Is New Technology Actually Improving Road Safety?

car navigation and safety system display

Advancements in automotive safety technology have continued to arrive at a dizzying pace. The experience of driving modern vehicles differs from the driving experience just a couple of decades ago. Safety technology aims to reduce the number of traffic collisions, injuries, and deaths. In the U.S., the Association for Safe International Travel reports an estimated 38,000 people die and 4.4 million suffer injuries in traffic accidents each year. A combination of technological advancements and government-led initiatives such as Vision Zero aims to reduce those deaths and injuries.

Some vehicles include built-in technology to help drivers brake, steer, back up, change lanes, park, and more. While technological advancements promise to improve road safety, many concerns associated with the technology remain, including the potential that overreliance on technology could also result in accidents.

Self-Driving Cars

Ever since the autonomous super-car K.I.T.T. appeared on television screens in 1982’s Knight Rider, people have dreamed of riding in vehicles that drive themselves. What used to seem like science fiction is becoming a reality as companies like Google, Uber, Tesla, and others compete to bring autonomous vehicles to the nation’s highways.

Self-driving cars are vehicles with several different technologies designed to drive with little input required from the driver. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that car manufacturers have been developing automated safety features for decades, ranging from cruise control and antilock braking systems to today’s features like self-parking and tomorrow’s promise of highway autopilot. Self-driving technologies might help to reduce traffic accidents by eliminating the potential for human error, which the NHTSA found is a contributing factor in approximately 94% of accidents.

Autonomous vehicles fall on a continuum of autonomy ranging from no automation to full automation. These levels include the following:

  • One – Driver-assist technologies, including lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control using a variety of sensors and cameras that still require drivers to remain in control
  • Two – Partial automation technology that helps with maintaining distance between vehicles and steering but requires drivers to keep hands on the wheel to take over if necessary
  • Three – Conditional automation technology that allows drivers to drive without their hands on the wheel but can only be used to drive in ideal conditions at set speeds with the drivers prepared to take over when road conditions deteriorate
  • Four – Highly autonomous vehicles that require little human input beyond entering a destination but are currently restricted by regulations and laws
  • Five – Fully autonomous vehicles are the truly driverless vehicles of the future that will be able to handle all conditions and require no human interaction

Most vehicles on the road fall into levels zero to three, ranging from no automation to conditional automation. Companies like Waymo have developed and are currently testing highly autonomous vehicles in approved locations, but the regulations and laws would have to significantly change before highly or fully autonomous vehicles take over the roads.

While self-driving cars promise safety improvements, it is unlikely that they will prevent all car accidents. A study of self-driving technology conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that self-driving technology would prevent one-third of collisions. This would be a vast improvement over the number of accidents today.

However, accidents still happen because of defective components, road conditions, and other similar problems. Bad actors might also hack into the networks and computer systems of self-driving cars and take control. Tech companies are aware of these potential problems and are working to develop safeguards against them.

Backup Cameras

On average, passenger vehicles have blind spots in the rear that extend from 15 to 25 feet. When drivers cannot see what is behind them while reversing, there is a risk of backing over people in those blind zones. Each year, around 232 people are killed and 13,000 are injured in backover accidents. The majority of victims are young children under the age of five who do not understand the dangers of slow-moving vehicles and think that if they can see a car, the driver can see them.

Backup cameras offer a potential solution to this problem. They allow drivers to see from 10 to 20 feet behind their vehicles. However, while they might appear to improve safety, there are some instances in which they can negatively impact it.

Some people might feel a false sense of security when they have backup cameras and fail to check the areas around their vehicles while backing up. Others might be distracted and fail to look around their cars or on their monitors before reversing.

Finally, backup cameras do not prevent people from running over people located in front of their vehicles. Front-over accidents have become increasingly common with the prevalence of large SUVs and pickup trucks. While backup cameras are a great addition to safety technology, people should not view them as a replacement for driving deliberately and cautiously.

Hands-Free Technology

The widespread popularity of cell phones has led to an increase in distracted driving accidents. According to the World Health Organization, from 1% to 11% of drivers on the road are using cell phones while driving at any given time. When a motorist uses a cell phone while driving to make calls, read texts, send texts, or check social media, they take their eyes, hands, and attention away from the road and the tasks involved with driving.

Vehicles can travel up to the length of a football field at 55 mph when reading a text for five seconds, according to the NHTSA. Hands-free technology was meant to reduce that danger by allowing people to make and receive calls without taking their eyes from the road or their hands from the wheel.

Research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has found that drivers who use hands-free technology are less likely to be involved in collisions than those who use handheld phones while driving. However, other research has found that hands-free technology does not substantially improve driver safety.

Drivers who are talking to others using hands-free phone technology in their vehicles are still cognitively distracted and might not recognize potential hazards in their visual fields while driving. It is best to refrain from talking, texting, checking emails, or using phones and other electronic devices in any manner while driving.

Lane Assist

Lane assist systems include several types of technology designed to prevent people from drifting out of their lanes without turn signals. These systems include lane departure warning systems that alert drivers when they drift out of their lanes and lane-keeping technology that uses sensors to monitor when drivers are in danger of drifting out of their lanes and steers them back.

