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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Can Driver-Assist Features Cause Traffic Accidents?

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy Pixabay

If you own or lease a late model vehicle, chances are it comes equipped with some kind of driver-assist feature that's designed to reduce some of the burden of driving.  While things like cruise control, lane assist, and blind spot monitoring are designed to enhance safety, the more that onboard automation increases, the more likely it is for drivers to allow their attention to wander from the road.  Recent studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicated that advanced driver-assist features have led some motorists to shirk their responsibility by doing such things as eating, reading or texting instead of keeping their eyes on the road.  This has led to a number of highly publicized accidents that were caused when drivers failed to take control away from automated vehicles when conditions warranted they do so.  Since the amount of onboard automation is only likely to increase in the future, I thought I'd take the time to explain what you need to know to keep automotive safety features from doing exactly the opposite of what they were intended to do.

Adaptive Cruise Control - Unlike traditional cruise control which is designed to maintain any speed you set, adaptive cruise can and will alter a vehicle's speed to go with the flow of traffic.  That means if you set a speed of 70 MPH, your vehicle will go up to that speed as long as the vehicles ahead of you do the same.  Should the car ahead slow to say 65 MPH, your vehicle will automatically reduce its speed to 65, then return to 70 once the traffic ahead speeds up to the same or higher speed.  It will also allow you to preset the lead distance between your vehicle and the traffic ahead. Should the traffic ahead slow again or even come to a stop, your vehicle will do the same without you having to hit the brakes. This feature takes some of the stress out of long distance highway driving.   While Adaptive Cruise can be extremely useful, that doesn't mean you can let your attention wander since the only function it controls is speed and it's only meant to be used in highway conditions. You also need to learn your model's limitations since some models disengage adaptive cruise once a vehicle slows below a certain speed. 

Lane Assist - Another automated feature available on more and more vehicles is designed to keep drivers from straying from their designated lane.  Lane assist works by using cameras to detect the white lines on the road.  If your tires touch a lane marker, vehicles so equipped will do one of three things depending on the make and model:

1. Sound an aural warning to alert you to the fact that you are drifting out of your lane.

2. Cause the steering wheel or driver's seat to vibrate as a warning.

3. On some vehicles the car will automatically make a course correction to put you back in the middle of your lane.

While lane assist technology is a feature designed to enhance safety, drivers need to understand several things about it:

1. It's only designed to work at 37 MPH and faster on most vehicles.  

2. Since the system relies on cameras to detect lane markers, it can be blinded by such things as heavy fog, snow, or rain.

3. Some drivers complain that the lane assist feature with lane-keeping feels awkward since it pulls on the steering wheel should the vehicle stray too close to a lane marker.  As a result, some drivers deactivate this option instead of resetting the sensitivity to make the system inputs less jarring.

Automatic Emergency Braking - AEB systems are designed to stop a vehicle by using radar to detect hazards ahead (and sometimes behind) by automatically activating the brakes without a driver's input.  These systems are intended to stop the vehicle should another vehicle, a bicycle, or a pedestrian attempt to cross into a driver's path.  While AEB is intended to reduce the number of front end collisions, they don't completely eliminate them since some of these systems have been known to occasionally fail to activate after dark.  Depending on the manufacturer, some AEB systems only activate the brakes partially, requiring the driver to step on the brakes as well to come to a complete stop in a hurry.  Before you rely on an AEB system, make sure you understand its limitations and how it's designed to work on your vehicle.  

Advanced Driver-Assist Systems - Some high-end vehicles come with advanced navigation systems that not only control speed, activate the brakes and maintain lanes, they do much of the driving automatically.  However, as yet none of these systems is designed to drive autonomously.  That means drivers are expected to monitor and take control of the vehicle when conditions warrant.  None of the auto manufacturers that offer advanced driver-assist systems suggest that drivers of vehicles so equipped should take their eyes off the road, much less engage in other pursuits.  Despite this, the IIHS study reported that 52% of General Motors Super Cruise users, 42% of Tesla Autopilot Users, and 12% of Nissan ProPilot users admitted to letting the system drive while they performed non-driving-related activities.  In several well-publicized instances this has resulted in fatal collisions that could have been avoided had drivers taken control or simply hit the brakes.  

In June, the National Highway Transportation  Safety Agency released data from 400 crashes over a 10-month period that involved vehicles that were using automated driver-assist systems.  While some of these crashes resulted in fatalities, the agency reported that they were simply trying to understand and regulate the industry to protect all drivers on the nation's roads.  They also pointed out the fact that during the first six months of 2022, 20,175 people died in auto collisions in the US.  This means that statistically, vehicles equipped with advanced driver-assist systems have still proven far safer than those without it.

The bottom line is while more and more automated driver-assist technology will inevitably be introduced to the public, it's everyone's responsibility to understand the limitations inherent in these systems.  Ultimately it's up to every driver to stay alert in order to stay alive.  

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida Insurance in Orange Park, Florida. To find out more about saving money on all your insurance needs, check out her website at http://aplusallfloridainsuranceinc.com

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