Opinion

Is Car Safety Equipment Making Us More Dangerous Drivers?

Maybe full autonomy is the way to go after all.

I’m completely in awe of the technology that goes into making cars safe – things like crumple zones, airbags and stability control. It blows my mind how a computer can be engineered to predict – based on inputs from a few wheel speed sensors – how a car is going to behave once beyond the limits of adhesion, and correctly manage brake-force at each wheel to safely bring you to a standstill when you’d all but completely lost control. What sort of witchcraft is this?

There can be absolutely no doubt at how safety technology has had an impact on the overall safety of the vehicles we drive today. The technology is advancing at a rapid rate too; so much so that by the year 2020, Volvo says that no one should be killed or seriously injured in one of its new cars. It’s a bold statement, but one that carries much weight – coming from Volvo. After all, it was Volvo who first introduced the 3-point seatbelt in 1959 – making it standard on the Volvo 122. Volvo, being the good Samaritan that it is, made the design patent open so that every manufacturer would have free use of the design in order to improve safety standards.

As of next year, the 3-point seatbelt would have been in use for 50 years. That’s five decades of dispersing impact evenly to avoid serious injury. So when Volvo makes a clam about no one being seriously injured or dying in one of its cars, you might want to believe it. These are the guys that are not only developing advanced crash safety technology, but systems that prevent the crash from even happening. It’s more than just pre-collision braking and lane keep assist – it’s technology such as large animal detection and cyclist detection, that tie in with ABS brakes, stability control, electronic brake-force distribution, and a suite of cameras and radar systems around the whole car to create a 360-degree monitoring force to keep you and your loved ones safe.

But with all these new technologies, there’s one element that neither Volvo, nor any other manufacturer has control over – the driver. And every single one of these advanced safety systems is making us as drivers more dangerous for other road users. Yes, we humans of average or above-average intelligence, apex predators and masters of the aforementioned safety technology are the most dangerous part of a modern vehicle. And not for any other reason than we’ve become accustomed to safety to such an extent that we’ve become immeasurably lazy.

We’re The Weak Links There used to be a time, when if you wanted to change lanes on the freeway you’d have to apply your turn signal, check the mirror on the side you wished to move over to, and then – and this part is truly mind blowing – you’d have to cock your head another 30 degrees in the same direction to check your blind spot – that small gap outside of the line of sight of the side mirrors. Nowadays though, there are light-up indicators on your mirror to notify you when there’s somebody there; and if for some unknown reason you still don’t see that, most modern cars will shout at you with a chorus of alarms if you should attempt a maneuver with a car alongside you or in your blind spot.

And so we look straight ahead, no longer relying on our full peripheral vision; a peripheral vision that was honed through thousands of years of evolution to warn us of the potential for impending danger out in the wild. Yet even looking forward, we’re dangerous. Because we know that braking systems are more advanced, and because we hear about ‘ABS brakes stop you sooner,’ our following distances have decreased. We blindly follow the leader so close to their trunk-lids that we could just about reach out and clean their bumper stickers for them. Never mind the fact that ABS doesn’t technically stop vehicles quicker – it merely allows us to steer around an obstacle in the event that we are unable to stop before colliding.

We’re led into a life of laziness by the notion that it’s all OK and we’re safe no matter what – but the reality is, our driving habits have become worse in lieu of safety technologies. These are after all, technologies that were intended to augment safe driving habits, not replace them. Because we expect these safety nets to save us when somebody else messes up – the modern driver is never at fault for anything, apparently – we’ve lost our understanding of just how dangerous driving a car actually is.

We’ve Lost Respect For The Danger Cars Possess We think of it first and foremost as a means of getting from A to B, when in actual fact we are operating heavy machinery – piloting a 3,000 pound mass of glass and metal, propelled by the power of confined eruptions. We’re not ‘getting from A to B,’ we’re being placed at the helms of mobile weapons – weapons that, in the case of an impact are exerting forces upon the human body that we were never intended to bear. When as a tender teenager we’re awarded our driver’s licenses, what we’re actually being given is a weapons license.

It's permission to wield in our hands not just our own lives, but those of our families and of everybody else we share the tarmac with.That’s a scary thought – yet it’s one we’ve become anesthetized to. It never used to be like that, though. Back in my parents’ era, there was more respect for cars and the potential danger they possessed. Drivers learnt an entirely different style of driving – not by virtue of being taught, but due to the fact that if you wanted to make it out alive, you needed to know how to handle a given scenario.

A Sign of the Times There was no such thing as ABS – so you learnt to threshold brake. There were no airbags to cushion the blow in an impact, so you damn well made sure you didn’t crash. Child seats, and even seatbelts for that matter, didn’t exist, so when a child was in the car they were treated as precious cargo, and every care was taken to ensure there was no risk of a crash. There was a constant reminder or danger, so because of that, drivers were more alert – their senses heightened by the primal fight or flight reflex brought about by the danger driving a car presented.

We’ve now become so divorced from the experience, so reliant on safety nets that the danger is no longer present in our minds – even subconsciously. Because we no longer fear driving on some level we’ve become blasé in our habits – and as such we’ve become more dangerous. Going forward, if cars are to truly get any safer we’ll either need to have the fear of God struck back into us – maybe a blood curdling scream to be played if we stray across a line without checking a blind spot – or we’re just going to have to remove drivers from the equation completely. Maybe full autonomy is the way to go after all.

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