas pedal.
Can You Brake On Cruise Control?
You can brake while using cruise control. But applying the foot brake manually automatically shuts off the cruise settings. An alternative to stepping on the brake pedal is using the decelerate button on your car’s cruise control panel.
Typically, you can adjust the speed setting by tapping up or down. This readjusts the cruising speed to the new setting, whether faster or slower.
Can Cruise Control Be Dangerous?
Cruise control can be dangerous, but the primary hazard is drivers who rely too heavily on automation. You must still be present and pay attention while driving—cruise control focuses on speed only.
Even in newer vehicles with adaptive speed settings, you need to be able to take over in a split second. And depending on weather and road conditions, the features may not work properly in the first place.
At times, you may even notice adaptive technology causing problems of its own. The system may detect speed changes in a vehicle in the next lane, rather than the car in front of you, and apply the brakes for no reason.
Car manufacturers are continuously working to improve the equipment and technology, of course. But in the meantime, drivers should remain attentive and cautious with “self-driving” technologies.
How Many Accidents Are Caused By Cruise Control?
It’s unclear exactly how many accidents are caused by drivers using cruise control.
One study in France, The Wall Street Journal reported, found that people using cruise control experienced more “episodes of drowsiness” than drivers manually controlling their speed. This could mean that people who use cruise control are slightly more likely to nod off while on the road, a definite hazard.
In contrast, an early study on adaptive cruise control—circa 2008—reported that the technology “did not degrade safety during severe braking events.” It also helped drivers maintain safe gaps between vehicles. In many cases, it seems the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks.
Overall, distracted driving—AKA human error—is responsible for most vehicle accidents in the United States. And of the primary vehicle accident causes, equipment failure related to braking and steering problems is most common.
Is Adaptive Cruise Control Safe?
In many scenarios, adaptive cruise control is probably safer than manual acceleration. But it depends on how you use it and what conditions you’re driving in.
For example, driving with adaptive cruise control while it’s foggy, raining, sleeting, or snowing out can be dangerous. Because the vehicle’s radar or other sensors may not be able to detect vehicles or obstacles around you, using adaptive cruise control could increase your chances of getting in an accident.
Most vehicle manufacturers caution against drivers using the function on windy roads or when going uphill. It’s another case of the cruise control only adapting to specific scenarios; it can’t see the curves ahead or the sharp decrease in elevation. Most vehicles use engine braking to slow your vehicle while in cruise control mode, but you can still end up in a dangerous situation with little warning.
Overall, cruise control is a helpful invention that you can safely use in a range of driving situations. But with as many improvements as manufacturers have made, there are still times when you should drive the old-fashioned way. After all, no onboard tech can match the attentiveness of a human driver.
Read more: Adaptive Cruise Control for Trucks