New Safety Features in Your Car Might Make Your Driving Worse

As automotive tech advances, motorists are becoming less alert

22 January 2018

Although the era of self-driving vehicle is not quite here yet, if you’ve recently purchased a new car, it likely has several features that allow it to think for itself in certain situations.

Lane-departure assistance has become the norm for high-end vehicles—a feature that uses Lidar sensors to detect when the car is dangerously drifting—and, in some cases, automatically corrects its course. Collision-warning systems equipped with radar, lasers, and high-definition cameras can sense when your car is quickly approaching something it perceives to be an obstacle, such as another vehicle, a pedestrian, or an animal. Some systems set off a warning tone; others apply the brakes if the car senses the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough.

Despite advanced safety features, recent studies have shown that fatal collisions are actually on the rise. The American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety reported in October that in 2016, more than 400,000 people were killed in car crashes in the United States. That’s the first time in a decade that there were so many fatalities.

More cars today are equipped with systems designed to react when the driver does not, but the technology isn’t perfect. And overreliance on the systems can make drivers complacent and less attentive.

DEADLY DISTRACTIONS

Although features such as lane assist and autobrake can save the day when drivers have lapses of judgment, your car still requires your attention. Lane-assist sensors detect lines in the road only if there is enough contrast between the asphalt and the white or yellow lines. If, for example, you are driving on a shadowy road with faded markings, or if sunlight is reflecting off the road, the sensors likely won’t sense if you’re drifting.

Collision-avoidance systems have been known to sound false alarms. My own Subaru’s system once interpreted falling leaves as an obstacle. A false alarm could prompt a driver to slam on her brakes unnecessarily, possibly causing a rear-end collision.

According to the AAA study, which also highlighted the dangers of distracted driving, drivers using in-vehicle technologies including voice-activated and touchscreen features to program a route or send a text message are visually and mentally distracted for nearly one minute.

In-dash navigation systems are the worst culprit, according to the study, which found that it takes drivers an average of 40 seconds just to enter a destination. And some cars enable people to do that while the vehicle is in motion. Of the 30 infotainment systems the researchers tested, 23 were found to demand a “moderate” to “very high” level of the driver’s attention to operate.

Do you think the latest automotive tech is making us safer or putting us in more danger on the road?

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