Lane departure and lane-keeping technology are particularly beneficial for drowsy or distracted drivers. These technologies are also good reminders for drivers who forget to use their turn signals when changing lanes.

While lane assist technology can help to increase safety, there are also some drawbacks. The quality of the technology can vary between different types of cars, according to Consumer Reports.

These systems use cameras and sensors that rely on painted lines to determine when people might be drifting and might not work as well when roads are unmarked. Some systems might also alert to uneven pavement or steer vehicles back in the direction of cyclists that drivers are attempting to go around.

Dog Mode

Tesla introduced a safety feature called dog mode, which keeps your vehicle’s temperature under control when you leave your pet behind in your car. This technology also comes with a screen that alerts passersby that the temperature inside is controlled to keep them from breaking into a vehicle to try to save a dog.

While this technology is meant to prevent pet deaths, it might not be as safe as first believed. People might be tempted to leave small children behind in their vehicles with dog mode activated. If the system fails, children and pets left behind may suffer heat events and potentially die.

Passersby might not notice the monitor and still break into a vehicle with dogs or children left inside, causing expensive property damage. Finally, it is illegal to leave your pets or children unattended in a vehicle in many jurisdictions, potentially exposing you to legal liability regardless of the technology your car might have.

Automated Braking

Automatic braking systems improve safety by automatically applying the brakes when necessary. These systems vary, ranging from systems that pre-charge brakes so the application of even slight pressure will fully apply the brakes to advanced systems that take over and stop vehicles to avoid collisions. Drivers with ABS systems in their vehicles need to know the capabilities of their technology to understand how it might help.

These systems might rely on lidar, cameras, and sensors to measure the distance between the front or back of your vehicle and objects located there. ABS can help to prevent rear-end or backover collisions. A total of 20 automakers signed a voluntary pledge to include ABS in their vehicles by 2022, and 10 have already met this goal. Studies show that ABS technology could reduce truck accidents by approximately 40%.

Automated braking systems help to enhance a driver’s stopping control and avoid collisions. However, drivers can over-rely on this technology and feel a false sense of security. If a driver’s ABS fails, he or she might not be prepared to react in time to avoid an accident.

Ridesharing Services

Rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft have changed how people get around in cities across the U.S. These systems rely on apps that you can use to call for a ride. Drivers on the app will then come to your location to take you to your destination.

Rideshare apps offer multiple benefits. They are easy to use and are especially beneficial for older adults and disabled people who cannot drive. Rideshare apps also help to reduce the number of impaired drivers on the roads since people can use them to get home after they have indulged. Using a rideshare service may also be less expensive than calling a taxi, and you might not have to wait as long for your ride to show.

While rideshare apps offer benefits, there are also several drawbacks to using these services. A large safety concern with rideshare apps involves the drivers. While Uber and Lyft perform background checks, the checks are limited compared to the FBI fingerprint checks required of taxi drivers. There have been instances of assaults committed by rideshare drivers.

Another risk involves people getting into the wrong vehicles. Make sure you check the license plate and driver and compare them to the pictures you receive. This can help to ensure you are getting into the right vehicle. Let your loved ones know when your ride arrives and when you will reach your destination.

Rideshare drivers may also be under pressure to complete trips quickly so that they can increase their pay. The time pressure might lead them to speed and take other risky driving actions, potentially endangering themselves, their passengers, and others on the roads around them. However, rideshare apps help increase overall safety by reducing the risk of drunk-driving accidents while also providing economical transportation options to the elderly, disabled, and economically disadvantaged populations.

Blind-Spot Alerts

All vehicles have blind spots around them that prevent drivers from seeing objects. The size of these blind spots varies with the size of the vehicles, the drivers’ height, and more.

Blind-spot alerts use sensors and cameras to detect objects within a car’s blind spots so that drivers do not accidentally cause collisions. A warning light will appear to alert you when a car is in your blind spot, and some systems will also cause the steering wheel to vibrate if you try to change lanes when a vehicle is present. Blind-spot warning systems are becoming much more prevalent and are available as an option in more than 85% of new cars. These systems also help pedestrians and cyclists by potentially alerting drivers when they are present.

However, these systems are not failproof. According to Forbes, they have trouble detecting fast-moving cars. Warnings might occur too late to prevent collisions. Blind-spot alerts also have more trouble detecting motorcycles. While blind-spot alerts are quite helpful, drivers should not solely rely on them and should still check over their shoulders and in their mirrors before changing lanes or reversing.

Human Errors

As previously noted, human errors contribute to the vast majority of vehicle accidents. Even with the advancements in safety technology, human error cannot be eliminated. Human errors also occur when vehicles and systems are in the design, development, and manufacturing phases resulting in product negligence.

Since many vehicles on the roads are older and do not have the same types of safety features as modern vehicles, human errors made by drivers of older vehicles might still cause accidents with vehicles that have advanced safety technologies. People will over-rely on the safety systems in their vehicles and fail to adequately look around their vehicles for smaller oncoming motorcycles, people and objects in the lanes next to them, and other road hazards.

While advancements in safety technology promise a safer future for motorists, they are unlikely to prevent all accidents. The combination of older vehicles without safety technology and modern vehicles sharing the same roads will continue to lead to accidents. Even with improvements, there will always be a degree of risk involved with driving.