Latest News 2017 June Too Much Safety Technology Can Be Deadly

Too Much Safety Technology Can Be Deadly

In 1908, when the latest in car technology included "not attached to a horse," two psychologists made a discovery that shapes the way we think about safety over a century later. Their discovery centered on how humans work best—with an optimum amount of stress.

They discovered that human beings work best when they're being mentally engaged at a certain level—not too much and not too little. Too much stimulation overwhelms us and causes us to make mistakes (which is common knowledge)…but too little stimulation can cause the same effect. This is why car accidents occur on country roads in the middle of nowhere as well as busy intersections.

Their work helped us discover that people work best when they're mentally and physically engaged in the task at hand—something we call the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

So what does that have to do with safety policy in 2017?

Semiautonomous Technology—the Safety Tech that Makes Us Less Safe

Driverless cars are developing at a breakneck speed, but it'll still be a decade or two before the average car buyer gets a vehicle that's totally autonomous. In the meantime, manufacturers have spent the last several years creating features that make our cars a little "smarter" in small increments. These features are designed to replace a driver's observation skills (which are the leading cause of car accidents).

These technologies include:

  • Lane-changing alerts
  • Automatic braking
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Automatic parking technology

These have been advertised as life-saving advancements in car technology, and some old-fashioned drivers (and cautious lawmakers) might prefer a semiautonomous system than one that relies entirely on a machine's AI. However, as we know from Yerkes-Dodson Law, drivers need more to do—not less. In practice, these features are making drivers more complacent.

At least, that's the opinion of Bryan Reimer, a researcher from MIT and opponent of semiautonomous technology. He believes that poor driving is a result of demanding less of drivers, not from demanding more. Semiautonomous safety tech has its place in busy city roads or heavy-traffic areas—but in boring driving situations? On lonely roads with no one around? Complacency becomes a secret killer.

Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University and a researcher on multitasking, believes the problem is fundamentally about human nature. "People are always happy to be lazy," he said. He believes the problem is worse for younger drivers, who have brains developed to crave new information. Endless routine or long, boring drives will push drivers to look at their phones or look away from the road. This is why we still read stories about people who drifted into oncoming traffic or hit a tree with nothing else around for miles.

People get distracted because they're bored. They're bored when driving becomes little more than pressing a button and holding the wheel.

Bad Salesmen & Unsafe Drivers

One report found that misinformation about car features could contribute to over-reliance on safety technology. Anonymous car buyers visited dealerships and asked salesmen about the safety features of the latest cars. What they heard was not only mistaken—some of the salesmen gave outright unsafe information. One salesman said that the pedestrian safety automatic braking feature on one model worked at all speeds.

It only engages past 30 mph.

If a real buyer had taken that dealer's information at face value, they might've driven recklessly through a parking lot or busy street—wrongly trusting their safety feature to kick in.

In a time where people need to know exactly what their cars are capable of, uninformed salesmen could be muddying the waters and creating unsafe drivers. Confused or ill-informed drivers will only create more preventable accidents in the future.

So What Is the Solution?

Reimer believes there's no safe middle ground between a car that demands our full attention and a driverless car. It has to be one or the other—anything in between will naturally put us at risk due to our need for stimulation. In that sense, driving a stick shift is the safest thing a driver can do in 2017. Implementing standards for salesmen talking about safety technology could help drivers pay more attention where it counts.

He also believes that it comes down to driving habits. Reimer is a proponent of ongoing driver training: instead of taking a test and passing it once, he thinks drivers need to be periodically schooled and reminded of correct driving technique. Ultimately, driving is a skill that can (and must) be sharpened. The more we remind drivers that they're responsible for a massive, complex machine capable of injuring or killing someone else (or themselves), the safer our roads will be.

At least, until someone finally creates an affordable car that eliminates the need for a driver. Then we can text and read and be distracted to our heart's content.

Categories: Driver Safety