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Driving under the influence: Why car safety tech might actually be making us more dangerous behind the wheel

Driving distractions safetyDuring a drive across New Mexico several years ago, I briefly looked down at my speedometer to discover, much to my alarm, I was going 115 miles per hour. Initially I thought I was going about 80, but the complete absence of discernible landmarks, other vehicles or bends in the road made it difficult to judge my speed. After slowing down, I tried switching on the cruise control to maintain a more reasonable speed, but the near total lack of involvement while driving only encouraged me to pay less attention. I was left to control my own speed less than perfectly, or leave it to the car while my mind wandered elsewhere.

As electronic driver’s aides make their way into more and more vehicles, the choice between imperfect human control or flawless but incomplete computer control is no longer just for cruise control. Automakers are working to develop smarter vehicles,  ones that are more aware of their surroundings, beginning with semi-autonomous vehicles and inevitably reaching the final destination of full vehicular autonomy. While technologies such as rear-view cameras, lane-departure warnings, electronic stability control, and emergency brake assists are driven by the industry’s desire to make cars safer, you have to wonder what happens to our brains as cars take over. Are these features actually turning us all into worse drivers?

A number of studies have already examined how humans react to different levels of stimulus while performing a task. The first is what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, which predates the mass adoption of the automobile but is still extremely relevant. Developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908, the law basically states that the amount of stimulus offered by a given task is directly related to how much attention we will give it. Too much stimuli will overwhelm us and too little will cause us to become bored, neither of which is ideal when it comes to devoting maximum attention to driving. Back in 1908, and for some years thereafter, operating an automobile would often send people into the stressed end of the spectrum, but these days it is boredom that poses the greater threat.

Yerkes-Dodson law graph

It can certainly be argued that the advent of features like cruise control and automatic transmissions are much greater contributors to bored driving than any of the new gadgets we see cropping up. You’ve surely heard someone who owns a car with a manual transmission say that it makes them a better driver, and there is evidence to suggest that this is more than just thinly veiled boasting. Driving a manual has been shown to reduce distracted driving in ADHD-afflicted adolescents, and though hardly empirical, parents who have given their teenage kids cars with manual transmissions have generally reported that it is an effective way to curb distracted driving habits such as texting. This extra level of involvement during the act of driving doesn’t allow for nearly as much boredom, especially during the stop-and-go nature of city driving.

But there is another factor at work here, one which is harder to see in action. Fred Mannering of Purdue University has called attention to the fact that, although things like anti-lock brakes and airbags should be making us safer, accident fatality rates have actually been increasing. He theorizes that people feel so much more protected by their cars, that they are more likely to engage in risky behavior. This is related to the psychological phenomenon known as the Peltzman effect, also more commonly known as risk compensation. Basically, it says we engage in riskier behavior the safer we feel. It has been applied to cars in past, for instance when talking about seat belts, but the effect was much less evident when the safety equipment was something so basic. Features such as stability control are said not to have caused an increase in risky driving, since the effect only happens when the driver is aware of what the safety equipment is doing. But technologies like adaptive cruise control (to match the speed of the car in front of you) and lane departure warnings (audio visual cues given when you drift out of a marked lane) appear to have  been designed specifically for those who would rather check their Facebook than their blind spot. 

So human nature might well be working against our safety while behind the wheel, and a recent study suggests that this could be an even bigger factor than we realize. The mobile phone is often held as the main source of debate and anger over distracted driving, but a study out of China points to a different problem. China banned the use of cell phones while driving a while back, and a follow-up study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that while the ban significantly reduced the number of accidents that motorists had while texting or talking on the phone, there was no reduction in the number of accidents as a whole. In fact, the study found that the same drivers who were likely to use their phones while driving were still the same ones having accidents. It was concluded that drivers who drive unsafely will do so no matter what, and that the phone is merely a symptom of distracted driving, not the cause. So treating it as such obviously did nothing to curb accidents.

The positives of automotive safety technology are certainly not outweighed by the negatives. However, our deification of airbags and demonization of cell phones paints a very incomplete picture. Our tendency to oversimplify problems like distracted driving is most likely the result of bad politics. Public agents putting money into efforts to reduce distracted driving want to see results, and pointing to a reduction in accidents caused by texting can pass for success if nobody is looking closely at the reasons behind the figures. Similarly, bragging about a car’s safety record is a great way to sell a lot of units, but the false sense of security it provides a driver (and overall sense of safety) is potentially counterproductive. Nevertheless, technology is an absolutely vital tool for making cars safer, but viewing the effects of these technologies through a wider lens is needed in order to mold better drivers. As individuals, we need to take responsibility for our driving habits, because no amount of safety tech (save for a car that completely drives itself) will save us from ourselves.