Technology in vehicles doesn’t always make travel safer

By : 
David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

When I got a newer used car last year, I was impressed by how much technology has changed in automobiles. I embrace new technology in most areas of my life and assumed the additions would make my driving experience safer and more convenient.

Now, I’m having second thoughts about technology and its promise to make a better world.

On a family excursion last weekend, we took my wife’s car to Sioux Falls to visit my son. Her car doesn’t have quite as much technology, namely it is lacking the backup camera that mine has.

I never really thought I had adapted to the rear-view camera in my car since it still seemed to me that I exert too much effort looking over my shoulders and in my side mirrors when backing out. However, when backing out of a parking spot while driving her car I soon realized that I had adapted far too well. I felt like I had lost my sense of actual distance, making it hard to maneuver in reverse through a crowded parking lot.

I was fortunate in that I didn’t become a statistic — one of the nearly 20 percent of drivers who own a vehicle with a backing aid system who had a collision or “close call” while driving another vehicle without such a system, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It turns out the camera really shouldn’t be a substitute for actually looking around when backing up. The gadgets are just aids, something people overlook when the newest technology comes along.

The technological aids can make some people lazy. The study by the traffic safety administration showed that a significant portion of people with the advanced technology for backing up fail to check their mirrors or turn around to look out the rear window, something drivers still need to do. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they look over their shoulders less often while an even higher percentage claimed they would back much more slowly if they did not have the technology in their vehicles.

Others overestimate what technology in these gadgets can do. Respondents to the survey reported that they felt their systems would help them avoid collisions “fairly well” or “perfectly” in many situations when in reality the system would likely work poorly or not at all for certain circumstances.

The scenarios given to those drivers include backing up to a narrow sign post, backing out of a parking spot with a pedestrian 10 feet behind the rear bumper, backing out of a long driveway 10 miles per hour with a bicycle going around the vehicle, backing out of a garage when a child is immediately under the bumper and backing onto a street into the path of an oncoming car.

More than half the respondents incorrectly told researchers they felt that their system would protect them in these situations, thus they weren’t aware of the limitations of their sensor-based backing aids.

It’s not just rear-view cameras that give people a false sense of security. Other technological gadgets also contribute to more dangerous roads.

During the blizzard last month, Don Kullot, who is Fillmore County emergency management director, said he fielded calls from stranded motorists who had no idea where they were located. Part of that was due to the blinding conditions, but part of it was that they were following their navigation systems without actually looking at the conditions around them.

GPS works well to get drivers from point to point in the shortest amount of time, but drivers lose spatial awareness of the environment right outside their car window and often don’t know where they are in physical space. Not only that, GPS routes don’t account for unusual conditions, such as when a major storm makes travel impossible on back roads that are normally used for the quickest route.

The navigation systems put them in more dangerous situations and made it more difficult to find them for a rescue.

The other observation from that blizzard about a month ago is that there seemed to be way too many people on the roads when there was such advance notice of deteriorating conditions.

A friend who experienced the situation firsthand with someone who had to get to his house that weekend had an explanation: Cell phones give people a feeling of invincibility. With a cell phone in hand, people know they are just a quick call away from help, so they push the limits of safe travel, figuring they have backup.

These aren’t even the most common problems of technology interfering with driving. New laws are being considered in Minnesota to further reduce the distractions of texting, talking or using a cell phone while driving. And with all the options available on the dashboard “screen” in vehicles today we see far too many people looking down instead of ahead at the road.

Perhaps, it’s time for a retro revival.

My 17-year-old grandson recently bought an older Mustang. No camera, so he is learning to back up using his spatial skills. No screen, so he won’t be distracted by all the tech options. And, it’s a stick shift, so he has to use his hands to drive, not interact with a cell phone.