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We might forget how to be good drivers

There are two big trends in driving that could be working against each another. One is that new vehicles come increasingly equipped with driving aids, such as lane-assist, self-parking and blind spot technology. The second is drivers are becoming lazy and more distracted by gadgets in their vehicles. What is the result? More road deaths and serious injuries and – worse – we forget how to be good drivers.

Too much tech

New technologies play at least two main roles in a new vehicle – safety and infotainment. You might think safety systems would take care of the driver’s safety. But ironically, it’s the infotainment systems that distract drivers from the driving task because they think the safety technology is doing the work.

A University of Utah study rated 30 different vehicle infotainment systems on potential to distract drivers. It found navigation systems are the most demanding distraction of all. Tuning the radio and programming navigation take driver eyes off the road for longer than texting or ringing with a mobile phone. In fact, all infotainment tasks take the driver’s mind away from driving.

Another study found many drivers with blind-spot technology in their vehicles did not even bother to look over their shoulders when changing lanes. This begs the question whether it is really a safety feature.

As one expert said, “they trust the technology more than they trust themselves”. If this is true, it means people no longer trust themselves to be good drivers. As technology takes over and people stop trusting their own driving, will they forget how to drive?

Not enough skill

It makes intuitive sense that drivers are depending more and more on the systems in their vehicles. At the same time, salespeople and manufacturers naturally emphasise semi-autonomous features and benefits, such as:

  • Blind spot monitoring
  • Self-parking
  • Dynamic cruise control
  • Lane keeping
  • Forward collision warning with emergency braking
  • Systems that scan for obstacles such as pedestrians, large animals, and cyclists.

Is it even possible for good drivers to trust these systems without becoming lazier about the way they do these things?

One example is navigation systems. Studies show drivers who follow satellite-navigation instructions find it harder to work out where they travelled than those who use maps. Even worse, instructed drivers in one study did not even notice they had been led past the same point twice.

The natural ability to find our way around is, like some drivers, getting lost.

Tech isn’t human

No matter how well a vehicle is programmed to control a particular system, whether it is brakes or blind spot, it still has a very limited grasp of the world humans drive in. Surely technology will almost never be able to assess a situation in the same way as a human.

We are in a potentially dangerous time where some vehicles have no safety technology, others are semi-autonomous and fully self-driving vehicles are already being tested. How can drivers react to another vehicle if they have no idea who is actually doing the driving? Worse, good drivers may stop feeling in control of their own vehicles, even when they are.

Manufacturers, salespeople – even insurers – have a role in educating people that safety technologies are there to help them drive more safely, not do the driving for them. We also need to understand how easy it is to be distracted by all gadgets in the car, not just mobile phones. Perhaps that would make a difference to the road toll.

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