Your car’s automated safety features are likely making driving less safe

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I live in Boston, which is known among other things for having absolutely terrible drivers. I’ve also cycled as my primary mode of transportation since 2006, with only a handful of near-death experiences at the hands of unconscious motorists. Between that and the billions of commuter car crashes my mom has had in any SVU she’s been driving this week, helped me form a largely anecdotal theory in my head about how big cars with “useful” computer systems have actually alienated people from their communities even further by pampering them inside 2-ton metal death traps that they can operate without paying attention. (Surely the rise of smartphones hasn’t helped us either.) When driving a car, I prefer smaller ones, ideally with a manual transmission. It’s the same reason I love riding a bike: I’m in control. I don’t trust these power-hungry machines, maybe because they’ve tried to kill me many times already. So if I’m going to drive one, I want to make sure he knows who’s boss.

More than The edge, writer David Zipper thoughtfully backed up my anecdotal theory by doing actual research. (Thanks, David!) Zipper does some fantastic data analysis on the rise of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), alongside the continued rise in automobile fatalities (about 40,000 per year, with a 10.% increase in 2021 alone). Here’s a taste:

A study 2020 by AAA found that the average system shut off every eight minutes, noting “cases of issues with systems keeping vehicles…in their lane and getting too close to other vehicles or guardrails”. In a separate space study of pedestrian detection, the AAA found the feature to be “completely useless” at night, when 75% of pedestrians are struck. The European Transport Safety Council Okay, noting ADAS shortcomings in dark, humid, or foggy conditions. Even more troubling are automakers’ crucial driver monitoring systems can be deceived and does not work reliably.

[…]

mercedes claims its system can prevent collisions with pedestrians up to 30 mph and mitigate the severity of vehicle crashes up to 45 mph, but the company makes no promises above those thresholds. This is not a challenge limited to Mercedes: a recent AAA study found that automakers’ automatic emergency braking systems prevented 85% of test crashes at 30 mph, but only 30% at 40 mph.

Already one study by the IIHS found that using adaptive cruise control increased the share of drivers breaking the speed limit by 18%, and San José State Researchers concluded that ADAS-equipped cars were more likely to hit pedestrians or cyclists. These results are consistent with the predicted evolution of the Peltzman effect toward dangerous driving, with people outside the vehicle at disproportionate risk. Such dangers could be exacerbated by drivers who overestimate the capabilities of ADAS, as more than half of Cadillac Super Cruise users seem to do, according to a recent IIHS study.

I don’t necessarily accept Zipper’s association with the Peltzman effect, which is more of a libertarian dream than a reliable socio-economic theory. I would say it has less to do with individual people taking risks, and more with people who are thoughtless and inattentive because they assume the robot co-pilot in their giant SUV will protect them.

On a related note: prohibit right turn on red.

Don’t expect your car’s safety tech to save you [David Zipper / The Verge]

Image: Ian Maddox/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

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